There is, of course, a way to do things the right way. And then there’s the way we all usually do things.
This morning as I was finishing my morning walk with Roxy (my dog), and we were just entering back into a neighborhood from the open space trail, I came upon an older gentleman. White hair, white beard, and two ski pole walking sticks. He was coming up the hill as I was going down. Roxy, off leash and ahead of me by 25 yards, started up a very steep embankment to chase something. Bird? Squirrel? Noise? Scent? Who knows, but that’s what she does. She’s a dog, and ruled by two things: 1) instinct and 2) her nose.
I made some passing friendly remark to the gentleman, who had stopped to watch her run. “I love how she can just scamper up anything,” I said.
“Well, I would prefer if she didn’t chase my cat,” he said, gently, but firmly. It was, simply put, a fact.
If I hadn’t seen a cream-colored cat in the street just mere moments before, I would have been slower on the uptake. But I had. The cat had been out and about, doing cat things. Ruled by two things: 1) instinct and 2) vision.
“You could control your dog,” he went on.
In that moment, I could have said nothing; simply called my dog, had her jump in the car, and driven away. I was, at this point, standing at the door of my vehicle. I could have said something nasty, although that is not in my nature. Instead, I opted for something in a tone as gentle as his.
“You could control your cat,” I said, and smiled. Not a “so there” smile, but a real retort smile. I mean, the cat was outside. Controlling the cat would keep her inside, where she would be safer.
He considered this for more than a few beats, nodded his head once as if he could either see my point of view or was too tired to engage in conversation, and indeed, even turned to keep walking. But then he had considered something else to add, and he turned back to me.
“But she wasn’t doing anything to your dog. And he was going after her.” (Actually my dog is a she …)
Trying to place blame in a relationship like this is like trying to blame oil for not wanting to hang out and mix with water. So I said as much.
“She’s a dog. With a cat. It’s natural. It’s what animals do.”
“But if she was on a leash …” he said.
And in one of the few times when I found the words in the moment, and not 10 minutes later down the street, I said:
“It’s no different from what your cat does with birds. When she’s outside. Do you keep her on a leash? Is it reasonable for the birds to ask for that?”
This time, he nodded with more emphasis. He got what I was saying. A little speech bubble appeared over his head in my mind, and the simple words “touché'” appeared. I’m sure he still wanted his cat to be protected from roaming dogs, but perhaps he realized that if he wanted that to happen, he would need to keep her inside. The outside world is a dangerous place, especially for a roaming kitty near open space in Northern California. Dogs are, to be honest, the least of her worries. And maybe, his nod was the outward manifestation of what he already knew inside, but had never been faced with. That he knew letting his kitty outside, which is what she so desperately wanted to do every day, was putting her life in danger. But he did it anyway, because it made her happy. Which is the same reason why I let Roxy run around off leash in open space. It makes her happy.
This is the second conversation I’ve had in so many days where something difficult was broached, and instead of walking away with raised blood pressure, the two participants parted as friends. (Ok, well maybe this guy wouldn’t really want to be my friend in the moment, but if I met him at a soccer game and he realized who I was, at least he would know that I am a reasonable person. I hope.)
It takes skill to not escalate something unnecessarily. It takes the time to listen to what the other person is saying. And it takes the desire to want to hear their point. My m.o. in years past has been to flee the scene of any conversation or situation that is uncomfortable, but lately somehow I’ve found the inner strength to stand up in those moments and hold my ground. I’ve found a voice, my voice, that is just as important as anyone elses.
Like I said to Hans this morning, when his response to something was “it sucked,” those who can muster the energy and the intelligence to choose their words and frame their argument or position deftly, may just open the door to some understanding.