August 19, 2021

Happy Enough for Today

A few years ago, there was a stray cat that regularly wandered around my neighborhood. Now, I’m not a big fan of cats, per se, but I am generally an animal-lover. So, I’ll occasionally feed a stray animal or pet them if they’re sociable. This cat though, was particularly sociable, so much so that we started allowing him to come in the house for off and on, for maybe an hour or two at a time, just to hang out with us, lay on the couch, and generally do house cat stuff.

One of my many lesser qualities is that I tend to think in terms of investment and return when it comes to time. It’s not that I commodify my time, but just that I tend to not invest time in something if I think it won’t last for very long. That’s my problem, and it’s exactly what I hope you can avoid doing. So anyway, this cat....

Cat's land on their feet, but not without some dissatisfaction.

My wife and I, and sometimes the kids, would occasionally bicker innocuously about the cat – whether we should keep letting inside, how angry I would get if it started peeing on things, if we should take it the vet to get shots and make it our pet, etc. About the time I was starting to actually seriously consider keeping this cat, he started showing his wild, stray-cat side. He started clawing at the couch, doing that awful things cats to where they beg to be pet and then spontaneously bite the hell of you... you know, cat stuff. It got bad enough to where one time when he bite me particularly hard, I grabbed him by the scruff and tossed him outside. Yes, cats do land on their feet, but not without some dissatisfaction.

The point of this otherwise irrelevant story is that the whole time the saga waged on, I noticed that I actually actively tried not to like the cat, specifically because I knew that it wouldn’t be an animal that we could or would even want to keep around permanently. Why invest the time and emotion into something that may just be a pleasant visit from a cute animal today if that animal might disappear or turn up dead tomorrow? For that matter, why invest time in anything that won’t last. Well, it turns out that turning up dead happened about as quick as I’d imagined.

I realized that the cat finally ended up in the house after all.

No, I don’t irrefutably know what happened to the cat, and no, I had nothing to do with its likely demise. But, since my stepdaughter has a penchant for collecting lab specimens and animal skulls (you know, like teenage girls do), this next leg of the story is especially ironic. The cat eventually stopped showing up altogether. I naturally assumed it was hit by a car or whatever usually happens to stray cats. Then, one day I was out checking the mailbox (which is next to a drainage ditch), and looked down to see a cleanly stripped, sun-bleached cat skull in the nearby trench. This wasn’t all that unusual since we have a lot of stray animals and particularly racoons, so there are plenty of scavengers leaving remains around. I didn’t think much of it and just picked it up to give to my stepdaughter to add to her collection. It was only later that I stopped and realized that the cat had finally ended up in the house after all.

Humans have survival instincts built into our DNA that drive us to collect things, to keep things, and to preserve any comforts we attain. It’s like a nesting instinct that drives us to establish and protect our home and family. Most mammals have it and we’re no different. But we often have a habit of taking it too far to where we try too hard to preserve status quo, and we stress about maintaining it and fear losing it. That’s ultimately where the very common fear of change comes from. We’ll even cling to a familiar discomfort rather than risk an unfamiliar improvement to our situation.

Compassion isn't a long-term virtue, it’s a choice in brief moments.

The message behind all this is simple in theory, but complex in practice. We live our lives, and we do it with joy and passion. And if something doesn’t stir passion in you, then find a way to do it that does. And passions often don’t last for long periods of time, but are stirred in moments, subside in difficulty, and are rekindled with effort and diligence. Just like it’s the long term goals that drive our big decisions and it’s the small pleasures that drive each day, sometimes passions, interests, or just happiness in general is momentary. Like the Buddha taught, all life involves suffering, happiness is fleeting, and the only remedy for the darkness of life is compassion. Compassion is not a long-term virtue that you can exercise, it’s a choice in brief moments of accepting the reality of the present and looking to improve it for the next while enjoying what you can of it.

A lot of people don’t know this simple fact, but I find it very liberating: we’re not meant to be happy all the time. Happiness, at best, is a ray of light slicing through cloud cover, not a constant barrage of scorching heat (which would effectively be quite unhappy). If you have a furry little friend one day, don’t bother over whether or not you’ll see him tomorrow or if a coyote will tear it apart and leave you the skull in a ditch next week. Just enjoy what you have in the moment, subdue the temptation to expect any particular thing in the next moment, day, week, or five years. Focus on whatever good you have at hand and let the bad shake out on its own.

Assume others are both vulnerable enough to need compassion and strong enough to offer it.

Be safe and be understanding. Always assume that others are both vulnerable enough to need our compassion and strong enough to offer it to us. Just focus on what's in front of you today and let tomorrow be a tomorrow-problem. As Jesus taught, perhaps one of his most difficult lessons: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Matthew 6:25-34)”