Challenge without the challenger

It wasn't too many months after Atticus, our Weimaraner, came into our lives that we realized he needed a toy, for Atticus is a vibrant creature and is rather disinclined to sleep away his days. When I thought he should be taking a nap, he would be standing next to me as I tried to work, looking at me intently, breathing hard and making guttural sounds. So we bought him a fine hard, almost indestructible ball. With the ball he has become very resourceful in his play, willing to amuse himself alone for long periods of time, and I am delighted that he doesn't have to suffer the oblivion of sleep as the only alternative to playing with one of his human family. What's extraordinary is that these games go on day after day with no suggestion of boredom on his part, and no weakening of his dauntless spirit, though some of the rules of his games are very challenging.

One afternoon as he and I were romping in the backyard, I watched him, ball in mouth, leaping and wriggling and twisting with joy. And I realized that the ball was nothing; it was what he brought to it that was everything - his joy, his freshness, his vitality. He didn't need new toys, new pleasures. He only needed what was within him to be satisfied. He was not being challenged by opposing enemies, coming at him to disturb his day. His challenge was the joy. Refusing to give up was part of the fun.

All the creatures of earth except men appear to me to experience a kind of indivisible life-rhythm, everything harmonizing in one unbroken melody. Failure in a task produces for them no frustration or dissatisfaction. The task simply has to be done again. When an acquaintance told me about a robin outside her back door rebuilding her nest again and again because she and her husband had taken it apart (feeling it was being built in an inappropriate place), I felt frustrated. The robin did not. On her fourth try she succeeded in getting her eggs into the nest, and that was that.

One day I sat Atticus down in front of me and decided to discuss the whole matter with him. He sat there with his ears laid back, waiting. ''Atticus,'' I began, ''are you stupid because you don't think that you need dozens of toys to amuse yourself? Are you dumb to be so satisfied, so at peace, that one ball can be a world of joy?'' Ball? His ears moved forward. He stood up and ran to get his treasure. I sat him down again. ''Everything's in the present for you,'' I continued. ''You don't worry, you have no torment, no anguish, no persisting fears. You're not concerned about success, your age, the continuity of your life. You and your fellow creatures don't worry about the future. You all just trust without even knowing what trust is. You don't try to trust, strain to trust. You're the - '' I tried to find the words to say what I was feeling. ''You just BE!'' Atticus stood up and nibbled on my nose. ''You illustrate trust , don't you? I learn so much more from what you and the universe are than I do from analyzing, straining, and intellectualizing. What have you got that I haven't got? What have I got that I don't need? Atticus, who are you?''

Then I saw it. It wasn't so much that Atticus was a ''who'' needing to define himself; he was a being, a unique individual. My ''who'' was more of an ego, a private sense of myself. In a flash I perceived that ego and individuality weren't synonymous at all. Ambition, drive, competition, strain, intensity, fear of passing time, refusing to believe there's a universal plan where everything fits and flows symphonically - all this negativity was ego, not individuality.

''But you can't understand music, dance, art, books,'' I said, trying to justify human ego. There was no escape. Remembering the Brancusi-like forms Atticus assumed in repose - the simple and beautiful flow of his body as he lay in curving semicircles - remembering his graceful leaps and twists to catch the ball in midair, I realized that he was music, art, dance, and the wisdom of books. My simple privilege as ''man,'' as the most complex creature in creation, was to be able to reflect on and understand such things as unity and beauty and intelligence. To be able to embrace consciously the whole of being, including myself. To be able to read all the messages around me that spoke of natural obedience to natural law. How pompous to think that the natural expression of intelligence without the intellectual ability to analyze what you are and what you do doesn't really fit definitions of intelligence! I was beginning to feel inside me the idea that intelligence was something expressed rather than initiated by creation. I wondered if I could participate more fully in this universal harmony.

Why not? I thought. Nature had always included man, even if man had excluded himself from nature. There was really only one song being sung in creation, an eternal song, and we were the song.

I stood up. ''Let's go upstairs, Atticus. Time for bed.'' Great news. Going to bed meant everybody together, the happiest time of all. He was halfway up the stairs when I called to him. He turned around and looked down at me. ''Atticus Grey Pony,'' I said softly, ''I love you.'' He turned his head slightly to the side and started to blink and wink in that odd way he had when he was spoken to in endearing tones. Then he climbed the rest of the stairs, looked once more to be sure I was following, and disappeared around the corner.

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