love and play

I tried to teach Chaucer about sin today. An opportunity presented itself, and I decided it was time. I don't think the lesson quite stuck, though. Here's what happened.

We were at the dog park, and a Boxer there was playing with a tennis ball. I hadn't brought any toys for Chauc, and I could see him glancing over at the Boxer enviously. "Now Chaucer," I said. "Stop coveting that ball. Covetousness is a sin."

Chaucer looked at up me, a curious expression on his face. "What's 'sin', Mom?"

I kneeled down in front of my dog and looked in his massive, dark eyes. "Sin is a very bad thing," I explained. "A very, very, very bad thing." Chaucer flinched when he heard me say bad, in the way that he does when I scold him for naughty behavior.

"You mean like when I get on the bed without being invited?" he asked, tilting his big head thoughtfully.

"Yes," I said, and gave his chest a rub. "Exactly like that. But there are other kinds of sin, too, And they're all equally bad."

Chaucer looked at me, his eyes wide. "Like what?" he asked.

"Well," I started slowly, thinking of how to explain what I had in mind. "You know how sometimes you like to mount other dogs?" Chaucer nodded. "It's ok to do that to girl dogs. But when you do it to other boy dogs, it's a sin. And remember, sin is bad. Bad, bad, bad." With each "bad," his sweet doggy face drooped a little bit lower.

Chaucer peered up at me uncomprehendingly. I knew that all this talk of sin was confusing to him, and that the words I was using were ones that made him feel sad and ashamed and scared. I knew that pleasing me was all that mattered to him, and he was starting to think maybe he'd done something wrong - something to disappoint me. And he hadn't, really.

He hadn't done a single thing other than to be a dog, wishing for a toy.

But it was important, so I soldiered on. "Sweetie, it's ok. You're not the only sinner. We're all sinners. Mommy's a sinner and all these other dogs at the park are sinners, and remember that Dalmation who stole your frisbee last year? She's a sinner, too."

"I don't understand, Mom," Chaucer said sadly. "Should...should I go home and go to my bed? Are you mad at me? I'm really sorry, Mom. I won't look at anyone else's ball again, ever. I promise. I won't sin. Please don't make me go home. I'm having so much fun."

I looked at my boy, dreading what I still had yet to say. I reached out and gently pulled his velvety ears through my fingertips. His eyes closed halfway in bliss. "No, you don't have go home," I said soothingly. "But you need to repent your sins, because if you don't, you're going to go to The Kennel when you die."

I could feel Chaucer tremble under my touch when I said it. His sixth sense had kicked in, and he knew I was talking about something very serious, and very scary. "'The Kennel'?" he repeated, his eyes wide and shining.

"Yes," I said gravely. "The Kennel. The Kennel is where you'll go if you're an unrepentant sinner. And do you know what it's like there, Chaucer?" He shook his head slowly, his jowls rubbing softly against my wrist. "The Kennel," I continued, "is a place where dogs are crowded together, one on top of another, millions upon millions of them, and tortured forever and ever. There's no one to feed you or pet you or play with you in The Kennel, Chaucer. It's filled with mean, cruel people who will kick you and beat you and punish you, over and over, because you sinned."

Chaucer didn't speak for a moment. I could see he was thinking. "You mean, if I were to go over there and mount Sydney right now, I'd...I'd be sent to The Kennel? Just for playing with him? Because he's a boy?" I nodded.

"But," he said quietly, his furry brow deeply lined, "how do you know about all of this, Mom? How do you know about these sins, and about The Kennel?"

I composed my face sternly. "Because, Chaucer. It was written in a book, a long long time ago, at a time when very few people could read or write, and when very little was known about the world, and about how it works. It was written by people who didn't have the understanding that we do today, of astronomy and geology, of medicine and mathematics, of biology and sociology. And those people repeated what was written in the book to other people. And those people repeated it to other people. And along the way, other, nicer stories were added to the scary bits, to make them seem less scary. And people started repeating those nicer stories because it made them feel good, and happy, and gave them a reason to live, and a reason not to be scared of dying."

Then Chaucer looked at me with an expression wiser than that I'd seen on most humans. "Mom," he said, "I felt good and happy and had a reason to live before you told me any of these things. My reason to live is because I have you to take care of, and my friends to play with. And because the grass feels so good under my paws when I run. I'm happy because the world is beautiful, filled with kind strangers who pet me on the street."

"Oh, Chauc," I said, and sighed. "If only it were that simple. But it's not. There are rules, lots of rules. And consequences. But there are rewards, too. If you're a good boy and do all the many things you're told, and none of the many things you're told not to do, you'll get to live forever and ever, and have as many frisbees and balls and treats as you'd like. You'll get to see all your friends again, and me, and this life you have now will be but the blink of an eye in the scheme of eternity. It'll be almost as if it never happened."

He wrinkled his muzzle. "I don't think I want to live forever, Mom. I get pretty tuckered out after we just play fetch for a while." Chaucer paused and took a step toward me, nuzzling my neck with his cold, wet nose.

"I'll be good, Mom, and not because I'm scared of The Kennel, or because I need a reward. I'll be good because it feels good to make you happy, and to not hurt my friends. And if I only get this lifetime of being with you and them, that's ok by me. Because that seems like an awfully long time to squeeze in a lot of love and play already."

And after giving me a quick kiss on my cheek, my dog turned and started off in the direction of home.

I had no choice but to follow his lead.