Sunday, November 23, 2014

What I've learned from cats

Back in the 1980s, I shared my life with two cats, a mother and daughter combo. Smoky was the mother’s name, and Mushy was her daughter. They were as different in personality as two cats could possibly be. Smoky was in a constant state of snit, whereas Mushy was in a constant state of happiness. Even when Smoky was a new mother, she seemed irritated by the constant need that her kittens had for her. Perhaps what annoyed Smoky was that her daughter was a much happier cat than she was. It’s hard to know. I loved them both and respected their different personalities. Both of them were affectionate in their own ways. Smoky’s affection was on her terms; she came to you when she needed some stroking or a hug, but didn’t always take kindly to being petted or fussed over if you wanted to give her some affection. Mushy was the complete opposite (hence her name); she was a people-pleaser and loved nothing more than to go from one guest to another for some affection and cuddling when I had family and friends visiting. Before I moved to Norway, my friend Cindy suggested I stay with her for a few months in order to save some money, which was a wonderful idea and one for which I am very grateful to her. However, it involved moving myself and my two cats into her home, something that Cindy’s cat Burgoo did not take very kindly to. He was used to ruling the roost and was very territorial about his house, especially the kitchen, which was of course the one room in the house where we all liked to congregate. My cats did not exactly know how to deal with him initially; he would pick fights with them (especially Smoky) no matter how much berth they gave him when they walked past him. Smoky especially did not like him, something he must have sensed very early on. Their fights escalated in intensity and ended with her being relegated to the cellar in order to prevent her being injured by him, since he was larger than both my cats and quite aggressive. I spent a lot of time in the cellar with her after that. With Smoky out of the way, Burgoo tolerated having Mushy around. He permitted her entrance into the kitchen, on his terms of course. And those terms translated into her becoming a completely subservient cat. She would slink past him, body hugging the ground, not looking at him. Her behavior signaled ‘harmless’; it also signaled to him that she would not and did not want to fight him, oppose him or take control of anything he ‘owned’. She was willing to let him rule the roost whereas Smoky was not. Smoky did not take kindly to any person or any other cat telling her what she should or should not do, and she was certainly not willing to become subservient in order to deal with the situation. Looking back on it now, I wish it could have been otherwise. I wish I had not put them through that stress, even though I found a good home for them afterward where they both were happy. Had I had wanted to take them with me to Norway, they would have spent over four months in quarantine before being allowed into the country (those were the rules at that time), something I did not want to put them through since they were already older cats.

I learned some things while watching and taking care of Smoky and Mushy when we lived in Cindy’s house. The first was that Mushy was none the worse for wear after her short stay in Burgoo’s house; she adapted to that situation and dealt with it in the best way she could. When she and her mother went to live in my friend Judy’s house, she adapted to that situation as well and became a beloved member of Judy’s family, which included a dog and two cats from before. Smoky also adapted in her own way, but stayed mostly to herself, as I might have expected. I’ve thought a lot about both of my cats since then, and about how they adapted to change, new situations, and potential threats. I have a bit of both Smoky and Mushy in me. I haven’t backed away from a fight if felt that I was threatened or if I found myself in an unfair situation; I have not had any problems stating my opinion or making my wishes known. I haven’t had major problems with change, although it does take me a while to adapt to new situations. And if change or unfair situations threaten me or those I care about, I am more likely to respond as Smoky did. But what if Mushy’s way is the better way? What if choosing not to fight gets you what you want? Mushy did not want to end up living in the cellar like Smoky; she wanted to make sure she could always be in my vicinity. So she gave Burgoo what he wanted in order to get what she wanted, which was me. She was smart. I don’t know how she figured that out, but she did. And she definitely understood that the cellar was not where she wanted to be; she avoided going down there when I went to visit with Smoky. Mushy wanted to be with me and with people generally; she cared more about that than about doing what she had to do to appease Burgoo. She appeased the aggressor. I have to wonder how she knew how to do that, and why Smoky could not learn that behavior. But we humans don’t always manage that either; some of us will fight forever against what threatens us and it can end up literally killing us (stress, heart attacks, poor health). Whereas some of us will try to appease those who want to keep us down or take us down, by giving in, letting it happen, dealing with it and moving on. I have a hard time with that. I have a hard time ‘giving in’ especially in situations where I know that being in opposition would be the more ethical and fair way to proceed, for example, in work situations where workplace leaders harass others unfairly because they sit in power positions. But let’s suppose that appeasement might get you what you want, e.g. to an organizational level where you could make a difference? Where you could fight for the rights of those you meant were treated unfairly? I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you’ve got to strategize; you’ve got to give in order to get in a world that is not fair from the get-go. Strange that I should be learning that now at this point in my life. But now the goals are clear and more important than trying to change unfair and unethical leaders into fair and ethical ones. I am not the person who is best suited to taking on that fight, and I’m not sure I ever was.  

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