Wisdom or Fear – Which Comes First?


Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. ―Marie Curie

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Bessie, Ashley and I visit Nantucket for a few days in September.  This is her third visit to the island which she knows only as a blind dog. Her memories are rooted in the touch, sound and smell of the place; she has no idea what Nantucket looks like.  As we board the ferry the salt air triggers her memory and she seems excited about swimming in the ocean again.  We are on the same page.

Each morning begins with a visit to a nearby beach that is accessed by descending a long flight of steep steps.  Bessie proudly carries her favorite orange toy in her mouth like it’s a prize she’s won, almost as if she is showing off for the people we meet, but of course we know that’s not the case.  There is not an arrogant bone in her body and she has no way of knowing who is watching.  It’s just her confidence and joy in full bloom.

Bessie takes the steps to the beach deliberately and cautiously, about forty of them, one at a time, always with her right front foot touching the next step first.  She has identical rhythm on each wooden plank, like a robot precisely programmed.  But once she feels the sand between her toes she becomes a bit reckless, fueled by the freedom this sensation promises.  We have this in common.

Bessie loves beach walks.  With the sound of small, breaking waves guiding her she knows just where to find the crab claws, scallop shells and dead fish that have washed ashore.  The fussy tourists will be paying top dollar for similar delicacies in fancy, nearby restaurants later in the evening.  Bessie enjoys them for free on her beach walks.

By far her favorite beach activity is retrieving her toy from the salty ocean.  The waves, tides and currents create a different venue than the calm lake she enjoys in New Hampshire.  The challenge seems to peak her interest and enthusiasm, like an athlete in the playoffs.  This is especially evident when the tide is going out and the tossed toy drifts farther and farther away from shore.  Undaunted, she swims in ever-widening circles, searching for the familiar scent. 

Occasionally the orange cylinder gets so far away that I have to dive in and coach her.  There we are, swimming side by side into deeper and deeper water on a mission of recovery.  I find myself wondering just how long the old girl would stay with me on this quest.  I’m pretty sure I’d be the first to turn around.  It sure seems that way.  We get to a sandbar before the question is answered and Bessie’s standing in water just a few inches deep.  I wonder, does she think we’ve crossed a river?  We retrieve her toy and head back toward shore. 

Leaving the beach we encounter a dead horseshoe crab.  Bessie stops in her tracks about three feet in front of this expired, prehistoric arthropod, lowers her ears, crouches low and circles cautiously around the dead animal whose species is 300 million years old.  What is it about its particular odor that frightens her so much?  Did she have a horseshoe crab confrontation earlier in her life that left a deeply embedded mark?  Is there some thread in her DNA that links this encounter to the part of Bessie’s instinct that signals danger?  I have no idea, but I find myself pondering the concept of fear and how sometimes we just know in our bones it’s a good idea to turn and walk away.  This message is made more poignant by our dog who for the most part is afraid of absolutely nothing.

As we climb the steep steps and walk back from the beach, I consider what the horseshoe crabs are in my life, and how to get past them. It’s a good idea to ponder this once and a while. Thanks, Bessie.