“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” Aldous Huxley
Deluged in conflicting statistics, we have become inured to shock and confirmed in our protective cocoon of skepticism. Occasionally, however, a set of statistics stops me cold. I read the other day that there are just under ninety million dogs in the United States along with over ninety-four million cats.[i] Juxtaposed with other readily available statistics, that one gave me pause. For instance, there are around eighty-two million human beings under the age of twenty in our country.[ii] So, we have many more dogs than young people. And the ratio of dogs to young people has climbed appreciably year after year. What does that say to us? Or about us?[iii]
Now before you tag me with the ‘dog hater’ label, I like dogs, having had dog pets both as a kid and as an adult. I am curious though as to the implications of the statistics. Let’s look together at some other stats that may bear on our discussion.
Our United States fertility rate in 2017 was 1,765.5, or just over seventeen hundred babies born per thousand women over their lifetimes.[iv] To sustain our population at current levels takes 2,100. Since we are also living longer, like almost all the countries in the Western world we have an aging population. What does that forecast for social programs like Social Security and Medicare? Just after the Second World War in 1945, there were forty-one workers contributing to the funds for every retiree. Today that number is below 2.9 and projected to be 2.3 by 2030. Thus, there is much talk about correcting these programs, but so far not the political will to take the necessary and painful steps to fix them.
The fertility rates vary widely from state to state. The more left leaning states most disinclined politically to adjust the social services problem are in the Northeast and West Coast; they also trail the pack with the lowest fertility rates. Why progressives are having far fewer children than more moderate and conservative citizens is another topic worth exploring. Not to succumb to the distractions of cowardly politicians, but as John Adams so famously stated, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
One would think that fewer children must mean we treat the children we do have much better, with greater consideration and commitment to our relationships between the parents and to the children’s well-being, right? Well, sometimes. In aggregate, though, since 1970 and the advent of the paradigm shift in our culture regarding child bearing and marriage for life, the percentage of children being raised by someone other than their biological parents in a first marriage has doubled from 27% to 54%. [v]
“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Ann Landers
Several quotes spring to mind as I think of these numbers. Bob Dylan in his megahit, “Lay, Lady, Lay” wrote this refrain: “Lay, lady, lay; lay across my big brass bed.” It echoes the beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti[vi] from the fifties: “Let’s lie down somewheres, baby.” Compare and contrast with Shakespeare’s oft quoted Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken,
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Who among us does not enjoy the sights and signs of children, signs of hope, wonder and life? Does a decline in those willing to bear children, raise children, lay down their lives for children and their spouses signify effervescing hope, wonder and life? A final question for our consideration comes from a talk we heard from Dr. Janet Smith about twenty-five years ago. In it she spoke of marriage and families. She asked if some of the rewritten vows that were popular at the time were troubling.
Like the difference between “Lay, lady, lay” and “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” is there a difference between, “we’ll hang out and support one another as long as we are mutually fulfilled and feel content in each other’s company,” and “in sickness and health, rich or poor, good times or bad until death do us part.” Dr. Smith taught (paraphrased in my memory), that traditional vows promised openness to life and a forever commitment. They promised the difference between “lets lie down somewheres, baby” and “I want to get to know you ever more deeply, trust you more deeply, respect you more deeply, love you for your sake, not mine, grow old together with you and share all things and paths with you, come what may. I want our beautiful love when expressed in our physical intimacy empowered to co-create with God’s help another eternal human being who looks a lot like you, then love and raise that unique tiny person into maturity together.” What have we gained by mistaking license for freedom? What have we lost?
“A dog is a pitiful thing, depending wholly on companionship, and utterly lost except in packs or by the side of his master. Leave him alone, and he does not know what to do except bark and howl and trot about till sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep.” H.P. Lovecraft
[iii] P.D. James, celebrated author of the Adam Dalgleish mystery series wrote a terrifying dystopian novel about a future society with an infertility crisis. Children of Men was made into a well-received Clive Owen’s movie in 1992. In it desperate mothers in hope wheeled dogs around in baby carriages. I’ve seen a few of those around here.
[iv] “Fertility Rate Varies Widely Across U.S”, Brianna Abbott, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2019
[vi] Ferlinghetti was lesser known that his fellow “beat” writers like Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac, but in my youth was widely read. I still must have his “Coney Island of the Mind” somewhere in mislaid box of books.