"How Man Creates Dog In His Own Image, Part III."

The Dog Who Taught Me How to Forgive My Father.

Originally published on June 24, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.

The Nature of Emotion

This is a more personal post than the previous two posts. And, as the sub-title suggests, it involves some painful memories from my own past. So feel free to click to another article if you like.

If you’re still reading, let me start by saying two things concerning my ideas about the nature of emotion. The first is about memory, which is that there is virtually no difference between physical and emotional memory. This is something I learned while studying at the NATAS acting workshop in New York. (I was never a very good actor, by the way; I was always too self-conscious on camera.)

Most people think that when a method actor is preparing for a scene, he starts by thinking about an emotional event from his past, and then tries to recapture that same feeling. That’s sort of true. But trying to simply recall the emotions doesn’t work. Being caught up in a deep emotional state—the only kind actors find worth using—puts you in a vulnerable position, and there’s a part of the psyche that tries to prevent us from being vulnerable if it can. So you can struggle and strain all you like to recall the giddy, almost tipsy delight you felt the first time a girl (or boy) you liked told you they liked you back, for example, or the despair you felt later when she (or he) told you things were over, but try as you might to recall the exact emotions, they won’t come. But if you simply recall some of the sensory details surrounding those events—the color of her eyes, the texture of the walls, something as inconsequential as the angle of light shining off her hair—then the emotions come flooding back to carry you away once more.

Emotional memory is not mental or abstract; it’s visceral and concrete.

They All Come from the Same Well

The second thing about emotions is that while we may categorize many different types—anger, jealousy, longing, lust, joy, etc.—they all come from the same well, meaning there is essentially only one emotion. And like white light it can be refracted into a rainbow of different emotional colors, something I also learned in acting workshop. For example, if a scene requires your character to be angry, but you’re feeling more on the sad side that day, it makes no difference if you recall a sad event from your past or just stew in your current sadness. If the emotion is there you’re free to use it however you want. Yes, you may feel sad before the scene starts, but once you’re in it you’ll be absolutely furious.

So the only difference between emotions is color and intensity.

Years ago I had a black-and-white English field setter named Charley. He was named after a character in a screenplay I’d just sold. Charley often appeared on David Letterman’s NBC show, where he was known as “Charlie [sic] the Bubble-Eating Dog.”

And when I wasn’t waiting for phone calls from NBC, or out on my own auditions, I loved spending long hours in Central Park watching Charley play with the other dogs. A favorite of ours was a young Weimeraner named Flash, a wonderfully exuberant dog.

Flash’s owner and I would sometimes make small talk as our dogs played, and in the course of our casual conversations, which took place over several months, outdoors, in a relaxed setting, little tidbits emerged about a kind of love/hate relationship she had with her father. And I slowly began to understand (or I thought I did) something about the curious relationship she had with her dog; she was often red-faced with anger at Flash for doing next to nothing, yet at other times she smothered him with kisses, also for doing nothing. She had a love/hate relationship with her dog too.

So one day I asked her why she’d named him “Flash,” and she told me that it had been one of her father’s nicknames. Well, of course. It all made perfect sense.

Becoming My Father?

As I thought about it, though, I realized that something similar had been going on with me as well. I never berated Charley for playing, but I did get very seriously mad at him whenever he did something I thought might put his life in danger. At such times I felt helpless and out of control, and could feel myself actually becoming my father.

What was going on?

When Charley died suddenly six months later, some answers came.

First of all, my father had passed away 22 years earlier, but I didn’t cry at his funeral; I was the only dry-eyed Kelley in the church that day. And I had never cried over his death at any time after that either. And the reason, or so I told myself, was that I was still pissed off at the way he’d treated me when I was very, very young. (Let’s just say he’d been overfond of corporal punishment.)

But when my poor little dog Charley died, man did I cry. I sobbed for 3 days straight. I couldn’t even get out of bed. And it seemed to me that there was no difference in the tears I cried for Charley in 1990 and the ones I should have cried for my father 22 years earlier. In fact the love and loss I felt for that dog, reawakened something in me about the deep nature of the love I’d actually felt for my dad following the mistakes he’d made when I was 3 or 4. Tears are tears, after all, whether we cry them for our lost parents, or while watching the end of Romeo and Juliet or My Dog Skip, or just because we hear some dumb song on the radio. So I ended up crying for the loss of both animals, human and canine, daddy and doggy. (I also learned that you may be able to ignore your feelings successfully for 22 years but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.)

Then, as my grief began to ebb and fade, I realized I’d also somehow forgiven my dad. The burden of anger and resentment I’d carried around in my chest like a dead weight for most of my life was gone, vanished. I finally understood what a great man he was in so many ways. He fought a war, he was part of a unit of soldiers who freed the prisoners at Dachau. He could sit down at the piano and play virtually any song he’d heard for the first time, completely by ear. He was also the most popular dad in our neighborhood because he was the only grownup who’d play with the neighbor kids. Many times when the doorbell rang, and a kid stood on the other side of the screen door with a football or basketball under his arm, he wouldn’t ask, “Can Lee [or Jamie or Del] come out and play?” but “Can Jack [my dad’s name] come out and play?”

And yes, my father made some mistakes when I was a tyke, but bless him, once he realized what he was doing he learned how to control his temper and it never happened again. I should have recognized what a difficult thing that must’ve been instead of staying angry at him for so long.

So thanks, Charley. You were a great dog. I miss you.

And thanks Jack. You were a great dad. I miss you too. Happy Father’s Day, 2009.

LCK “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin!

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