There’s a cat that lives in my building. And around the neighbourhood. His name is George so I’ve learned. I’ll walk home from being in town and he’ll be sat in front of the stairs that run up to the door of my block with a mate of his, one either side like a pair or sphinxes.
I pet him, say hello, asking him how his day has been. He seems fairly ambivalent. And then I enter the building, he follows me, I hold the door open like a porter. He lingers by the lift. I push the button, walk in with him (I had planned on taking the stairs), and thumb the number for my floor and for his, because of course I have learned what it is over the years. We talk as the lift ascends. Well, I talk, George just eyes himself up in the mirror.
He gets off on his floor, I continue up to mine. As I put the key into my front door, I think of that line from Montaigne, ‘When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?’
Save The Cat, Save Yourself
My religious education at school was somewhat lacking. Primary school was all singing and stumbling through my nativity lines as a tea-towel headed Joseph. Secondary school was drawing minarets and memorising the five K’s of Sikhism and later having tediously uninformed quasi-ethical debates on whatever the hot button issue was at that time. Something to do with the immediately post-9/11 and War on Terror landscape most likely.
But at some point along the way one line from Scripture did manage to find its way in to my consciousness. Matthew 6:28. ‘Consider the lily of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.’
Now if we could encapsulate the Ur-theme of these newsletters to a pithy quotation that would be a fine candidate. Don’t worry about it, everything’s gonna be okay, calm down, attempt to live in the present and so on.
Cats live in accordance with this passage. Cats know someone will feed them at some point, cats are incapable of doubt and despair (an often distressing aspect of the human experience), cats live in harmony with their God-given nature.
Cats are all four-legged sages if you pay attention to them. And pay attention to them we should.
Jordan Peterson in his blockbuster 12 Rules For Life (which my spider sense screams at me to avoid like the plague, perhaps to my detriment, perhaps not) states as his final rule that you should ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street’. Felinosis notwithstanding he is absolutely correct. Though, of course, I haven’t read his reasoning. Cat petting may merely represent an act of spite to really stick it to those Bloody Neo-Marxists. Who knows?
But anyway. What cat petting does is it temporarily diverts your mind from your own woes as you walk the streets. And it heightens your own sense of good will to all men should you be blessed enough to be having one of those days where everything seems to be good and beautiful and aligned and pure in the world.
Indeed, in the woeful but well-meaning hack-screenwriter smash-hit guide Save The Cat! the late author Blake Snyder advises that the writer should include a seen early on in which the protagonist saves a cat or does some other kind act. The purpose is to signal (with several flashing neon arrows) that the hero is worth rooting for. Cat petting in real life is a smaller version of this same gesture. On some small level you signal to yourself that you are worth rooting for.
(As an aside, those Save The Cat! books aren’t that bad and I gleaned one or two genuine insights from them. But, you need to take them with a whole shaker full of salt and a fair dose of discernment. Applying the mechanistic and rote beat-by-beat structure that they proscribe literally has been a major contributing factor to the downfall of Hollywood film quality in the last decade or so. Unsurprisingly, writing using a formula leads to movies that are formulaic. I can elaborate on all of this in a future issue if you like.)
So. On the other side of the cat petting coin, then, is cat-hatred, and cat cruelty, act which represent envy in the doer and by extension hatred of the self and the human plight. Whether they consciously know it or not, the roguish cat-botherer is really lashing out at the fact that cats are not burdened with the haunting human consciousness of death, or worries about money or social standing or the future or the past. Cats are able to simply just be.
Which leads us on to our next point.
Cats And Time
If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.
I worked with some hippies for a while there. I’ve breathed in the patchouli oil, I’ve endured the proverbial drone of the sitar and the chime of the hand cymbals. And I’ve heard the vocal fry talk of living in the present, man.
It bothered me then and it bothers me now a little to relay the sentiment, cliched as it is. But it’s true. Profoundly so.
Again, consider the cat; they worry not, nor do they pine nostalgically.
It’s your relationship to time that gets you in the end. If you reflect on Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Past was a saddening companion, The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was a terrifying spectre of grim possibility, but The Ghost of Christmas Present was a jovial and absent-minded reveller. And so it is in life.
It’s your relationship to time that gets you in the end.
See, the past can be a fun and profitable place to visit, but it is a miserable place to live. So much of stable mental health is a question of choosing to place a statute of limitations of your past mistreatments and regrets and grievances, painful and difficult as it may be. And the future’s not much better, choose to mentally dwell there and you will arrive there soon enough- blinking, confused, wondering where so many of the years of your one and only life went.
But the cat has no such concerns. He has no goals, no neuroses, no trepidation’s, no grudges. When he encounters something he doesn’t like, he walks away. They take life as it comes.
Now the objections to this whole somewhat animistic discussion are clear. Human consciousness, and with it the realisation of death, and with that the whole accompanying spectrum of human vice, stupidity, error and absurdity are inevitable. This is most certainly so. But. You can still admire the neighbourhood cat as you call him over, and try to absorb the lessons of his example.
Until next time,
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I get the John Gray reference now, I'll take it as an endorsement of Feline Philosophy - as if I needed another reason to keep reading his books. The first book I read after 7 Types of Atheism, which shall remain nameless, felt achingly flat and boring in comparison.
His book felt like a journey across time and space, with philosophers and their ideas floating in and out of the story as it hurtles along, with the staggeringly erudite Gray at your side the whole time, like a wise, charismatic uncle, telling you the best story you've ever heard in your life.
Your spider senses are correct - I can safely recommend that you stay far away from 12 Rules - I barely finished it, only so I could elucidate all the ways in which I disliked it to a friend (and fan of his).
The rule - "Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping", makes a lot more sense when you consider the man who wrote it has struggled with drug addiction and depression for decades - but it's not a good general rule.
Treating yourself like your own best friend, student, be your own mentor, and probably hundreds more, make for a better platitude than what's there. I could go on, but I won't, not in this bastion of peace.
"The purpose is to signal (with several flashing neon arrows) that the hero is worth rooting for. Cat petting in real life is a smaller version of this same gesture. On some small level you signal to yourself that you are worth rooting for."
Great way of looking at it.
As an aside, one thing I do when I lack motivation, or meaning in my work, is I visualise the end result for a potential client (being a soulless businessman).
I imagine the moment someone sees their monthly earnings, their faces when they see how many clients their business now has, the relief, the excitement, I try to put myself in their shoes as much as possible - and almost immediately my motivation is sky high, and I'm rooting for myself again.
Meaning found through helping others - who would've guessed it? Felt in line with the cat petting somehow.
I've had the same hippie experience with Buddhists - it's near impossible to get the smell of incense off your clothes after spending time with them.
The whole final section - and peace - brings to mind the wise words of an old gardener in a village by the sea who would often remark "The animals are much more free than us".
"See, the past can be a fun and profitable place to visit, but it is a miserable place to live. So much of stable mental health is a question of choosing to place a statute of limitations of your past mistreatments and regrets and grievances, painful and difficult as it may be. And the future’s not much better, choose to mentally dwell there and you will arrive there soon enough- blinking, confused, wondering where so many of the years of your one and only life went."
You could read 1000 "self-help" "books", and never explain it as simply and perfectly as this. I'm writing it out and sticking it by my desk.
Great piece. Read it twice, enjoyed it even more the second time.
All the best,
That's funny, I think the same as you regarding the hippy ethos of "living in the present". Something deeply bothers me with it (and I despise most of them without exactly knowing why), but at the same time I agree that there's something right in that. Something profund.
I might go on a limb here, but maybe it's because they often do not speak from a position of acceptance, but rather from a position of helplessness and cowardice. Most of these people I've known (and beginning my studies with philosophy and litterature, I've come across quite a lot ofthem) are scared and paralyzed, they talk about living in the present because they can't imagine a better future. They coast, they numb the anxiety with somewhat-legal substances and live in an artifical and fragile everlasting present. They do not possess the artistic spark of a Kerouac nor the humbleness of your neighborhood homeless Joe; they're something else, and their words may very well be right, but I've come to realize they do not truly live by them.
I've always been more of a cat person myself. I don't know if that's their cuteness that gets me, or their unashamed little whiskers that come begging for food eventhough the little bastards didn't let me pet them for a whole morning, but this nonchalance, this whatever-man attitude is the perfect incarnation of freedom. Maybe that's this ataraxia that we crave; free from troubles, free from judgements, (truly) living in the present and having the sprezzatura attitude of feeling that whatever happens, we'll find a way and all will be fine. Or maybe it's because they remind us of how young women behave and maybe that's why we love them. Who knows. Maybe the Egyptians got it right and we're just made to worship them, not to understand them. Cute bastards.