Many years ago, I lived in Montana. The foremost dog trainer in the northwest, Gene Hodges, lived there, too. This was very good news because I needed a lot of help with my lovable but undisciplined seven-year-old Irish Setter, Tam.
I asked Gene if Tam was too old to train – I had always heard you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. “Oh, that’s not the problem,” Gene said. “You can always teach an old dog new tricks. The problem is breaking the old dog of the old habits.”
Gene was right. Over the years, I’ve seen it played out time and time again…not in dogs, but in humans. It can be very hard to change those old ways and invite something new into our lives. It’s probably why so many of us procrastinate or start something, then don’t follow through. I guess this is also why the commercials always promise that their product “will change your life.” We want the stuff that will change things for us. And, as Gene said, it’s not that we can’t accept something new and different, just that we can’t give up the old and familiar, even if it’s to our detriment.
During the 1990s I lived on a ranch. Some of my days were filled with tasks such as patching fence, pulling calves, and working cows (as they call it). There was vast acreage with Cyprus trees and oak hammocks, along with considerable stretches of pasture. There was also land set aside for crops like watermelon, cantaloupe and bell pepper.
Now and then, a new stretch of land had to be readied for farming. I had never seen this done. I’m from Brooklyn. We don’t really clear land there. So, this was a big eye-opener for me. I had only seen those movies that showed the hardship of sowing seed or harvesting the crops. It all looked like hard work to me. And it was. But what I had never seen was what they sometimes had to go through before they got to the sowing. I had been wrong about the hard part. It was not the planting of the field; it was the clearing of the land.
I saw ranchers spend small fortunes and grueling labor using the heaviest equipment they could get their hands on, day after day, sometimes week upon week, to heave root and rock that had lain for eons deep beneath the surface. How very much like life itself was that process.
It brought me straight back to what Gene Hodges had said. It wasn’t about laying out something new; it was about getting rid of what was buried beneath the surface. The old stuff that just weighs us down without any useful purpose.
But then I met Kicker the bull. Kicker had a different idea about things. I looked out the window one day and saw that black Brahma trotting off down the road. Panic. Mine, not his. He was headed for the Interstate, free as the wind. It took eight cowboys and six pick-up trucks to round up that cantankerous wanderer and get him back in the pasture. We always had to keep a careful eye on him after that.
Kicker had evidently learned something that day as he peered out through the barbed wire fence that held him captive. He learned that if he could just endure the momentary prick of the wire, he could be free. Hmmm. How many of us would be willing to endure the momentary prick of discomfort to break out and widen our horizons?
Back in the 1970s, a man named Alvin Tofler said something quite profound. Tofler, a renowned futurist, said, “The illiterate of the year 2000 will not be those who cannot read, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.” Kicker and I never forgot that.
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