When I first got my horse Ani, I immediately entered into conflict. She was difficult, even dangerous, and constantly frustrated me. I believed the solution was to force her to understand what she needed to do to live a good life. Because if she was well behaved, then I’d stop being frustrated, and could treat her with the all-the-time love and kindness that she’d no doubt appreciate.
After a particularly frustrating training session, we both stood in the center of the arena, sweaty, exhausted, yet still tense. I stared at her, angry, wishing she was different. Then for some mysterious reason, a new thought popped into my head. I thought, if I were her, how would I perceive this situation? And it occurred to me that I would feel lost in the midst of change and confused as to what was expected of me. And then I thought, if I was her, how would I want to be treated? And I realized I’d just want someone to love me and tell me it was going to be okay. So I petted her neck and told her exactly that, and for the first time in days, she relaxed. And I cried.
It might seem like the story should end with, “And from then on, everything was okay.” It wasn’t. Ani, as it turns out, had been severely abused. I wound up taking her to a few trainers, many of whom specialized in problem horses and many of whom felt she had the deepest trust issues they had ever dealt with. Eventually, I was contacted by other people who had purchased horses from her previous owner. All of the horses were extremely dangerous. Some of them wound up being put to sleep. None of them returned to life as a riding horse. Her previous owner was convicted in North Carolina – and animal owners will know how rare it is that such cases reach successful conclusion. As for Ani, a year after I bought her, she finally got to the point where I could trail ride her.
It sounds like such a simple sentence, but it isn’t. A former racehorse, Ani was relatively okay with man made places like nice arenas. Take her out to the woods and she’d freak out. To get her to trust me enough that we could go on a nice ride through the forest took working with her just about every single day for a year. It was a huge commitment. A lot of people thought I was crazy to spend so much time on an animal who was so mentally damaged. The thing was, though, underneath her fear issues she was a very sweet horse. At no point did she ever hurt me. I never even fell off of her. And perhaps most importantly, she taught me volumes about patience, love, and loyalty.
I was sitting in church on Sunday, thinking about politics, and about how we seem to not only expect to find the worst in our enemies, but hope to. We Christians throw around the phrase “love your enemy” a lot, and I think there is a sort of complacent sense that this is achieved simply by refraining from killing other people. I am being hyperbolic, but not by a lot. Frequently, our best effort at loving our enemy comes in at gritting-our-teeth tolerance, and often not even that. So again, while sitting there in church, I thought, “Well, what does love mean?” I think it involves treating others with kindness, respect, and appreciation. I think it means approaching them with humility and engaging with them in a real and human way. And I do think love involves honesty, always honesty. It is not love to pretend to be okay with things one is not okay with. But so too it is not love to come at the world with judgment and anger, with the hope that all our negative expectations will be borne out, proving our righteousness. Instead, we should hope to be proven wrong and celebrate if we were mistaken, even if only in part (and that’s another thing, isn’t it? We often deal in all or nothing sums in our judgment of others). Ultimately, we should always look for the return of the Prodigal Son, not hope that he remains lost.
My neighbor has a new dog. He’s a very large (but too thin), unfixed, black pit bull with ice blue eyes. Not gonna lie – I love animals, but he’s one creepy looking dog. He obviously has a lot of fear issues and is currently allowed to roam free in our downtown neighborhood. He’s been menacing my dogs and people walking down the street. For the better part of the last twenty-four hours, I’ve wanted to kill him.
Tonight, driving home from comedy, I saw him cross the street. He had something white in his mouth and I thought it was a kitten. I stopped my car, got out and said softly, “What do you got there, buddy?” He dropped what was in his mouth. It was a soft pretzel he’d found in someone’s garbage. He was hungry. I went home, got some chicken and threw it at him (he wouldn’t get within fifteen feet of me). He’d swoop in, eat, bark, eat, bark. He thinks I’m his enemy. Granted, I did want to murder him for the majority of the day, so there’s that. But I don’t aspire to be anybody’s enemy. My hope is that I remember to treat others the way I want to be treated.