This is Cassie, aka Cassiopeia, aka “come here, you arse of a dog.” She turned 16 last October, which for a Lab is oooolllldddd. She enjoys a simple life. Her hobbies are sleeping, eating, farting, shedding hair, and pottering around the place. Occasionally she faceplants because her legs are a bit wobbly, but she always makes it look like a deliberate assault on the part of Planet Earth on her nose and her dignity. She makes such a compelling case that I’m tempted to take her side.
Cassie lost her house last summer, so she came to stay with me and the rest of the gang. It wasn’t a particularly stressful or complicated process: her mum told us that she needed a place and we jumped at the chance to have her. And it’s got nothing to do with us being nice: it’s to do with us being clever, and maybe even a touch selfish, because Cassie is spectacularly nice and a joy to be around. People enjoy her company, so they seek it. Although she could no longer serve any practical purpose, unless you’re planning a slow-cooked stew, she adds to people’s lives. She makes people happier just by being around them. She gives to people, so they want to give back, and because she needs so little the equation is constantly skewed and the system keeps on going.
When I realised how she did what she did, it blew my mind. I’m not a particularly caring or giving person – as in, being caring or giving are not labels that form part of my self-identity. I don’t pride myself on my selfless giving, which in some peoples’ eyes makes me borderline evil. Yet I’ve no compunction whatsoever looking after this mouldy old bear dog who couldn’t possibly do anything for me other than suck my money and eventually break my heart, because dogs don’t last forever. But I look after her and shall keep looking after her without resenting it one bit, and feel like I’m getting the better side of the deal.
It’s an entirely new relationship model for me. My family was composed entirely of old and/or infirm people by the time I showed up. My grandma took a second, very late stab at motherhood to produce my mum, and my mum waited a while to produce me and has never been in good health. By the time I was old enough to help anyone, everyone needed some kind of help. The ways they went about getting it, though, were completely different. They never said please or thank you. They never tried to give as much as they took. They never even tried to make people feel better for being helpful. What they did instead was create a web of obligations, shame, and emotional blackmail. If they ever did something for anyone, it wasn’t about reciprocity or fairness, or simply about the joy of giving. It was a deliberate ploy to establish a Duty to be exploited later.
In a way it worked. Most people are invested in their self-image and many like to believe that they’re Nice, so they will go to some serious lengths to do what it takes to maintain that. It was relentless, though, because however much my folks manipulated and bullied people into helping, it was never quite enough. It all had to be done again tomorrow, because helping them didn’t bring any level of happiness into their helpers’ lives. It didn’t make them feel better about themselves; it made them feel imposed upon or even exploited. Eventually it made them feel resentful for being put in a position where to say no would have made them Bad People. It also made some of them run.
I don’t know whether my folks didn’t know or didn’t care about how to make people love them, or even like them. I don’t know what started it all; maybe one of my ancestors discovered that reciprocity doesn’t work with some people and decided to take the Machiavellian approach: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” I suppose it amounts to the same in the end. The bottom line is that instead of creating a tribe of willing participants, based on love, respect, and mutual support, they opted for creating a cult of unhappy servants. And hey, maybe that’s what they wanted all along: there no reason why they should share my view of a healthy and happy relationship. Maybe spreading unhappiness and resentment made them feel all warm and fuzzy. I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care.
What I do know, though, is that I want to be like Cassie when I grow up. Out of all the role models life has given me, I choose her. I’d rather learn from a smelly old dog who occasionally forgets that doors have to be opened before she can walk through them than from any of my family members, because her way works better for me. It may be riskier, because it requires you to be nice first, to set definite boundaries for yourself, and to enforce those boundaries against those who confuse niceness with weakness. It requires you to pick and choose those you allow into your life, instead of shaping whoever comes along into what you need them to be. It requires you not to be a flaming asshole, and I don’t know if I have that in me. I’m willing to give it a shot, though.
And this is what Cassie thinks of overcomplicated, pseudo-psychological musings.