Voices: How observing cats can make you a better human

Cats categorically do not care what we think (Getty)
Cats categorically do not care what we think (Getty)

I was into the fourth decade of my life before it occurred to me to ask myself why it was that I liked cats. I suppose that I took it so for granted that I liked them that it did not seem to be a question worth asking. Cats have been one of the drumbeats of my existence, as they are for so many others: there from the moment I returned home from the hospital, plump-faced and mewling; and there every morning now, staring at me, anticipating my alarm by 10 minutes.

At any rate, I was harassed by this question: why did I like cats? And in the end, my attempts to answer it began to resemble a short book.

In an effort to get closer to the truth, I put the question out to tender, asking everyone I knew who was fond of felines – why do you like cats? And everyone had a different answer. “I can trust cats”; “cats aren’t as needy as dogs”; “cats make me laugh”; “cats are independent.” (Why do you like cats, reader? I am dying to know. Really.)

I found soon enough that simply observing my cats was sufficient for all sorts of solutions to my question to arise. Cats have bodily autonomy; they express their sensitivities without self-pity; they defend what matters most to them; they do not back down from necessary confrontation, but will abandon a neglectful owner without fuss or drama.

For each virtue that I perceived a cat to have, a human foible (from which, sadly, I am not exempt) made itself plain to me. We habitually hide our vulnerabilities; we fail to defend our boundaries; we put off our needed conflicts, we clothe our complaining in the language of closure ...

Cats are certainly curious and careful and skittish and territorial. We all know this. But they have many other attributes which express themselves more subtly: courage, a fondness for routine, affection, adventurousness, and a capacity to move on and adapt even to radically changing circumstances.

However, I had the intuition over the course of those months that I was orbiting some central feline quality with which almost all the others were inextricably bound up. Each cat characteristic was like a paint stroke on a canvas, slowly coming together with the others to form a clear image. And it revealed itself to me when I found myself reflecting on how although cats often look alike, the distinctness of their individual personalities always shines through. Why? Because they are absolutely, ruthlessly and intensely themselves.

Cats categorically do not care what we think. They will do whatever they want to do without concern for how we might interpret it. That is why we trust them; we can always take them at face value. We, in contrast, can be so concerned with what others think of us that we become like Proteus, always shape-shifting: we censor ourselves and water down our lives; we use the virtual world to create new identities. And we lose touch with ourselves. We find out that we do not really know who we are. We have worn a mask for so long that we have forgotten what the face behind it looks like.

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Of course, it is not the easiest thing to be ourselves. And the fact is that no one can teach us how to be ourselves. It is so difficult to be ourselves in a world that is always forcing us to compare ourselves to one another, and screaming at us to retreat towards the safety of conformity, that being who we are has often been seen as a spiritual virtue, the upshot of years of silent meditation or surrender before some conception of supreme reality. Per Thomas Merton: “For me, to be a saint means for me to be myself."

Perhaps that is because every single person who expresses themselves truly and wholeheartedly contributes to the common good and enriches our shared existence; I am convinced of that. And cats can teach us this. They teach us that we are at our best when we stop trying to be other than we are. Cats will always be my muses; but they will also always be my role models: graceful yet silly, cautious yet reckless, agile yet clumsy, full of wonderful contradictions – "the criterion," as Simone Weil put it, “of the real”. Cats express the unmoderated personality.