Several years ago I watched a fascinating documentary on cat behaviour. One of the theories put forth in the film was that by feeding and sheltering cats from an early age, humans unintentionally keep them at a juvenile stage of development for their entire life. After all, in nature, kittens would very quickly learn how to catch and eat their own food but in our homes we take the place of their mother and provide them with all the nutrition they need. Without the incentive of possible starvation, “play hunting” remains just that.
Before domestic cats became pets, they had a job: Kill vermin. Ours was a relationship of convenience. Humans had food that attracted lots of pests, cats killed and ate the pests that threatened our food and spread disease. Some cats still perform that function but more and more their role in modern human society has become that of entertainment, ornament, and companionship.
When we take away all the natural challenges cats are designed to overcome, what’s left?
I’m reading a collection of SF/F stories right now. One I found particularly haunting—Rainbows for Other Days—is set in a post-apocalyptic earth maintained by human/mechanical hybrid caretakers. The natural environment is too toxic and fragile for humans and so the small population is contained in a prison-like facility until the day they can once more inhabit the planet freely.
When one of the humans escapes and is rescued by a hybrid caretaker known as a Ranger, an argument about the current unhappy state of humanity ensues. The question comes down to logic versus emotion. Yes, a small group of humans could be set free to live in the wild and possibly survive but doing so would risk the larger plan designed to ensure a healthy planet and a population of humans that would not repeat their past mistakes.
The reader is left to wonder about the nature of personal sacrifice and the wisdom of choices that reach beyond the here and now.
I’ve been wondering about this quite a lot lately.
More and more, my trips to the big city leave me exhausted. Stress exists like a living entity whenever you shove too many people too close together, a volatile being ready to punch and kick and bite. As much as I enjoy the vibrancy and diversity of Vancouver, the traffic, anonymity, line ups and crowds wear me down.
My latest trip was unplanned, included far more rush hour driving than I’ve done in years, and centered on an already stressful situation. I was happy that circumstances allowed me to be available for my sister when she most needed me, but I’m not going to pretend that a leukemia ward is a place anyone really wants to pass their days.
But what wore me out most was a piece of drama, which, for the sake of family harmony, I will not discuss except to say it further prompted me to further consider the nature of self-sacrifice.
It is human nature to want a better life for our children, to protect them from the hardships we endured, and to minimize their suffering. It is also human nature to complain when the younger generations fail to appreciate the hardships of their predecessors—hardships they could not possibly appreciate, having never experienced them. Do you see the irony here?
And so it goes, generation after generation struggling to make a better, easier life for their offspring, while lamenting how easy Kids These Days have it. We know adversity strengthens us. We know that for all the damage nature can do to us fragile humans, we benefit from maintaining a close relationship with the natural world. We know that suffering often gives us purpose, and purpose lights a fire in our belly. We know all this and yet we can’t help ourselves.
We are determined to make a safe, sterile world, bereft of the daily challenges that are the cornerstone of our development.
When we take away all the natural challenges cats (and humans) are designed to overcome, what’s left?
I have a theory based purely on observation and speculation. Namely, like kittens mothered long after weaning, humans for whom life is too easy have no incentive to grow up.
Some of us will use this freedom from adversity to run free and explore, create, play, let our imagination carry us to exciting new heights. But some of us will find ourselves lost and purposeless, a multitude of Don Quixote’s without even a windmill at which to tilt. With so much time devoted to nothing but our own self-interest, we become the heroes of invented tragedies. Petty injustices are amplified—How dare you try to pass me (ME!) on the freeway—and everything slowly becomes about us and our feelings. Our precious precious feelings.
The conundrum for me is where we draw the line. When does easy become too easy? When does respect for others become pandering?
I see the difference in the level of cancer treatment from the time my mom battled the disease to this past week when my sister undertook the same battle and I am awed. Only a sadist would wish us to go backward from this point. But progress doesn’t happen in isolation. The same drive that pushes us to create better treatments and cures for diseases also pushes us to create padded playgrounds and self-driving cars.
Are we as a species capable of taking the long view and making the best choices for our future selves, especially if that means more adversity in the here and now? Are we doomed to move forward as adult children, mothered by our well-meaning ancestors?
Last night our friends Pat and Joyce called to make sure we’d arrived home safely. I have known the Roneys for almost eighteen years, Prez for longer than that. There has never been a time we have needed them that they have not been there for us.
During the seven hour drive home, I’d been turning the question of humankind’s selfish short-sightedness over and over in my mind and yet there I was talking to two of our many generous and self-sacrificing friends.
“We love you guys!” they shouted in unison. “We love you, too!” we called back.
I am overwhelmed by life’s contradictions.
“Mankind can never surpass nature’s wisdom, miss.”
She cocks her head and squints, shielding her eyes with her hand. “No? Why’s that?”
“Because he wants what he can never have–an end to suffering. Nature wants nothing. It just is. Life seeks its level. It now and then visits misery or pain and then goes on its way. But man is unhappy. He makes gods and governments to alleviate suffering and walls off his children from it. When the walls fall down, the deluge strikes. So he builds higher still, till he dams up the whole of the world. And when the whole world crashes down, there’s nothing but suffering.”
~ C. Stuart Hardwick, Rainbows for Other Days