The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week. To see the previous chapter, click here.
My family owns a most imperfect yet remarkable dog. He was Santa’s gift to our oldest child when our son was eight years old. The dog, a springer spaniel named Oakley, is now himself eight. At times, I have found him to be frustrating and odd. For one thing, he is constantly digging up our yard. Just as we fix the damage in one area he rotates to another. We’ve been chasing his holes for most of his life. And among his odd quirks is that he absolutely will not play fetch. He is as anxious to fly after a ball as any dog I have seen, but he then runs away with his “kill” to gnaw at it. When you try to retrieve it from him, he flees. In every case, he wants to keep his toy to himself. In fact, when we give him special chew toys, he runs off and buries them somewhere in the yard, never to be found again, even by him. It’s the same story when we give him a bone. Off it goes to some soon-forgotten grave.
In the early days, we discussed giving Oakley away, but ultimately we couldn’t do it. Today we wouldn’t let him go for the whole world. Why? Because he has become our teacher.
If you were to visit our home, you would see Oakley sitting at our back door, anxiously peering through the glass. He must spend ninety percent of his waking hours in that same spot and position, patiently waiting for us to join him. No matter how long he waits for personal attention and companionship—whether hours or sometimes even days—he seems to love us all the same. No matter how long he has waited—sometimes in the extreme cold, and other times without food—I can discern no change in his demeanor toward us. There is no hint of demand, of complaint, or even of expectation in him. There is only hope. Hope that cannot be quenched by anything we do or fail to do with or for him.
A few years after we got Oakley, one of our daughters wanted her own puppy, and we purchased a second springer—this one a wily little imp named Oreo. Oreo was brilliant and strong willed, quick as a cat, with eyes that searched for mischief. He gobbled down sizzling hamburgers from off the grill, nipped at you when you passed by him, and generally treated Oakley roughly. When he was a young puppy, I thought his rough ways with Oakley were cute—just learning his limits, I thought. But he didn’t seem to find limits that restrained him. As he got older, he mangled Oakley’s legs and ears and frequently caused Oakley to bleed. All the while, Oakley stoically continued looking for us through the glass.
When we went out in the backyard with the two of them, Oreo always darted to cut Oakley off when Oakley approached us for some love and attention. Although much younger, Oreo had crowned himself the alpha dog, and Oakley had consented to it. He waited in the background while Oreo received attention from us and only afterward nudged his way forward for the same. I felt bad for Oakley. But part of me just wanted him to toughen up and not to let Oreo dominate him.
One day in the middle of all this, the dogs got out of our yard and ran into the backyard of a neighbor, drawn there by a swift-moving stream and the laughter of children at play. Oreo, fearless and impetuous as always, dove headlong into the water. This was the first time he had ever tried to swim, and he struggled mightily. Fear showed in his eyes, possibly for the first time, as he was being swept uncontrollably downstream. I marvel at what happened next. Oakley dove in after him. He paddled furiously to reach his tormentor. Oreo grabbed at him and struggled to pull the front of his body onto Oakley’s back. With his rider safely aboard, Oakley paddled them both to the safety of the bank.
When my daughter told me this story, I was filled with wonder at this dog. How was it that this mistreated, neglected, and taken-for-granted canine had developed such character? I began to wonder what his human equivalent might be. Imagine, for example, waiting minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day for others in my life to do what I would like them to do—to show me kindness, for example, or attention, or love, or to do what I’ve asked them to do. Or imagine being systematically mistreated—unappreciated, for example, or unhelped, or ignored, or pushed aside. And then I realized that this often is our condition and situation in life. Our companions, no matter who they are, will frequently fail to do what we would like them to do or to act as we would ideally like to them to act. And our children may systematically fail to help or to appreciate us. When I realized this, the question that made Oakley my teacher came into my heart: In dealing with these and other challenges, how do we compare to this dog?
Do we, like Oakley, view others only with hope and gratitude? Or do we rather view others with a critical eye, demanding that they be different than they are? If, like Oakley, we are filled only with hope, we will be able to feel gratitude for others notwithstanding their faults. If, on the other hand, we feel entitled, we condemn ourselves to a resented life and will feel embittered toward those whom we have been called to love and to cherish.
Oakley still has the same quirks and “faults” as he’s always had, but we are not troubled by them anymore. Would we prefer it if he quit digging? Yes. Would we sometimes like him to play fetch? Yes. But these and his other quirks don’t keep us from loving him and being grateful for him. Why? Here again, Oakley has been our teacher. I believe we are not troubled by his faults because he is not troubled by ours. There is no up-ness in him. Despite the countless ways that we have been less-than-ideal companions for him, he still hopes to be with us and thinks no less of us even if we keep ourselves from him for longer than more thoughtful people might. His gratitude has won us over. How can we reject one who loves so freely?
The Apostle Paul had some things to say about being like Oakley. While imprisoned, he wrote: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” “Content with prison?” one might ask, incredulously. Yes. “With bonds?” Yes. “Then you’re doomed!” the questioner might respond. “Doomed to a life of bondage!” But the inquirer would be mistaken. Paul remained free, despite the prison walls around him. The Romans could lock up his body, but they could imprison Paul’s soul only with his consent—consent that Paul’s contentment denied them. Contented, Paul remained free from the constant disappointment created by expectation. Nothing anyone else did or failed to do could exert control over his heart. Despite his less-than-ideal situation, he, like Oakley, remained free—free from the bondage of resentment and blame. He could remain filled with hope, no present deprivation robbing him of a moment’s worth of happiness.
I am aware, of course, that some people live in very difficult circumstances. Some face challenges that seem too much even to hear about, much less to bear. Others have been on the receiving end of unthinkable mistreatment. What if I find myself in such a circumstance? one might object. Am I simply to remain, as Paul suggested, content? Am I simply to wait obediently, like Oakley, no matter the mistreatments that come my way? That seems like madness!
I have wrestled with this same question and with some difficult circumstances of my own. That wrestle caused me to want to explore this very issue in writing. I wanted to detail a set of considerations that might tell a person when he or she might be justified, for example, in choosing to run from certain situations. With every attempt to write on that topic, however, inspiration fled from me. After many attempts, I finally came to this realization: There may be times when one no longer needs to turn the other cheek, or when the cloak no longer needs to be lent,217 or when one has waited long enough at the door, but such direction can only be given to a person individually and specifically by the Spirit. It appears that even the writers of the scriptures were not authorized to write of acceptable exceptions to these outward rules of long-suffering love, as neither the Savior nor his representatives appear ever to have stated any exemptions. Upon reflection, I believe the reason for this is clear: If there were exceptions to these rules, I would have written myself into them a thousand times over—whenever I met up against circumstances that I thought were unfair!
On the other hand, the scriptures do contain examples of times when the Spirit whispered that it was time to leave certain situations. This is what happened, for example, when the Spirit finally told Nephi that it was time to escape from his brothers. Had the scriptures contained exceptions to long-suffering love, Nephi probably would have written himself into those exceptions years earlier. Had he done so, he would never have obtained the repentance he found as he pleaded heavenward in the chapter before he was told to go—a level of humility and repentance that his hardship, in part, made possible. And we, then, would not have learned from his learning. His own exception-finding would have invited us to exempt ourselves from these laws of long-suffering as well.
But Nephi didn’t do this. And he didn’t because the scriptures kept him bound to his brothers until the Spirit said it was enough. The outward rules bind us to the difficult path, a fact that helps to keep us in situations that our own sinfulness would have compelled us to abandon long before. This forbearance under difficult circumstances ends up teaching us and others more about love and repentance than any reality we might have willed for ourselves. Then, in the midst of our faithfulness, if it becomes needful for us to leave a circumstance, the Spirit can come individually to us, as it did to Nephi, and give direction that no source within this world can give.
Whether one, like Paul, is confined to prison, or, like Oakley, is still waiting at the door, “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” Paul wrote from his prison, “shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”220 From this prison he shared the secret for such peace and such contentment and such hope, whatever one’s circumstance: “Whatsoever things are true,” he wrote, “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”221 If there be anything virtuous in a person or in a circumstance, Paul is saying, we should think on that single virtuous thing rather than upon the litany of the person’s faults or upon the myriad difficulties of life. If there is anything lovely or of good report or praiseworthy around us, we are to think on those things rather than upon the infinite list of dishonest, impure, ugly, and mean-spirited injustices that could absorb our attention and consume our hearts. Do this, he is telling us, whether from within bondage or without, and we shall remain contented, hope-filled, grateful, free. And we shall therefore be in a position to hear and heed any whisperings of the Spirit that come our way.
One might object that it is a dishonest and even dangerous thing to think only on the good of a person who is bad. To which I would say that I reject the premise. Only One who has ever lived was entirely good, and I would be surprised if there has ever been one who has been entirely bad. It is my own sin, not another’s, to see only bad even where there is good. If a person feared to see the good in another because they worried that to do so would expose them more fully to the bad, I would suggest that honesty about a person’s strengths does not mean that I would not also see that person’s weaknesses. Paul is just inviting us not to snuff the light from our vision and from our hearts by allowing ourselves to see only another’s faults. He is begging us not to enter prisons of our own making.
Shed the expectations and the demands and the criticisms that too often consume us, Paul says, and “the God of peace shall be with you.”
Just as he is with Oakley.