I try and try to understand. I study you for clues.

Winston is two years old, a poodle Shih Tzu mix, and a stray. Two days ago we adopted him from the MSPCA shelter in nearby Jamaica Plain. Besides a few health observations made by the shelter volunteers and veterinarian, those are the only facts we know about Winston, who was once named Saint. This is our first dog.


Winston and Grace

We study him for clues, trying to discern his “personality,” his preferences and fears, and even the unknowable: his family history. When Grace, Lydia, and I met him for the first time at the shelter, he brought to the bars of his pen a soft calico bone-shaped toy. We took that as a signal to play, as when a dog drops a stick or ball at your feet.  The first toy we bought him, once he was ours, was a soft fleece bone-shaped toy. He holds it in his mouth, brings it to us, but not to play catch, we’ve discovered. He doesn’t let it go; he doesn’t want us to tug at it.

Here comes Winston

Here comes Winston

We’ve discussed at length what this sign might mean. Lydia has deduced the fleece bone is a comfort object, like a child’s pacifier, and says, “I want to know what his life was like. I wish we had more information.” Jimmy, who came with us for the formal adoption visit, has observed Winston at home, and concludes that he was once well-cared for. Winston has some nice habits and deliberate gestures. We don’t know what they all mean yet, but we suspect they are part of a communication system he had with other people.

He’s just a dog, I know. Still our urge to know him — not as a blank slate but as a creature with a history and with an inner, coherent life — is strong.  We desire very much to understand him: through observation, but beyond it too.


First meeting: we belong together

Meanwhile, this week I am reading Joan Acocella’s profile in the New Yorker of psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips. He claims that our deepest urge is to be understood, and he finds this to be a fruitless urge and “our most violent form of nostalgia,” says Phillips. It is “a revival of our wish, as infants, to have our mother arrive the instant we cry out from pain or hunger,” explains Acocella.

I have wished to be known, to be deeply understood.  I am skeptical, however, about Phillips’s reasoning. It’s too Lacanian for my taste. Would we really spend our adult lives driven by desires established in infancy? That contradicts my common sense. (Or perhaps Lacan’s ideas confound my understanding. Also possible.)

My urge to be understood comes from my strong inclination and effort to understand others: Jimmy, my children, the members of my family of origin, my closest friends, and even the occasional colleague or student who intrigues me. This effort to understand — although conducted invisibly and silently — I give as a gift. I want the same one in return.

And maybe we are all doing this all the time: studying each other for clues. Or maybe this effort to understand others is gendered. Or maybe some people, like me, emphasize understanding in their relationships, and others emphasize problem-solving, favors, or action.

I do agree with Phillips that we would be better off in accepting our lives and stop always striving to fulfill its potential.  Good luck with that, though. I both aim for that and find it hard to do.

Winston faces the camera

Winston faces the camera

We do know we will never fully know Winston or get the facts on his family history. We are constructing a new narrative, and in doing so we are envisioning a previous one. We will assign logic and meaning to all the clues and believe at some point that we know our dog. But we will really only know the story we have made of him.

P.S. Yes, I know. He’s a dog. It’s my thoughts about him that interest me, which make me wonder about my thoughts about just about every person in my life.

4 thoughts on “I try and try to understand. I study you for clues.

  1. While Gertrude Stein may have thought a rose is a rose is a rose, a dog isn’t a dog isn’t a dog. Having lived with many of these wonderful, complicated sentient beings, I can state firmly that there’s no such thing as “just a dog.” Congratulations to you all.

  2. Winston is adorable, and I love the name. There is a cat in the movie THE LATE SHOW whose name is Winston. The Joan Acocella piece sounds fascinating. While I can’t say I have ever fully understood my complicated pets (cats and dogs), I will say that they have all played a part in helping me understand me.

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