I never thought I had it in me to become one of those crazy dog people. And then, in the spring of my freshman year, a three pound, all-black, three-quarter-Shih-Tzu-one-quarter-Yorkie puppy named Annie became my third sister.
I watched through FaceTime the night my family brought her home. My parents laid with Annie on the basement floor, near the stairs that, 16 years earlier, their first dog Tiffany — a Shih Tzu that accompanied them from their first apartment to the birth of all three of their children — fell down in her cataract-induced blindness. She died after a one-way trip to the vet. Both my mother and I were allergic, two kids were away at college and the imprint of Tiffany’s paws had not yet faded from our carpet. Nevertheless, we welcomed a new dog into the family. And — as I like to say — it was the best thing to happen to the Krebs household since I was born.
But why? Why does this little now-13-pound salt-and-pepper animal make us so happy? Maybe it’s because she triggers our parental instincts. Maybe it’s because she’s adorable, and maybe it’s because she’s just so adorable. There are so many reasons why dogs make us happy. But frankly, we focus on the wrong ones.
We’re nearing finals, so it’s only a matter of time before packs of golden retrievers are paraded through Bass Library as a 15-minute stress panacea. It’s only a matter of time before cringe-inducing print-outs, adorned with a pup, “Impact” font and an Uncle-Sam-esque “you can do it” message line the walls of computer rooms. It’s only a matter of time before a pre-packaged doggie yoga secularized meditation program pops up in the Good Life Center sandbox and cures us of all our problems forever.
At Yale, dogs have been instrumentalized as an agent and symbol of the corporate wellness industrial complex. But wait, what is the corporate wellness industrial complex anyway? And what does it have to do with our perfect little pooches? Let me explain.
Corporate wellness thrives on a categorical division of happiness, the belief that we can divvy ourselves up into little boxes — our careers, relationships, impact, physical health, mental health, happiness, etc. It’s everywhere, and it’s defined by a fundamental contradiction: the simultaneous belief that these boxes never touch, that the bad of one can never contaminate the good of another. And yet, the good of one box can make up for the bad of another box.
It’s the same division that allows us to pat our friends on the back with the other hand on the hilt of a dagger, to give contemporary imperialists lifetime achievement awards because they’re actually really nice in person, to meditate before our interviews with sweatshop management firms. It is the version of happiness that believes we should change neither the things that make us miserable on a societal level nor our undying commitments to those things, but rather how efficiently we go about fulfilling those commitments. It has the moral and intellectual consistency of canine excrement.
But, seriously, on the topic of canine excrement. I was in flip flops, gym shorts and my sister’s winter jacket. It was freezing and beginning to rain, but Annie didn’t seem to mind. I was taking her out so she could use the bathroom, and she was hell bent on doing anything but. She pranced around the yard, smelled the grass she’d smelled a thousand times before, rolled on her favorite tennis ball and looked at me like I was an idiot when I started talking to her, begging her to please, just please do her business.
Then it hit me. I, Eric Krebs, Yale University student, opinion columnist, self-centered rising star extraordinaire in all my intelligence and glory, was at the total mercy of a dog. The little creature that lives in my house, eats entire bowls of taco meat off the kitchen table and doesn’t even read my column.
And I couldn’t have been happier.
See, dogs force us to place our centers of gravity beyond ourselves. They force us out of bed when they want to play, they force us out of the house when they want to walk, and they force us to reconsider what we consider important. Amidst the breathing exercises, the gratefulness exercises and the exercise exercises, corporate wellness holds the atomized individual to be the fundamental unit of existence. The question, then, is confined to what you do with this autonomy. Of course, when we are atomized, we are most efficient. We’re ready to up and leave for a job offer, we’re ready to isolate ourselves in pursuit of perfection, we’re all self-contained trees who can choose exactly when and where our branches reach out and touch other trees.
But that’s not how trees work. This is something that I think both the corporate wellness and anti-corporate wellness crowds get wrong. The corporate wellness camp likes to think that we’re autonomous actors that are fundamentally rational, the anti-corporate wellness camp likes to think that we’re autonomous actors that are fundamentally emotional. Neither are totally wrong, but neither are right. We like to tell ourselves “we are so much more than Yale” and its metrics for success. Yes, we are “more than Yale” but we’re also less than it, so much smaller than its buildings and books and trees. And that’s okay. Trees need more than branches. Trees need the forest lest the soil erodes.
Happiness does not come from 15-minute puppy study breaks. Happiness is not derived from self-centered, autonomous scheduling. Happiness is the ability to vest our centers of gravity beyond ourselves, not in one thing but in many. To care for the little animals that live in our houses and make us smile even if we don’t know why. To care for the people who make us laugh and make life worth living. To care for the world around us — the world that belongs to us, the world that we belong to.
Even the strongest trees sometimes face a storm and lose a branch or two. So, don’t worry when your branches fall and hit the ground, you beautiful, solid redwood. A dog just might come along and find the stick of a lifetime.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .