Perception is a Matter of Choice

From 2002 to 2012, I shared my life with the love of my life: a plush-coat Czechoslovakian Shepherd named Kona. He meant everything to me, and I couldn’t imagine my life without him.

He wasn’t the dog I was “supposed” to get. I wanted a solid black male. When the litter that I had placed a deposit on was born, there were two males, and one of them was all black. See, I told myself, it was meant to be. I had first pick of the males, and so I chose Black Boy. Fortunately, the Universe knew better than I did.

About a week after the puppies were born, the breeder asked me if I would consider taking the other male. Apparently, the family who had also placed a deposit on a male from this litter used to have a solid black that had passed away just a year before, and they were still heartbroken. “The kids have their hearts set on getting another black Shepherd,” the breeder told me. “So would you consider taking the other male?” I certainly wasn’t going to add to some child’s heartache, so I agreed to let them have “my” puppy.

And so, in the end, I got the dog that I really was supposed to get. Because he would turn out to be the dog that would change my life.

I love dogs. Charles Schultz said it best when he declared, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Although in my case, “happiness” didn’t begin to describe how I felt about my Kona. Because what I felt for Kona took my breath away.

At night, I would lay next to him, listening to his quiet breathing, and sometimes stroking his long, soft fur. Every single time, my heart would fill with joy and gratitude that such a wonderful dog had come into my life.

Kona, on the other hand, didn’t feel quite the same way. He would sleepily crack open one eye and give me that look that said, “Yes, Mommy, I love you to the moon and back, too. But, I’d like to go back to sleep now, if you don’t mind.”

Life was unendingly good.

But then, in 2008, Kona was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition. The prognosis for dogs with Kona’s diagnosis was bleak at best; one vet told me that the longest any of his patients had lived after the diagnosis was three weeks. He also said that the dogs usually died instantly and with no warning—sometimes in their sleep or, more often than not, while playing or even just taking an easy walk around the block. He warned me that the only chance Kona had of surviving was to keep him quiet, avoiding stress, stimulation, excitement, and exercise of any kind. And he cautioned me not to get my hopes up for any reason because Kona’s situation was, in fact, hopeless, and only a miracle could save him.

To say I was devastated doesn’t come close to describing how I felt. I barely heard a word the vet was telling me, and I cried for two days.

I kept trying to imagine my life without him, but that turned out to be as hopeless as Kona’s prognosis. After all, Kona was my protector (I lived alone in a remote area, but never felt afraid), my constant companion, my confidant. My soul-puppy.

And now he was going to be taken from me?

No, I thought, I can’t bear that.

And so, I decided that I had no choice. Whether or not I liked it, whether or not Kona liked it, we would have to do exactly what Kona’s vet said had to be done if Kona was going to “live,” even though it didn’t seem like it would be much of a life for either of us. And, having decided this, I didn’t know which was worse—thinking that I had no choice, or picturing how awful and fearful every moment would be from this moment on.

But then, something miraculous did happen. Just not the miracle I was “supposed” to get.

I thought about something that Kami Garcia wrote in Beautiful Darkness, “We don’t get to choose what is true. We only get to choose what we do about it.”

And at that moment, I realized that I did, in fact, have a choice: I might not be able to change the situation, but I could change my perception of the situation. And, simply by choosing to change my perception, I could also change how I felt about it and what I could do about it.

And so, I wondered, if that’s true, then what choices do I really have?

Well, I could choose to let this news fill me with fear every remaining moment I had with Kona. I could, as the vet suggested, lock him in the house, never take him for long walks again, never let him chase birds or rabbits, never leave him alone for a single moment “just in case.” The only exercise he would have from this moment forward would feel like one slow, inexorable death march.

Or. . . .

I could choose to be grateful for every remaining moment I had with him. We could go on as we always had, him racing after the rabbits, excitedly barking at the cats next door, flushing the birds out of the trees, trotting alongside me on my morning jog—aware of the possible consequences, but consciously choosing to live our lives to the fullest.

Nelson Mandela said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” And so, I chose my second option, and decided to live life as hopefully and as free from fear as possible.

Which Kona and I did—not just for three short weeks, but, miraculously, for four more spectacular years!

Which is not to say that I didn’t have to come up with a plan for facing my fears and dealing with Kona’s condition realistically for however much time we had left together. Kona had good days and bad. He saw a posse of specialists monthly, and underwent quarterly monitoring to record the rhythm of his heart. And each time we went to the vet, each time a new test was run, and I waited nervously for the results, I was faced with the same choice: see this as a blessing, not a curse. Be glad for our time together or live in constant, never-ending dread that our time was drawing to an end.

Admittedly, I am optimistic by nature. But the choices I had to make during those final four roller-coaster years with Kona went far beyond trying to keep my cup-half-full attitude. Because there were countless days when Kona’s long-term prognosis was that his cup had run dry. Nights, when I stroked his lovely fur while he was sleeping, and my heart would fill with joy and gratitude, like it always had—except that now, it was for a different reason: simply because he was still breathing.

And when each new day dawned, and Kona had survived another night, I would chose, once again, to continue on as we had the day before.

Epictetus said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. It is not so much what happens to you as how you think about what happens.”

Surely, there can be nothing more powerful, and empowering, than knowing we can choose how to perceive, and then respond to, whatever life throws at us. And, when things happen to us, the potential to turn them into good things is always available. Not always easy, but always possible.

Perception is a matter of choice. I have a choice every day regarding the perceptions I will embrace for that day. Learning to change my perception has helped me more readily accept and engage the difficulties of life and how I respond to the experience.

I don’t always choose wisely. But I choose. Granted, some choices are easier to make than others, like what to wear to work or what to have for dinner, than, say, choosing to quit a job or end a relationship. Choosing not to give up, no matter how dire or hopeless or just plain unmanageable things may seem.

Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” My years with Kona taught me the most valuable lesson I can ever hope to learn: No matter what happens, I can choose how to perceive the events that make up my life. And, it is this power of choice that makes life endurable, worthwhile, joyful, just plain manageable—or miraculous.

Today, I think I’ll choose miraculous.

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