My wife and I watched Marley & Me the other night. The subtitle, The Life and Love of the World’s Worst Dog, reveals the movie’s plot. Marley is a yellow Labrador retriever, which becomes a test run of parenthood for John and Jenny Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston). Although the story deals with the complexities of married life and personal identity, clearly the dog gets most of the screen time (or should I say the 22 dogs that played Marley throughout his life).
The movie is a real tear-jerker. In fact, it placed number 5 in a poll of the 20 movies that make men cry. All right, I confess. They were flowing down my cheeks. But come on. How can anyone who has ever owned a dog not be sobbing as you watch the final departure of this loveable, heroic mutt from the family who loved him?
I couldn’t help remembering my Irish Setter, Star. I took my new puppy with me when I began seminary. She was mild-tempered for a setter, unlike Marley. But she did share a deathly fear of thunderstorms with Marley. I was shocked to come home one day, after a storm, to find my chaise lounge ripped in shreds. Along with Marley, Star even survived torsion of the stomach, numbering among the fortunate ten percent.
Early one morning Star roused me from bed, which I thought was strange. Then I realized smoke was filling my bedroom. A comforter had fallen off the bed onto a space heater and was beginning to burn. I was able to extinguish it in the bathtub. Star knew something was wrong and awoke me, saving my life.
Why do humans form such powerful emotional bonds with their pets? (I will include all animals here, although I believe dogs occupy a privileged status as “man’s best friend.”) Animals are animals. They are not people. Maybe I am stating the obvious, but the line becomes blurred for most pet-lovers.
Perhaps John Grogan captures the essence of this relationship at the end of the movie. “A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes or designer clothes. A water-logged stick will do just fine. A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he’ll give you his. How many people can you say that about? How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special? How many people can make you feel extraordinary?”
Dogs model unconditional love. They are loyal and faithful without expectations. They do not demand that you return their unwavering acceptance. They just hope that you will meet a few of their basic needs: food, water shelter and occasional protection.
When it comes to human relationships, something gets in the way. We tend to pile needs upon needs, building Maslow’s pyramid. We entangle those needs with expectations, making the relationship more fragile. When the system is contaminated by sin, the relationship now requires intentional and diligent effort by both people. Carelessness, neglect and misunderstanding can wound the relationship deeply.
Love offered may not simply mean love received. Mistrust may convolute it with conditions. Misinterpretation may treat it as something more or less than it is. Insecurities may erect walls that love cannot penetrate. What a muddled mess we make of human relationships.
Is it any wonder that we bipeds place such value on the simplicity of a relationship with a quadruped? We can yell at them without needing to confess and explain later. We can ignore them, but still find them panting with glee when we arrive home. We can use them to somehow meet our own feeble needs, but they are content just to get our attention.
As Grogan gave his profound epitaph on the qualities of canine love, he was looking through the screen door at his wife and three children. Their marriage had survived the sorrow of a miscarriage, the sacrifice of a career and construction of a new identity to provide maternal care, the depression and angst produced by months of sleep deprivation, the transplant of home and family in order to pursue a new job, and a host of other stresses that marriage and family life place on relationships.
When Grogan asked, “How many people can make you feel extraordinary?” I think he already knew the answer. He was looking at them.
The depth and richness of relationships between creatures created in the image of the Creator cannot be equaled anywhere on this earth. Only the divine love of a Father and Redeemer for his wayward children surpasses human love. Don’t give up on those relationships God has brought into your life. In the end, they will be worth more than everything you invest in them.