My dog is a show off. Every morning when I roll out my yoga mat and begin a stretching and exercise routine, she saunters over to performs a pluperfect Downward Facing Dog. She usually does it parallel to whichever direction I am facing so that I can’t miss her exquisite form.
“Yes,” I said to her the other day, “but that is the only pose you can do.” Then I showed her my best Pigeon pose, looked over my shoulder and said, “try that.” She flopped down and feigned sleep.
Despite what that sounds like, I don’t anthropomorphize my dog. That’s a big word that turns out to be important. “Anthropomorphize” means to ascribe human characteristics to things that are not human.
I recognize my dog does not know what I think. Nor does she understand English. Even the words she does recognize have more to do with the way I say them than with linguistic comprehension. That is not to say she is without keen senses with which to recognize my mood and what I want from her. She does, just not the same ones humans capitalize on.
It is easy to project all kinds of human characteristics and emotions onto our pets. They are companions to us in times both painful and joyous, and so we form a powerful bond. We can have deep relationships with animals, especially those with whom we live, but we need not drift into imagining they are like us or that we comprehend them.
There are trees I have known with which I formed a bond. I even gave some of them names. But to then ascribe human attributes to an organism which cannot reciprocate would be dangerous to my mental health.
We have famously anthropomorphized God, too. Think Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on its ceiling gives God a Zeus-like image that appears in form to be the senior version of the younger Adam. It comes from the Judeo-Christian idea of Imago Dei, which assumes humans were created in the image of God. It is a sneaky way of anthropomorphizing the Creator by working backwards from us to “Him” or “Her.” The thinking goes that if we were made in God’s image then God must be like us.
Ascribing human attributes to things that are not human is hazardous. While it allows us to feel more kindly towards whatever we are projecting ourselves onto, when doing so we are not embracing that creature’s true nature. When they disappoint us – as they always will – we get all kinds of angry. How many people have rejected faith because God didn’t do for them what they thought God should have done — based on the assumption that God is supposed to act like us?
It shows greater honor to other life and elements of the Earth when we know and greet them as they truly are rather than erroneously cast in our own image. Taking time to learn the true nature of dogs, cats, deer, trees, lake eco-systems, birds, plants, or whatever, allows us to have more authentic relationships with them — which means a safer existence for both.