Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.
– François Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), letter to Count Schomberg, August 1769
As admirable as Voltaire’s reasoning ability was and as impressive his observations about human nature, I wonder how he reached the conclusion that animals know nothing of the power of life.
An avowed dog person for most of my life, I became servant to a household cat some 18 years ago. Since then my wife and I have had two other cats, one of which has epilepsy and has gone deaf.
The most impressive–dare I say shocking–lesson I have learned in my years of observing the behaviour of cats is that they are remarkably similar to humans in their needs. I don’t mean just the needs for food, shelter and security, which all living things share.
Our cats do hear our grandmother clock strike because it gongs on the hour and half-hour. It means nothing to them because neither the ticking of the clock nor the gong itself serve any purpose toward satisfying their needs.
What does a clock add to our lives? At most it serves as a reminder that we must perform actions, usually in the service of others. Cats can be altruistic at times, but they are clearly not into servitude. Cats would have disappointed Pavlov.
Our cats know when they want to be fed because they are hungry. If they aren’t hungry, they don’t care if food is available to them or not. They don’t overeat, nor do they eat in front of the television. They will, however, eat as a form of comfort, if their problem is not of a severely emotional nature.
They clearly know when they need to be touched (petted). Not only do they make their needs known to the petters, they allow little to stand in the way of their satisfying that need when they have it, if humans are around. They prefer petting from the humans they know, but will accept it from strangers who happen around at the right time.
Humans do not do that. We seldom know when we need to be touched by another, even though it’s a need so fundamental to us that regular lack of touch can alter our personality.
Children almost never come to mommy demanding to be held. They may come, but they don’t ask in words. The closest they come to asking is when they hurt themselves. Being held by mommy when they hurt does nothing to help the hurt, it’s a way of (an excuse for) demanding to be touched without using words (we don’t use words to express that need, sad to say).
Voltaire says that animals have no idea of death. I disagree. When our epileptic cat has a petit or grand mal seizure, he wants to be alone in an enclosed area, secure that he won’t explode all over the place. However, for days before and after the seizure, he seeks touch and comfort many times each day. He knows when he will have a seizure, days ahead. He seeks the security he wants and needs ahead of time.
People seldom know they are about to have an epileptic seizure until it happens, or maybe just a brief period before. Cats are more sensitive to their bodies. Most of the time they do what they must to heal themselves. Only their owners insist upon taking them to vets.
For months before our oldest cat died, she came to me many times each day, to sit on my lap or to cuddle in the crook of my arm as I lied in bed napping. This was uncharacteristic behaviour for that cat, though it isn’t for the epileptic one now. I don’t doubt that they would know when the end of their life is near. Maybe they don’t dream of heaven, but who knows?
Voltaire’s reference to the clock striking, of course, refers to the death knell, not to the regular striking of a gong or ticking of the pendulum. His point is that we make much of a charade of death, most of which serves no real purpose but to make the grieving ones feel worse.
My point differs from Voltaire’s in that I want us to pay attention to the characteristics and needs of animals that we share with them, but that they do better than us.
We know that dogs and cats love to be petted. We call them pets for that reason. They need touch and they demand it from those who can best provide it. To a dog or cat, brushing the fur is nothing more than another way for them to be touched.
We need to recognize our own need for touch. Life without touch is not easy and life with a decreasing amount of touch from a loved one is even harder because we feel the lack of touch and our increase in need. The death of a spouse may be hardest on those who benefitted most from loving touch from the dead mate for many years.
Hospitals (not all) and nursing homes have found the benefits of having people with pets visit so that patients can touch them. Nurses stroke their patients and touch them more than ever in the past because it helps the patients to feel better, even to heal faster in some cases.
Voltaire’s quotation was not about animals after all, but about satisfying our own real needs instead of trying to play act unnecessary stuff while ignoring what is really important.
Now, while you think about it, go give someone you love a hug. Do it several times a day if you can. Don’t miss a day.
One of the mysteries of love is that we can’t measure it. Think not? Most of us, without being aware of it, measure how much others love us by the amount of loving touch we receive from them.
Remember, it’s not just the amount of touch we receive from others that’s important. It’s just as important to those we love that we give loving touch to them so that they can keep track of how much we love them. It works both days. We measure love by the amount of touch we receive, they measure love by the amount they receive.
Now you can understand why the so-called Empty Nest syndrome of parents whose children have grown and left home can be so severe. And why people who consider divorce do so because their partners and they have “grown apart.”
Love is an emotional word we use to describe our basic need for loving touch. Celibate nuns and priests receive little human touch, but when they devote their lives to God and to prayer the parts of their brains that trigger the feel-good response activate the same way that ours does when we are hugged by a loved one. Loving God fully can give people the same physical effect as receiving loving touch.
So, have you hugged someone yet?
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow balanced and well loved children.
Learn more at http://billallin.com