When asked why he painted, Alan Stacell said, “I paint like a dog wags its tail.” Where would you go to find a more succinct description of what we are here for? To live like a dog wags its tail! To live for the sheer delight, wonder and joy of doing it. To do it because we love it, even when we don’t understand it, or agree with it—even when it breaks our heart.
Dogs generally do not hold grudges, or take things personally. They don’t take to abuse, but go out of their way to be gracious and compassionate, and will forgive seventy times seven times. You can’t talk them out of wagging their tails. We get up to a wet walk to the newspaper in our driveway, and the day is over for us. If we cannot fast-forward into tomorrow, we will make everyone pay for this sorry day. We are as un-dog-like as it gets. It gets worse.
With us, there has to be a payoff. We don’t do anything for free. Our motivation for doing anything hinges on getting something out of it that we can weigh, count, measure and put in the bank. We live to have more at the end of the week than we had at the beginning. If we aren’t piling up evidence of the validity of our life, we aren’t living. We have to have tangible proof that we aren’t wasting our time here. We have to see results. We lie in bed, tally up the achievements of the day, and plan what we are going to accomplish tomorrow. We live for the outcome. We live to be Somebody in everybody’s eyes.
It won’t do if they treat us as Somebody for no reason. That’s pathetic. That’s pitiful and patronizing. We have to deserve it. We have to earn it. We have to be worthy. To live like a dog wags its tail is ridiculous. No dog ever built the pyramids, or landed people on the moon, or discovered a cure for Polio. Dogs don’t have a clue! We are here for a reason, and it isn’t to wag our tails. We have to figure out what it is, and do it before we die, and this isn’t getting it done! We don’t have much time left, and we have to get busy if we are going to achieve what we are here to accomplish, so you’ll have to excuse us, we have to go now, it’s late, and we are behind schedule.
Dogs don’t have a schedule. They eat when hungry, and rest when tired. Dogs are glad to be who they are, where they are, when they are, how they are. We wish we were different people, in a different place, at a different time. “Here and now” is rarely good enough for us. Jesus could talk about “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,” but we are sure it’s about incentive, ambition, motivation, duty and responsibility.
We cannot paint like a dog wags its tail. If we paint at all, it is to sell, sell, sell. It is to buy a bigger house, and a vacation home, and a sail boat. It is to become famous, wealthy and have it made. In living to have it made, we become like the man holding his grocery list looking for his grocery list, like the woman holding a pencil looking for a pencil. We are reaching for that which is already well in hand.
The purpose of life is to bring ourselves forth into the experience of being alive. And to work with the impact of that experience to deepen, enlarge and expand ourselves, in order to better meet the experience of being alive. This work is carried out by reflecting on our experience, and having new realizations, which we apply to our continuing experience—enjoying the entire process, and looking forward to what new possibilities for life lie waiting to be discovered.
We are wasting time—wasting life—when we are not tasting what is to be tasted, smelling what is to be smelled, seeing what is to be seen, hearing what is to be heard, loving what is to be loved, enjoying what is to be enjoyed, relishing what is to be relished, embracing what is to be embraced… We are wasting life when we are not alive to experience of being alive in the moment of our living.
Ah, but what about incentive, ambition, motivation, duty and responsibility? I have to calm you down, now, don’t I? I have to reassure you that I’m not suggesting that we become derelicts and panhandlers, slackers and lay-a-bouts, don’t I? I have to issue disclaimers, don’t I? I have to say that I’m not talking about quitting your job and putting your kids up for adoption, don’t I? Because you don’t trust yourself to know how to make it all come out on your own, do you?
Back in the old days, I studied tennis. I can’t say that I played very well, but I understood it. I knew what to do, I just didn’t always translate that into action. Knowing what to do, and having what it takes to do it are different things. You see that demonstrated in every basketball playoff game “on the road to the Final Four.” Basketball comes down to making points. To make more points than the other guys, you have to have the ball more than the other guys. That means rebounds and turnovers. You have to get the ball to shoot the ball. Getting the ball is the name of the game. Everyone knows that, not everyone carries it out. Not everyone goes after the ball as though getting the ball is the name of the game. That’s the way I played tennis. I didn’t translate what I knew into action. One of the things I remember about tennis is Vic Braden saying, “You have to work hard to swing easy.” He meant you had to get yourself in position to hit the ball properly. You can’t make up for a lousy position by swinging at the ball with all your strength. As with tennis so with life.
We have to work hard to swing easy. Part of the hard work lies in deciding where to draw the line. Part of the hard work lies in deciding for ourselves what constitutes a successful life. There is a point beyond which more stuff, or more money, will not make one ounce of difference in the over-all amount of happiness in our lives. We have to be aware of that point, sensitive to it, and conscious of the anti-cultural concept of enough.
“You can’t get too much of a good thing,” says the culture. “More of everything keeps the economy going, and makes you glad to be alive. Here, let me get you another helping of that bright shiny plastic, honey, and how about some of these latest Apps to go with it?” There comes a point at which enough goes over into excessive consumption, and success becomes an insatiable appetite for something more. We cannot be spiritual without drawing lines.
The lines cannot be imposed from the outside. No one else can draw our lines for us. We have to know that there are lines to be drawn, and that we are the ones who draw them. How much plastic (And everything is plastic these days, from Hummers to cabin cruisers. What ARE we going to do when we run out of fossil fuel?) does it take? Only we can decide, and we have to decide.
We have to decide in light of what we would be living for if we lived like a dog wags its tail. How much do we have to have in order to do what we love to do? What are our legitimate obligations, responsibilities, duties? To whom do we owe what? After that what?
Those responsibilities that are such a burden, that we complain about and say we hate, keep us from confronting the fact that we don’t have any idea of what to do with ourselves. We don’t know what to do like a dog wags its tail. Where are those wonderful responsibilities that save us from the over-riding responsibility of deciding what to do with our lives? Martin Luther could agonize over where to find a gracious God. That one doesn’t bother us at all, but we would die to know true satisfaction is to be found in our life.
What do we do like a dog wags its tail? Is there anxiety associated with the question? Panic? Are you desperate for me to slip back into easy religion, where I tell you that you are going to hell unless you embrace the doctrines, which I then elaborate? Am I violating your comfortable boundaries when I say that your life ought to constellate around things you do like a dog wags its tail—without you having to wonder what that would be?
If not, I’d say you are well-grounded in a spiritual life. If so, you have plenty of company. Most of us are looking for the things we do like a dog wags its tail. Finding and doing those things constitute the spiritual path. You have to trust me in this. The spiritual path is not about being separated from your truest, best, and deepest loves, and handed what you ought to love instead. The spiritual path is about being connected with your heart’s true joy. It is about finding and doing those things that you do like a dog wags its tail.
You don’t have to have that figured out by nightfall, or even by the end of the week. You only have to allow yourself to know what it’s about: drawing lines, knowing what’s important, loving what you love and giving yourself the time required to shift over into a new approach to living—learning how to love what you love, and live like a dog wags its tail.