NPR has an interesting article about the very human tendency to peg our self worth to our careers and our egos to our accomplishments, something most of us are guilty of to one degree or another.
I know I’m guilty of it, and I’m often unhappy when I’m not meeting some arbitrary level of creative output.
But Devon Price, a social psychologist, told NPR a pet chinchilla named Dumptruck — “the opposite of productive, and frankly, rather destructive” — led to a revelation Price had about intrinsic worth.
“I would never look at him and think of his life in terms of, ‘Has he justified his right to exist?'” Price told NPR. “He’s not paying rent. He’s not performing any service. And it would be absurd to even think about his life in those terms.”
The article prompted me to think about Bud, of course. He’s just Bud. A gray-furred, mercurial, amusing little guy whose favorite activities are eating, sleeping and hanging out with his Big Buddy.
How Buddy pulls his weight
Does he do anything to “justify” his existence? Well, according to him, he does.
“What services do I provide?” Buddy repeated when asked. “Well, first of all, I’m delightful. I’m responsible for like 95% of the delightfulness around here, let’s be honest. Yes, delightfulness is a word. Because I say it is!”
He also claims he provides security — “no burglar in their right mind would break in knowing I’m here” — as well as daily wake-up services, and “annoyingness desensitization.”
Price’s observations are not far from those of John Gray, the British philosopher who published a new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, earlier this year.
Cats live in the moment, Gray points out, and don’t stress themselves obsessing over “an imagined future.” Some people, especially those who don’t appreciate the full scope of animal cognition, would say cats are so adept at enjoying the present because they’re simple creatures incapable of thinking in the abstract or planning for the future.
That, of course, isn’t true: Cats develop abstract thinking skills early in their development, they understand object permanence, and anyone who’s seen a mother cat care for her babies — fretting over hiding spots, frequently moving her kittens and checking in on them when she must hunt for food — knows our feline friends are most certainly capable of planning and worry. (Or you can just watch my cat when his dinner’s late.)
Human anxiety is compounded by existential concerns, which cats aren’t burdened by. They’re not worried about their place in the world, and it probably never occurs to them that trying to be happy acknowledges the possibility of failure.
Contentment is a cat’s natural state
Cats, Gray points out, just do what makes them happy, whether it’s playing with a favorite toy or shredding a roll of toilet paper. They’re not worried about whether they could have more fun doing something else, or whether they’re making the best use of their time. Cats are “among the wisest animals because they’re spontaneous and playful and content with whatever life presents them,” as one reviewer of Gray’s book put it.
“I would say that a lot of torment in our lives comes from that pressure for finding meaning,” Gray told The Guardian earlier this year. “Unless you adopt a transcendental faith which imagines a wholly other world where meaning is secure from any accident, most of the things that happen to us are pure chance. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find. We can’t become cats in that sense – we probably will need to always have the disposition to tell ourselves stories about our lives – but I would suggest a library of short stories is better than a novel.”
In response to questions about what cats might say to us if they could truly talk, rather than simply communicate, Gray responds with a question of his own: “If they could talk, would they find us sufficiently interesting to talk with?”
Would they consider us buzz kills? Would they roll their eyes, say nothing and return to gleefully knocking beverages off tables?
“Unless cats are hungry or mating or directly threatened, they default to a condition of rest or contentment or tranquility — basically the opposite of humans,” Gray told Vox. “So if cats could philosophize, my guess is they’d do it for their own amusement, not because of some deep need for peace.”