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  • Marilyn Saltzman

Puppy love and lessons

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“TWO PUPPIES? I thought Togo was your last dog,” my friend Jan texted after I sent her a photo.

Indeed, for years Irv said Togo would be the last one. But as Togo aged, we reconsidered. Maybe another dog to keep Togo company?

Our friend Christy was fostering two mixed breed Australian Shepherd puppies from the Intermountain Humane Society and invited us over to meet them.

After about two minutes as one puppy cuddled against Irv’s leg, he said, “I want them both.”

“Can I think about it?” I replied.

Ten minutes later, “Well, what do you think?”

“I think I need more time to think.”  But after watching the puppies frolic together for a while longer, I too was convinced that the two adorable sisters shouldn’t be separated. So we took them both!

The grandkids named them Lix and Lila, and they immediately became part of our family. We laughed out loud as we watched them play tug of war with a rope toy or snuggle against each other on a deck chair. And they began teaching me lessons about envy.

It started when our wonderful friend and fellow congregant Joanne Greenberg gave a talk about envy at Rosh Hashanah. She cited an experiment where two monkeys were given a slice of cucumber for a reward each time they completed a task. Both were happy until the day when one monkey got a cucumber and the other a grape. The cucumber-fed monkey got so angry that she threw her cucumber slice at the experimenter.

Then I began watching our puppies eat. Each one has a bowl clearly marked with her name. (Yes, I know they’re very smart, but they can’t read.)  Each puppy gets three meals a day – the same allotment of puppy food mixed with carrots or sweet potatoes and rice. The vet suggested we give them 10 minutes to eat each meal and fill their bowls as much as they want. So we did; the food was plentiful. And yet we noticed a pattern.

Lila started out at her bowl; Lix at hers. After about two minutes, Lix moved over to Lila’s bowl to make sure that the food wasn’t better on the other side of the deck. Lila circled over to Lix’s bowl. The ring dance continued for the entire feeding period with each puppy eating from the other’s bowl, then returning to her own.

It made me wonder: Is envy a natural instinct of all living creatures? Were the puppies demonstrating envy or just curiosity? Were they concerned about getting equal portions of sweet potato or just checking out the other bowl? While I can’t be sure of their reasoning, it made me consider envy in my own life ­– comparing myself to the friend with the bigger house, the neighbor with the newer car or the tall, thin colleague. My self-talk finds me lacking: If I could only be as good a writer as X, as strong a leader as Y, as convincing a speaker as Z. Yet I have learned that envy doesn’t serve me well because it fosters competition rather than collaboration, dissatisfaction rather than gratitude.

While the puppies and monkeys may react instinctually, I don’t have to. I can choose to stop looking at the possessions or accomplishments of others through the lens of envy. While the puppies may not yet comprehend that they are blessed with enough, I can.

Working on envy, I decided after watching Lix and Lila, would be a valuable Mussar practice. So I Googled Mussar and envy, and discovered counsel on the blog of Greg Marcus, founder of American Mussar.  “All is as it should be, and we are ok just as we are,” he writes.

Yup, a 2,000-square-foot house, a ten-year-old car and a five-foot frame are just right for me.

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