On Aristotle and thanking dogs

Acknowledgements in books or dissertations are very funny things. People get sniffy if one goes on too long, but they also get mad if their own perceived contribution is slighted in any way. The former does have a point. I wrote before about Noreen Malone’s commentary about the breathlessly overblown, name-dropping acknowledgements section of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean-In:

She also lets us know that Scovell wasn’t the only person who adjusted her schedule. Harvard Professor Hannah Riley Bowles “interrupted her vacation to spend hours on the phone discussing her work,” a description that was surely meant to express genuine gratitude, but mainly just clarifies the global pecking order.

I am so important, even Harvard proffies and Oprah come a-running. Or these folks are just exceptionally generous. Same diff?

I got a fair amount of crap for thanking my dog, Zz, in my dissertation. Zz was a marvelous little dog I got when I was 22 years old, and who had traveled with me from Iowa, to Chicago, back to Iowa, then to California throughout grad school and my dissertation, and then finally passed away at the age of 17, when I was living in Virginia. He was an exceptional little fellow, always up for a walk or snuggle, and his friendship mattered tremendously to me.

So what’s the point of thanking him in the acknowledgements? Dogs can’t read. He can never know what I wrote, even if I read it to him. That’s just stupid, people said, and still say. That’s treating animals like they are people, which is wrong. (I don’t think so, but it’s a common argument.)

But saying thank you is only partially about the recipient. I’m convinced Aristotle was right about virtue: it develops via practice. I practice gratitude on purpose. I’m not as good at it as I want to be, but I figure the only way to get better is to do what I’d do if I wanted to play the guitar better: keep working, keep trying to find new ways to do it, keep at it, time and again. If a waiter fills up my coffee, I say “thank you.” If a student holds a door for me, I say thank you. The waiter is just doing his job. Should he be thanked for doing his job? Yes, yes he should because we all need to feel like our work matters beyond whatever coins we receive for it, and because I myself need to remember that I’m not entitled to things. I’m not entitled to coffee, even if I pay for it; it’s not the sum total of what happens between me and waiter. I’m not entitled to a door being opened for me. I’m not entitled to friendship, either human or animal; it has to be acknowledged, cherished, and fostered. Whether anybody cares if they are thanked or not, letting myself forget my debts, big and small, is bad for me. I am proud of much of my work and what I have achieved in my life, but it’s self-delusional to believe your own bootstrap stories.

To wit, thank you for reading. 🙂

Here’s a picture of ZZ:

ZZ close up