We lost our 18-year-old cat Miss P a couple of months ago. It was a very sad time around here. But I still think I see her shadow out of the corner of my eye from time to time. Two months later I’m pretty sure some of the pet hair I see on my coat is hers. And I will always have the things she taught me in our time together.
There are many lessons one learns from living with a cat. Notice that I say “living with a cat” and not something ridiculous such as “having a cat” or—most preposterous of all—“owning a cat.”
You cannot own a cat. A cat may consent to live in your house as long as you keep the Deli Cat and tuna treats flowing. It helps also if you have a sunny window and some fine newly upholstered furniture to shred when they’re in the mood. But you can no more “own” a cat than you can own the air. Cats will be where they will be. Even captive house cats cannot be told to “be” on the floor rather than on the guest bed silk duvet cover. Try explaining rules to a cat and see where it gets you.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Miss P is to ignore people who speak harshly or say mean things. Internet trolls certainly fall into this category. So do people who work at the DMV. And some elderly relatives whose social filters are breaking down.
Try saying something mean to a cat and see how she reacts.
“Gosh, Miss P! Your litter box smells like a third world outhouse! What have you been eating?”
“Good grief, Miss P! I don’t need another dead mouse! I haven’t eaten the last one you gave me!”
A cat will look at you with sleepy eyes, delicately lick a front paw and go back to shredding the taffeta chaise. It would no more occur to a cat to feel hurt or shame than it would for her to take up square dancing or collect Hummel figurines.
Oh, you might be thinking something all logical right now, such as “But cats don’t speak English.”
Dogs don’t speak English either—or at least not fluently—and you can make a dog feel hurt or ashamed without even trying. Dogs have very delicate feelings. Use a harsh tone of voice with a dog and it can completely ruin her naturally jovial mood.
If I snap, “Darn it, Sophie! Did you send that fart cloud over here?” Sophie won’t even be able to look at me. She will hang her head in shame, tuck her tail between her legs and blink her eyes in abject apology. Sophie is obviously crushed that you would speak to her in such an unfriendly manner.
It occurred to me one day when I was observing Miss P that I could take a lesson from her.
I was having a particularly bad morning because of a snippy email from a client. It didn’t even make sense that I should be upset. I already knew that this client was notoriously tone deaf to how her email communications came across. Other people had mentioned how surprised they were at this peculiar aspect of her character. In person she is a delightful and warm human being. She will give you a hug if you haven’t seen her in a while. She always remembers your kid’s name and asks after him. She is always the first to thank you for a job well done.
But give that woman an email account and she has all the subtlety of Chris Christie responding to a heckler. Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to send emails.
Anyway, I was feeling injured and questioning whether this client even really liked me anymore when Miss P sauntered through the room. You know that wonderful cat saunter? It’s completely noiseless and unhurried, with the front feet planted carefully one in front of the other and the back hips rolling in sync. It’s like a small lion, but with more silk.
It occurred to me then that I could channel my inner Miss P. I could look at the irritable email, blink and go back to shredding the antique chaise. I could saunter over to the sunny spot on the couch and just rest my eyes and absorb the warmth. Or I could at least not let that poorly worded email launch me toward the cookie jar.
In my mind I know that an email from a tone deaf emailer doesn’t mean that I am worth less as a human being. I know it doesn’t mean that my work is lousy, that I’m horribly lazy, that I should just hang up my hat on my career and try a new profession as a manicurist. Or maybe give real estate or multi-level marketing a whirl. Logically I know that nothing about me has changed in the 10 minutes since I read the email. But it feels like it does.
Shame is a powerful emotion. I think that we all walk around in life with a bubble of bad feelings hidden deep inside. It’s so easy for someone to take their sharp words and put a little nick in the delicate, stretched membrane of that bubble so that the bad feelings begin to seep out, little by little, working as a corrosive on our self-esteem.
Cats don’t have this bad feeling bubble inside. They were all born bad-bubble deficient. As a result, cats never feel shame because they really don’t give a damn what you think or say. Yell at a cat to get off the kitchen counter and she might jump down. But if she does, she’ll act as if jumping down were the plan all along.
Cats don’t do shame. They do pride. They are supremely self-confident in their cathood. Nothing you can say will make them feel differently about themselves.
Now, thanks to Miss P’s lessons, when I am feeling particularly vulnerable or injured, I pull on my Miss P-like personality. I am confident and self-assured like a cat. Like Miss P.