One day last June, I sat at my computer reading over a document with my finger hovering over the “Save” button. I was on the verge of completing one of the biggest projects of my life. In fact, my professional future appeared to rely on the project being perfect, not merely good. The stress was rolling over me in waves, for how could it be possible that I had not made a mistake? A deadline loomed and I had mere days left in which to attain the perfection I sought.
As I agonized over the document, I felt something swat my leg. I looked down and saw my German shepherd, lowering her paw and looking quite pleased with herself. In that moment, on one of the most intense days of my life, reality returned. My laptop stayed closed as I fed my dog her lunch and played with her for a bit. As I did these things, I understood the truth of something our friends tell us: who we are is so much more important than what we achieve. But why is it so hard to believe that when we are nearing a big professional milestone? How can we maintain a more balanced sense of what really matters in the face of perfectionistic pressure? The answer to that second question, I learned last June, may be found in our relationship with our pets.
The power of puppies
I am a huge dog-lover and have been lucky enough to have canine companions around me for most of my life. My family has always favored large dogs of an exceptionally furry appearance and a sweet disposition. Others on this blog (Elle, Alyssa) have discussed the innumerable mental health benefits of caring for animals. I believe that one of the most important contributions that pets can make to our mental health is to teach us how love fills ordinary things with meaning, which is a powerful antidote to perfectionism.
When anxiety and perfectionism are in full force, dogs can bring you back to reality.
Many different things make my dog happy. A stick with some mysterious substance on it, a toy she has gnawed into a deformed shape, the sight of a fishing rod -- such things are enough to make my dog cry with joy. (Yes, she is rather emotional, even though she is well past the puppy stage).
What makes her go over the top and howl loud enough to disturb the neighbors, however, are objects with which the people she loves have interacted. Any owner who has ever seen their pet ignore a fancy new toy in favor of a well-worn old bone they keep under their bed will know what I am talking about. A stick that I have kicked once becomes infinitely more intriguing to my dog than any similar sticks at her disposal.
I learned this lesson to my cost when I was knocked over by a small felled tree which I had moved and my dog had joyfully picked up. Ah, German shepherds! The mere sight of my father heading out to fetch his fishing rod sends my dog into hysterics, because she remembers the time he took her with him down to the lake and she glimpsed a trout leaping up over the waves. There hadn’t been anything particularly unique (let alone perfect) about the trout or the fishing rod that would account for my dog’s excitement. Instead she had loved both things because my dad, one of her favourite people in the world, had been near them.
A valuable lesson from our pets
In other words, pets can show us the strange alchemy that turns an everyday object or experience into something infinitely precious. At the risk of sounding corny, love is the ingredient that makes this process happen.
Last June, I was able to complete my project, and it was good. Not perfect, but good. As I sat with my dog’s head in my lap and hit “Send,” I realized that what made my work meaningful was not the external recognition or professional rewards it could earn, but rather the quality of the attention I had paid to it. Some say that true love is the art of paying attention. What would happen if we abandoned perfectionism and valued things according to the standard of care we have given them? Our beloved pets might be able to show us the rewards of this approach, especially when we need to remember it the most.