The Shadow of the Dog

by rthieme on June 1, 2001

shadow-dog In the last Islands in the Clickstream, On the Dark Side of the Moon, I quoted a friend who said: “Ants don’t know that dogs exist.”

To which a reader responded:

“The tasks at hand are relatively insignificant once I’ve glimpsed the shadow of the dog and my brain struggles toward the brilliant light behind the dog.”


This happened in the middle of the night when things are either very clear or not clear at all.

On a private email list, a news item was shared about a thirteen year old boy who hung himself after he was suspended from school for hacking into his school’s computers. His parents, understandably bereft, blamed the suspension and the schoolmaster, who they claimed had threatened their son with jail. The schoolmaster defended himself, saying he had not.

The item elicited intense anger from young technophiles who recalled being marginalized by teachers unable to acknowledge their intelligence. They railed at the inability of schools to train teachers who understand computer technology and those adept at using it. Horror stories scrolled down the monitor of teachers who tried to control what they feared or could not understand.

One member of the list, a journalist who often champions the technophiles about whom he writes with insight, did not weigh in against the headmaster but instead shared insights grounded in memories of a suicide attempt by his own child.

The suspension and the headmaster, he suggested, were catalysts, not causes, the latest wave crashing in on a child’s psyche, the one “that kept him down and didn’t let him come up for air. That’s what it feels like to a kid committing suicide,” he wrote, “like there’s no air, like it’s dark and just too-damn-scary one-too-many times.”

Anyone who has dealt with a suicide attempt knows that the walls get narrower and narrower, the pain greater and greater, until one day there is the overwhelming relief of the decision to end the pain. Often a person is not trying to end their life, they are trying to end the pain.

I felt for the headmaster, too. I imagine he is experiencing the torments of the damned because the helplessness we feel when we are involved with someone who is deeply depressed or self-destructive is absolute. We are outside their skins, looking in, unable to get our hands on the switch.

Maybe because it was the middle of the night, I felt the pain and anguish from every point in this particular compass. I thought of the many times, like the headmaster, I have acted with less than perfect kindness. If I had a nickel for each time I spoke impatiently, harshly or stupidly to someone, I could retire in Barbados. I wish it did not take a lifetime to learn what King Lear learned at the end of his tragic suffering, that “none do offend, none.” Only then, worn down into humility, do we become appropriately gentle and forbearing with people who are only doing as we have done so many times.

I was an Episcopal priest for sixteen years. I entered the ministry because I needed a training program to learn how to become a more fully human being. It required years of listening to people sharing the reality of their lives to begin to learn what I deeply wish I had always known.

They showed me what it means to respond to whatever life brings with dignity, resilience, and genuine heroism, that everyone is pretty much doing the best they can with what they have, and that everyone’s story, when you really hear it, makes sense of their behavior.

My job was to make sense of what was often senseless, the sudden death of a child or a crushing reverse, events that knitted pain with seeming meaninglessness.

Ministry is often done with words. The words are intended to articulate what no one really understands. Just as loving another brings you closer to the mystery of their being, moving more deeply into the reality of others’ lives makes them more mysterious and worthy of compassion.

You begin talking and – if the process works – end up keeping your mouth shut. You begin thinking you understand. You end up knowing that you haven’t got a clue.

I was awake in the middle of the night because I awakened from a dream in which I was crawling along a dark fence through which I saw the faces of my mother father aunt and uncle. When I awakened I remembered they had all died decades ago. I have spoken or written for a living all these years as a way to fill up the silence of their absence. My words have been a search for meaning, but paradoxically, the only time I feel close to the mystery is when I have nothing to say.

When we meditate or pray deeply, words cease to matter. The levels of consciousness we discover when we sink into a larger life erase the daylight distinctions that no longer make sense. Language falsifies if we try to say what we know in such moments.

Yesterday I listened to a master of the intelligence world discuss the depths of awareness required to go places no human being should have to go. He reminded me why the intelligence community uses spiritual tools to equip its people, why I taught courses in clairvoyance, telepathy and psychometry when I was a priest in an effort to disclose that non-local consciousness is the sea in which we all swim, that the symbolic landscape described by all of our sacred texts is the literal truth, and that the seeming miraculous is normative for human beings.

We write or speak or do whatever it is we do to affirm that life despite the ostensible evidence is meaningful and good, that we are inextricably linked in a single web of consciousness, one manifestation of life in a universe teeming with life.

Our power lies in our powerlessness. In the dark hour before the dawn when we are most alone and most ourselves, we sense connections in all directions, far beyond earth and the evidence of the senses. How do we speak of these other dimensions with mere tongues? How do we turn this insubstantial vision into flesh and blood? How do we find the courage to close our deceptive eyes and see?

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