Notes from the Wayside - January 2023

Wayside shrine between Krensheim and Poppenhausen, Germany
I am not a “dog person”. To be honest, I have spent most of my life as an actively anti-dog person, after a couple of frightening run-ins with big dogs during my childhood left me fearful and wary of any animal larger than a house cat. Our family never owned dogs when I was growing up, and frankly I couldn’t see why anyone would want to; dogs are too big, too slobbery, and too smelly—not to mention how degrading it is to clean up after them (as comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “If you see two life forms, one of them is making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him, who would you assume was in charge?”)

So, when I had my own children, and everyone told me that I should get them a dog as a pet, I vehemently refused, swearing that I would never, ever, ever, ever, EVER get a dog. Ever.

This Christmas, we got a dog.

His name is Woofles, and he is an 8-month old Corgi puppy. And I can say that having Woofles in the house these last few weeks, I am beginning to understand why dogs have cultivated such a devout following. Woofles is an incredibly calm and sweet dog, an excellent companion animal for my children, and an endless source of humor and entertainment with his stubby little Corgi legs and goofy antics.

But as cute and playful as Woofles may be, he is, above all things, loving; and it is this particular trait that I have now come to recognize as the one that people most treasure in dogs. Dogs have an astonishing capacity to receive us just as we are, to love the people they’ve been given to love without stopping to ask questions about our worthiness. When we first brought Woofles home, I was worried that my anti-dog reputation might have preceded me, but Woofles simply accepted that I was now his person and therefore I was now his to love, regardless of whether I deserved it.

Dogs are much, much better at this than people are. People are accustomed to having all kinds of expectations about what makes a person worthy of love or not. We place limits, boundaries, around what separates the “good” or “right” kind of people (those who deserve love) from the “bad” or “wrong” kind of people (those who do not deserve love). I read recently that it is not uncommon for women on dating apps to write, “I only accept dates with men 5’10 or above” on their profiles; and this is but one example of the cultural misunderstanding of love we have all grown accustomed to. We treat love as something that must be merited, or earned, rather than something that is freely and unconditionally given. And this distortion causes such damage to our souls.

I recently had a bad day and was crying to my husband, Matty, about feeling like a failure. He reassured me that I am not a failure, but a terrific wife and mother; and this is about all the comfort that I would ever expect from anybody. So what Matty said next really startled me: “But Tara, even if you were a failure, we would all still love you anyway.”

It had never occurred to me that I might still be worthy of love even when I royally wreck things, and I know that I am blessed beyond belief to have married one of the few humans who is evolved and deep enough to tell me so. This is a rare trait to find in a person, and perhaps that is why our culture is becoming increasingly dog-centric, because we seek in dogs the unconditional love that we struggle to find in each other.

The good news (and I mean this with all due respect) is that when it comes to love, God is much more like a dog than a person. When we say that God is love, we are not talking about the kind of love that shrivels up and dies if we don’t get the dishes done, or lose our job, or, Heaven forbid, are less than 5’10. The God-kind-of-love is something more like the kind of love that dogs know, a love that is not merit-based, is not determined by our status or worthiness, and, perhaps most startlingly, is not lose-able, no matter how bad we screw up. The paradox of Christianity is, and always has been, that somehow the more wretched we are, the more tender God’s love for us becomes: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God doesn’t love perfect people but imperfect people, and that is all of us.
So while yes, Woofles does smell, and he is slobbery, and we won’t even mention the thing I have to do with the little green bags, I absolutely adore him, and I’m grateful for the glimmer of Heaven that he’s brought into the Ludwig family home.

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