Cats and the human condition

Wednesday January 23, 2013

Some might consider me a misanthrope, but I find the company of cats much more pleasurable than that of humans. I have lived with cats my entire adult life. Both species have their good and bad points but, for my money, cats win hands down in the good-points category.

Cats are not able to converse with humans on a regular basis. Cats do make noises occasionally, but that is a far cry from human conversation. I have always been a person of few words, most of the time, and I appreciate silence as one of the most valuable parts of daily life.

Cats respond to human words but they are not necessary when communicating with cats. When I speak to my cats I know it is out of a need to either verify what I am thinking or to help me understand what is going on in my mind. They usually don't need to know the words because they tune in to human mood and movement.

After years of living together, cats and human develop unspoken communication pathways. Some are as simple as cats being tuned in to the time of day and walking across your face 10 minutes before the alarm clock goes off just to make sure you don't forget to feed them. They must have an innate sense that humans are often unpredictable and unreliable and that doing something as annoying as walking across their face before they wake up is extremely effective.

Cats know when you are sick or just not feeling well, either physically or emotionally. They make fewer demands at those times and they even provide comfort that seems to be driven by some sort of conscious desire to offer what they can to make you feel better. You may be covered in blankets, shivering with fever and in the throes of bouts of nausea when they curl up next to you, and simply generate a type of warmth that may have more healing power than all the pills in the world.

Cats have the ability to sense your mood. I know that when I am upset or ranting about something the cats are usually nowhere to be seen. They are smart enough to keep away from me because they don't want to be polluted by my bad vibes. Pleasure is their default setting and anything that interferes with their ability to wallow in pleasure is avoided like the plague.

That means we can learn a lot from cats about how to enjoy our lives. Some might label cats hedonistic and completely self-centered, but they would simply be projecting their own human perspective on a species that has very little connection to the spirit of man.

The cat spirit has a lot to teach us if we are open and willing to accept what it has to offer. Cats live in the moment and humans have a lot of trouble with that. We worry about yesterday and tomorrow while cats never worry about anything.

If they are hungry they find a way to get food. If they are tired they sleep and if they want to play they can do so without needing another cat or a human to help them. It is not self-centeredness. It is about the need to bathe in perpetual contentment, something most humans will never experience.

Of course, no species is perfect. Cats can be awful pests when they want something that only humans can provide. That may include food or simply attention. Cats do like to be rubbed and patted and, when they want what they want, they know how to be total pests until they get it. I'm not sure if that is an innate cat trait or it is something that has resulted from the centuries-long association between cats and humans.

The most valuable trait that cats display to humans is that of a mirror. When we are no fun to be around they either go to sleep or move as far away from us as possible. They never tell us to shut up or to take a hike because they are cats and they are above all that. They teach us that language is a crude means of communication and that most of the human species are fairly reliable servants.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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