Our neighbor's dogs need to lighten up. Apparently, they have never related to the "Wag more. Bark less." bumper stickers. The backyard gang is composed of three canines, each endowed with superior barking skills. All it takes to get them going is to hear our back door open. If we stay on the second-floor deck, a solid barking is all we get, but if we venture downstairs, we are upgraded to solid barking, as well as incessant lunging at the fence. It gets old really fast.
What makes them react in this manner? Was there not enough quality time with their parents when they were young? Were they not breastfed long enough? Were they exposed to excessive violence on TV? Too many food additives? Is it a result of poor parenting, the public education system, or society as a whole? Or are they just bored and unchallenged?
I believe the fault lies with a pronounced right of entitlement. They bark because they can, despite our calm, friendly voices. And their masters let them, regardless of our complaints.
Christians are just as guilty. We gossip. We jump on an issue without knowing the facts. We abuse the entitlement of our faith to harangue and intimidate our fellow man in private conversations or public politics. We do it because we can and because there is no immediate consequence for our behavior.
Wouldn't it be refreshing if we all were to strive daily for the cheerful heart mentioned frequently in Proverbs? If we could "wag more and bark less" at one another?
If only the trio of dogs next door would wag their tails when my family ventures outside...such a distant dream.
The obvious difference between Christians and this backyard canine gang is that we are not untrained pets. Our Master has blessed us with distinct skills and compassion in social situations. We possess a wide range of acceptable vocabulary, we can assess circumstances (within reason), we have some degree of humor, and we can employ varying perceptions of audience reaction. We can even modify our own conduct appropriately and take action to make amends with those we have offended.
However, whether or not we choose to apply these skills to nurture within us a cheerful heart is largely up to us. But it's often how we will be remembered...and will influence how non-believers view Christians in general.
After all, we do have our very own written guide—the Word of God—and personal examples for inspiration are easy enough to find.
For instance, when I was young, one of my cousins won a beauty contest. She was very pretty and talented, but it was her smile that endeared her to everyone. I never saw her without it, and I know she had her share of heartache. Still, she always offered a cheerful, genuine smile, and it made me feel good. I've tried, when I think of it, to emulate her attitude—probably because smiling takes such little effort and might actually make the recipient happier for a moment. Tail-wagging is a dog's way of smiling, or so it seems. I'd like to see more of both in my world.
There is an old saying about faking a smile until it becomes a habit. Maybe we should all give it a try. Does it benefit the giver or the receiver?
David Schlundt, PhD, at Vanderbilt University says: "The assumption that smiling can improve mental health is unclear. Experts argue about the significance facial feedback has in modulating emotion. There does seem to be at least a small correlation across the board. So smiling probably does not have the ability to cure severe anxiety or depression but it may have smaller transient effects on emotion. The good news is smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!"*
I've also read somewhere that people are able to fake smiles, but that dogs simply cannot fake the response of wagging their tails (smiling). It makes sense, but it doesn't help my situation. When I once again attempt to sneak outside my door, I'd rather settle for a few phony wags over a cacophony of barks. And as for me, I'll offer this group a very fake smile.