The Philosophy of Dog
“I am what I am and that´s all what I am“
Ushguli, Upper Svaneti District, Georgia – October 2013
We needn’t worry too much about bears. They are quite rare, even here, amongst the majestic peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. My partner Laura and I are currently riding around the world on two motorbikes and, on most nights, we camp wild in our two-person tent. As anybody who spends copious amounts of time in the remote outdoors will tell you – especially on adventurous trips to Canada, Siberia and parts of Africa – life in nature is a constant struggle. In order to survive, one must find water, shelter, warmth and sometimes, depending upon the regional fauna, a means to ward off all those beasts of the woods leering at you with hungry eyes.
We have such means. Should unwanted wildlife or people approach our tent, we have a surprise instrument of self-defence. Huge Caucasian Shepherd dogs, formerly bred to hunt brown bears, are our nightly security guards. Since arriving in Georgia, not an evening has passed without a stray dog sticking its nose through our tent-flap. Some are homeless: abandoned by their owners and left to fend for themselves. Others might be gainfully employed as herding dogs, but found our evening BBQs more enticing than watching over a tedious flock of sheep.
Due to their sheer gargantuan size, we were initially cautious. But not anymore. Laura and I now lie awake in our sleeping bags, joyfully anticipating four-footed visitors.
“Did you hear that?” Laura whispers. “Something is rustling outside!”
Sure enough, another Caucasian Shepherd is circling our camp.
“Come, puppy, come. We have khachapuri!” she calls out.
It takes mere seconds and our home feels complete once more. Laura on the left, me on the right and a 90-kilogram wagging ball of fur between us. We share our cheese pies fairly, and of course the fur-ball is allowed to sleep inside our tent – so too the ubiquitous hitchhiking fleas.
Dawn breaks, our dog stretches, then exits through the open flap with a farewell wag. It was only a one-night stand. He did his job and we rewarded him in return. Tomorrow, at a different location, I’m certain we’ll find another pooch as company.
I wrote the above entry into my travel-diary eight years ago. Today, Laura and I are still vagabonding, albeit no longer by motorbike. We both adhere to the philosophy of Diogenes of Sinope, aka the “Philosopher in the Barrel”, who was born on the Black Sea more than 2,400 years ago. When asked where he came from, Diogenes always answered: “I am a citizen of the world.”
My philosopher-friend Diogenes and I have something else in common: we are both passionate about animals, and dogs in particular. He once famously declared:
“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. They live in the present without anxiety, and have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy. In addition to these virtues, dogs know instinctively who is friend and who is foe. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth.”
I also think the world would be better off if we all behaved more like our four-footed friends – played with sticks instead of guns and always sealed friendships with a “woof” and a bottom-sniff.
When Elke and Ronja asked me to write an article about what I had learned from the animals I’ve encountered throughout my nomadic life, “honesty” was the first word that came to mind. The Caucasian Shepherd dogs mentioned in my story are a good example. They were completely free from pretence, and always behaved according to their subjective desires. Not once did a dog ever try to be anything other than what it was: a wagging ball of fur in search of cheese pies and affection (in that order).
In 2018 Laura and I swapped our motorcycles for an old, decommissioned post-office truck. Our bright yellow home offers more comfort than a tent: it is equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, hot shower, and similar luxuries. We also have an “animal cupboard” where we store dog and cat food, play toys, bowls, leashes and a medical-case for injured animals that’s twice the size of the first-aid box for ourselves. It contains everything from bullet extractor tools to paw-socks. This cupboard is not intended for our own pet – we don’t have a permanent furry lodger – but for stray animals we encounter during our travels. If we find an injured dog or cat, we always foster them until they are healed and we can find them a permanent home. However, the abandoned animals we “collect” have often never seen the inside of a house or camper, and this can cause a fair amount of mayhem, at least in the beginning. No pillow, shoe or table-corner is sacred. And yet, I can’t be truly upset with our lodgers. The havoc they cause is never malicious. Every time I’m tempted to reprimand one of our strays for eating my socks, their big brown innocent eyes seem to say to me:
“Hey, what did you expect? I’m a dog. I am what I am and that´s all what I am!“
Now that’s an honest answer! Animals know precisely what they are and what they want. They have no identity issues: a dog behaves dog-like and a falcon acts falcon-like. Many people, on the other hand, are confused about their identity and place in society. Some struggle with the definition of “self” and can’t even pinpoint what it is they want out of life.
In fact, it is this struggle that sometimes turns settled individuals into wandering nomads like us. The objective of many long-term travellers is to break free from the norms and expectations of family, friends and society, and instead, embark on a „journey of self-discovery“. Fed up with routine and predictable patterns, they literally drop everything – quit their jobs and sell their homes – to set off with a backpack around the world. The general idea is to debunk the internal narration about what kind of person one is, shed one’s old identity, and tell a new and perhaps more interesting story. They want to be “let off the leash”, so to say.
Of course, there are many other ways people might attempt to reinvent themselves, in search of a better approximation of “self”. Some men my age – a smidgen over 50 – try to shake up their routine by splurging on a fast sports car or by taking up an adventurous hobby. Extremists might even have an affair with someone half their age and decide to move to Bora Bora. Nearly everybody, male or female, experiences moments when they question their identity, notice how many of their dreams remain unfulfilled, and ask “How can I best become my true self, and live more me-like?”
But here we hit the first philosophical conundrum: if our “true and honest self” is in any way related to our actions and internal narrative – the autobiography we mentally write about ourselves – then what are we when those actions end? Am I no longer me when I stop travelling? Do we lose our identity when the sports car breaks down or life on Bora Bora does not go according to plan?
The honest dog, who doesn’t give a woof about abstract philosophy, is far wiser than we are. For them, it’s all about cheese pies. Animals live in the present and accept the present, without anxiety, as Diogenes had said. They simply go with the flow: if a cheese pie can’t be found, my smelly socks will do just fine! Animals have taught me that “I am what I am and that’s all what I am” irrespective of my actions. The dogs’ secret to a life of absolute honesty, towards others, but primarily towards ourselves, is to understand that you already are the “real and unique you”, regardless of your backstory, internal narrative, other’s opinions, or whether or not you drive a Porsche.
In my case, this means that the fact that I’ve been travelling around the world for the past 24 years is purely incidental. It was never a self-finding mission. Overlanding does not define me. I won’t suddenly “lose myself” when my travelling days end. Travel hasn’t changed my understanding of who I am, all it did was provide me with additional skills. I’ve become more confident in my abilities (I learned new “tricks”, the human equivalent of giving paw or rolling over), I show greater appreciation for the little things in life (“Look! A stick! My favourite thing!”), I’ve learned patience (“Stay, boy, stay”), and I now know how to relax and let life go about its natural progression (“Sleep, my favourite thing!”). I’ve also learned the importance of play-time (“Fetch!”) and good food (“Food! Definitely my favourite thing!).
Speaking of food: have you ever observed the sheer joy a dog displays when it’s dinner time? As soon as they hear the slightest rustle of a food-bag, from 100 yards away, they bolt towards you as if they’ve never eaten before. Or how about the childlike wonder dogs feel when they discover a stick? To them, every newly found stick is the very best in the universe, no matter how many broken branches they’ve seen in the past. And when you return home – regardless whether you’ve been away for a week or just took out the trash – every single time, you’ll be greeted with enthusiasm, excitement and happy helicopter-wags. The reason, evidently, is because dogs don’t overly concern themselves with past events. Life is played out in the present, and when you can master this skill, a mundane world suddenly becomes magical!
While we all need to build a life that subjectively suits us best, what REALLY counts is that regardless of lifestyle – travelling or settled – you can wake up every morning, look the present in the eye, and say something along the lines of, “Ah, another magnificent day! The sun is rising, and I can’t wait to see what surprises await me!”
Just like our beloved four-footed friends do – after all, they are the best teachers.
Books by Christopher Many
Christopher Many’s “Horizon” series was launched with the author’s debut book “Left Beyond the Horizon – A Land Rover Odyssey”, following his eight-year journey around the world between 2002 and 2010. It was published in Germany in 2011 by Delius Klasing, and the original English language edition was released in 2015. For the visually impaired a copy in Braille can be ordered through BLISTA and the Library for the Blind. The author strongly believes that everybody should be allowed to travel the world through literature. “Right Beyond the Horizon – A Motorcycle Odyssey” is the second book in the Horizon series, and was published in 2016. It’s available in printed and electronic versions in both English and German languages on Amazon. Christopher is bilingual, but prefers to write all his manuscripts in English.
For further information about Christopher Many’s voyages and future projects, please visit his website (www.christopher-many.com), or contact the author directly on his books’ Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/Hinter.dem.Horizont.links).