Oh, To Be a Cat
In my next life (or – better yet – in an alternate version of my present one) I want to be a cat (or at least ‘like’ a cat – or almost any other non-human mammalian species). Why? Because they have the right attitude towards life: they eat, sleep, keep an eye out for danger (and – if ‘in the wild’ – avoid it), locate food (and capture/consume it), maintain personal hygiene and engage in other basic daily activities (like child care and socialization) for only a small percentage of the day. The average cat (house or wild), for example, spends 16 of 24 hours a day ‘at rest’. How much better could it get?
Well, actually, it gets a LOT better. The biggest advantage humans supposedly have over other animals is language (not to be confused with communication; non-human animals communicate with one another all the time – with squeaks and shrieks, songs and shouts, cries and snarls, whistles and roars and all manner of other sounds; however, they do not – so far as science has yet determined, at any rate – have anything that resembles human ‘language’ – the means by which we ‘tell stories’ to ourselves and to one another).
So what? you might ask. Language makes us the dominant species, doesn’t it? It’s allowed us to engage in continuous learning, to share and pass along that knowledge, and to continually improve the world around us (for those of you who would argue that what we’re doing to our planet isn’t exactly beneficial, I concur … but that’s another post for another day). Animals, you might be thinking, despite their beauty and the integral part they play in the ‘circle of life’, don’t have it nearly as good as we do!
Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re WRONG! You see, the one thing (language) that sets us apart ‘intellectually’ from other animals is also the main thing that makes us the ‘weakest’ species. While language is the tool we use to ‘improve’ the world around us, it is also the instrument of most of our personal suffering. It is the thought-based stories that we tell ourselves – the disappointment, anger or guilt about something that happened in the past and/or the trepidation (or even excitement) about something that may or may not happen in the future and/or the negative gossip and complaining we do around others – that causes us the most stress (primarily because these ‘stories’ are generally about things we cannot control). And while we’re making ourselves sick with all this language-based nonsense, animals are enjoying the freedom of living ‘in the moment’ – going about their daily business on a ‘take-it-as-it-comes’ basis, and using their senses as their guide (as opposed to humans, who react more to thoughts and verbal cues than sensory ones). Who’s really the ‘smarter’ species?
Consider this: if my two cats (Claire and Sylvia) had the same type of verbal language skills as humans, they might have had this conversation yesterday morning:
Sylvia: Man, that was close. I thought that plastic bag had me there for a minute. It just wrapped itself around my neck and I had to run like crazy to escape it. Thank God I managed to tear it apart before it choked me. I’m never going near one of THOSE things again, let me tell you.
Claire: Plastic bag, smlastic bag. The thing you have to watch out for is that purple carrier with the locking metal door. If she gets that out, it means trouble. Remember when we had our ‘little operations’, as she calls them? All I did was lick at my incision a little – I mean, it was itchy – and the next thing I know, she’s got me in that carrier and off to the vet’s office. And SHE put that stupid plastic cone around my head and I looked like a total dork. Talk about trauma. I hope she puts that thing in the crawlspace and we never see it again.
But since cats don’t have these kinds of verbal skills and don’t focus on past events or worry about the future, Sylvia merely took a moment or two to catch her breath (after escaping the plastic bag she had deliberately stuck her head into), gave herself a quick wash (I read once that any cat caught in an ‘embarrassing’ situation will react by immediately undertaking a little personal hygiene; it seems their natural response to what we might think of as a ‘stressful situation’ is: ‘When in doubt, wash’), and lay down for a nap. And as much as I was concerned about (and spent several sleepless nights worrying over) Claire’s incision becoming infected and the possibility of having to take her back to the vet, she simply pulled her head out of the ‘cone of shame’ (which was supposed to keep her from licking at her incision), had a quick wash (see above) and took a nap (she also recovered quickly enough, shows no aversion to the carrier at all, and even occasionally plays inside it). There’s been no lingering trauma from either of those events (or any of the other ‘misadventures’ that they’ve managed to have over the past two and a half months of living with me), and there’s no evidence whatsoever that they have any concept of ‘tomorrow’ and what it might bring. They simply ‘live in the moment’.
Animals just don’t get stressed out about what they can’t control; they simply respond to what’s happening right now (fight or flight? eat or drink? rest or play?), and since they don’t know ‘language’, they never have to worry about voices (an ‘outsider’ or themselves) constantly jabbering away at them.
There are any number of psychologists, sociologists, life coaches and other ‘self-help’ gurus out there who encourage us to ‘live in the moment’, ‘be in the now’, ‘be present’, ‘appreciate each moment as it happens’, etc.; I’ve even written about this topic (from a slightly different perspective) before (“Live Your Life Now”). But it wasn’t until I started really watching my cats (and other animals in nature) that I realized how much I could learn from them.
They play when they want to play and when they get tired, they rest. They eat when they need to eat and when they’re satiated, they stop. They sleep when (and where) they want to sleep and when they aren’t tired anymore, they get up and do whatever strikes their fancy. Then they rest again, and repeat. They don’t worry about whether they ‘should’ do something, or about the consequences of their actions (even when it ‘goes wrong’); they don’t look to others for permission or forgiveness; they don’t dwell on what occurred yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. They just LIVE! And isn’t that what WE should be doing – living the best way we can every single day?
I challenge you to try it – tune out the voices in your head, stop obsessing about things you can’t change (the past is past and the future isn’t here yet), engage your senses, and be more ‘cat-like’. That’s how I want to live the rest of my life on … the other side of 55.