Back when I used to teach English to tiny little gremlins, I sometimes used simplified versions of Aesop’s fables as teaching materials. One fable that has stuck in my mind is called “The Dog and the Shadow.” It’s short enough to read in one breath, so go click on the link and then come back.
Dogs are intelligent creatures, but they have no capacity for reason, so when it comes to things like food and sex, they are driven wholly by their animal instincts. In this fable, the dog so desires to have the meat carried by the “other dog” that he forgets he is holding a piece of meat in his own mouth. Put in human terms, the dog is driven by greed for more food (although I don’t think animals are capable of avarice in the human sense). Although the moral makes much of the fact that the other dog doesn’t actually exist, I always thought that was a minor point. Whether the other dog exists or not, the dog’s greed still blinds him to what he already possesses.
The family dog, Dori (who technically belongs to Hyunjin’s parents), has taught me a slightly different lesson. Like any dog, he loves meat, but he also happens to love bread. Sometimes we’ll give him crusts or other pieces of bread that have been hanging around for a little too long, and he will eagerly take them in his jaws and retreat to his house to eat them.
One time I had two pieces of bread to give him. He can usually tell when I’m going to give him something to eat because I come out with my hands behind my back. He starts spinning around in circles (never could figure out why) until I bring out the piece of bread or whatever it is from behind my back. Well, this time I held out the first piece of bread and he gingerly took it in his mouth and turned to leave (without so much as a “Thank you,” of course), but then I brought out yet another piece of bread from behind my back. He saw the bread and nearly had a nervous breakdown. He began to whine and look around, all the while holding the first piece of bread in his mouth.
“Eat that first and then you can eat this,” I told him. I’m not sure why we talk to animals as if they can understand, but needless to say he didn’t listen. I realized that I should have saved the other piece for later, but the cat was already out of the bag, so I tossed it on the ground in front of his house. He spent a few moments scurrying back and forth, whining and trying to figure out what to do. It never occurred to him to eat the bread in his mouth first and then worry about the other piece. His animal instincts took over, and he had to protect both pieces of food from possible scavengers. Finally he decided to take the first piece of bread into his house, drop it, and then come out and retrieve the second piece of bread. Even letting the other piece out of his sight for those few seconds nearly drove him over the brink.
Watching this, I thought about “The Dog and the Shadow.” In that fable, we are warned about losing what we actually have by grasping at things that don’t really exist. In Dori’s case, though, he had a real dilemma—both pieces of bread were equally real. And there is another key difference between the fable and Dori’s story: the driving emotion for Dori could not really be called greed. Both pieces were already his, and he didn’t necessarily want to have both of them at once. What drove Dori mad, though, was the fear that is hardwired into him—the fear that he would lose what he had if he took the time to enjoy it. To put it in other terms—terms Dori would never understand, of course—he was too worried about the future to appreciate the present.
I prefer this fable to Aesop’s. To me, “The Dog and the Shadow” is a bit too obvious and shallow. But Dori’s fable really made me stop and think. At the time, I couldn’t help laughing at him for being such a silly creature, but when I thought about it later I realized that I was often just as silly, if not sillier. How many times have I been so worried about what might or might not happen in the future that I have been unable to appreciate the things that are happening right now?
This is one thing I have been struggling with in my daily prayer and meditation sessions. My mind has a tendency to wander: thinking about all the things I have to do that day or worrying about something else. Whatever the case, I find my mind drifting away, and I have to pull myself back to the present time and place. This has been a lot more difficult than I had imagined, and is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far. So I try to keep in mind Dori’s fable, and keep my mind on what I am doing at that moment. It’s not easy, especially considering all the thinking I tend to do, but I feel like I’m making progress. At the very least, I’m trying to be a step up from the family dog.