Out of nowhere (OK, out of my hard drive), I happened upon this photo of a friend’s granddaughter with—amazingly—my dog Chelsea.

Amazingly, because Chelsea never lets me or my wife take her picture. She knows the sound of the camera motor, knows the noise made by the camera-case zipper. I have other pictures, but they’re mostly of Chelsea loping away.

Back to the little girl. Some years ago, she came with her grandparents and two siblings to visit us in Florida. As you see, she was beautiful and soulful. No doubt, she still is. At the time, she was also willful and, like everyone her age, devoid of a conscience. She had a strong artistic bent that seemed to require our walls and furniture. I loved her company, and loved waving goodbye.

So what?

Neoteny is the fancy word for attributes of childhood carried over to young adulthood. Neoteny is important in explaining the differences between humans and other species. We share 98 point-something percent of the same DNA with chimps, but we moved on, they didn’t. Why? Because our brains and bodies take about twenty years to fully develop. We keep growing, adding more apps. A chimp’s brain is pretty much a fait accompli at six months.

In terms of morality, little children don’t have morals. At least I see no evidence they do. Like adults who don’t have a fully developed conscience, children hate getting caught. But fearing punishment isn’t the same as being able to decide something is or isn’t “right.”

I’m using the photo to dramatize a distinction I think is worth making. The distinction is between something that develops over a long time (or doesn’t)—mind and conscience—and an innate capacity for being kind.

On the face of it, being kind would seem to require having a conscience. How can you be generous and tender towards others (or to a dog) without one? If the little girl in the picture doesn’t have any sense of right or wrong, isn’t the expression on her beautiful face, her hand resting on my dog just one of those aw-shucks-how-cute-is-that images?

I don’t think so. Chelsea was already old—eleven--at the time the photo was taken. She had always been blind in her left eye, and now had a cataract in the right. She was a little arthritic and tentative in her movements, especially in the Florida heat. None of this had to be explained to Johanna. She saw and understood, and acted accordingly.

Throughout a visit characterized by madcap hours in the swimming pool, demands and refusals of many kinds, along with acts of artistic expression mentioned earlier, this child gave no evidence of moral awareness, of conscience.

But she never failed to act in a slow, gentle manner toward my old dog. This was behavior absolutely at odds with the little girl’s makeup, which I would describe as driven by a passionate commitment to pleasure based on chaos.

What can explain the suddenness with which she would change gears, slow everything down, sit beside Chelsea and do as you see? At the center of her small nuclear-reactor core, I’m convinced she knew what to do. I have seen this in other children meeting Chelsea for the first time. Not all--some pull and pinch--but most. It has always amazed me a little. They seem to know she’s old, seem to know they can’t roughhouse with her, but need to be gentle.

It’s something modestly profound, and worth thinking about. At least it is for me. I use Johanna’s gentleness with my old dog as a counterweight to re-balance the scales in a hard world..


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