I’m an animal lover. Really, I am. Not the kind that has a houseful of pets that resembles a small zoo (that would be next door), but the kind that respects, and tries to treat all living beings with kindness. Did I say ALL living beings? Okay, I’m still working on “all.” I will catch lizards and moths that get into my house, and gently release them back into their elements. I’ve done this with field mice and grass snakes as well. But I’m not quite there when it comes to flies, mosquitoes, roaches, or spiders in my home.
The fact is, I don’t even have a pet in my home at this time. Again, I love animals. And when I’m around them, many of them (the smaller variety, anyway) find their way into my lap. I choose not to “own” a pet because of the great responsibility in caring for them. I hate to know they are all alone when I am not at home. And I’m not crazy about having to find something to do with them when I need to be gone for an extended time (like vacations – I’ve heard rumors of such a thing). But there is another reason as well. I am a recovering people-pleaser. And, in the past more so than the present, even the smallest of creatures have been able to usurp my will with something as simple as a purr or a nuzzle or a whimper.
When I was in college, a very young, married man, I was a full-time student with two very full part-time jobs. When I would get home at the end, or middle of the day (I had some night classes too) I would almost pass out from exhaustion. To be honest, I often fought sleep in class as well. We had adopted (or bought, from one of my wife’s co-workers) a Chinchilla Persian cat. She was a beautiful cat that seemed content to live her own life, mostly. That is, until I would stretch out to catch a little nap before my next responsibility. It was then that she would come out from hiding. I would be lying face-down across my bed, with my lower legs hanging off the side, when I would feel Abby (the cat) jump up on the bed and make her way to my lower back and knead herself a nice little nest. It never failed that she would get all cozy and content just in time for me to grow increasingly uncomfortable. I needed to turn over, or otherwise reposition myself. But I couldn’t. At least not without disturbing the cat. So I would just lie there, exhausted, uncomfortable, badly needing some quality rest. Time seemed to move slowly. My legs were going to sleep. For as long as I possibly could, I would endure the pain and discomfort. Then – when I just couldn’t stand the pain any longer – I would gently roll over, dislodging the cat from her comfy perch, and forcing her to go find another place to rest.
I noticed much later in life that I had done this with people too. I would let others’ comfort be an excuse for my lack of movement. I think the mistake was innocent enough. I’ve always believed that truly loving someone is to put that person’s needs ahead of one’s own, to put his/her comfort first. Love means sacrificial living. It is caring more for you than me. It is showing deference for another. All of this is well and good (and scriptural) and I think this world would be a much better place if we could learn to live this way. However, I have found that this posture can easily open a person up to much manipulation and abuse, if we do not learn and practice keeping proper boundaries.
Now first of all, let’s face it: to love is to risk. There is no way to truly love another being without putting yourself at risk. Love is not always returned. Neither is respect, concern, compassion, grace, kindness. You get the idea. What I’ve learned is this, though: We are supposed to love our neighbor AS ourselves. The implication is that we should show love, respect, concern, compassion, grace, kindness, etc., to ourselves as well. It is not wrong to care for ourselves, just wrong to put our needs first.
It is kind to give up dessert, or a second helping, so that someone else can have it. It is NOT kind to yourself to give up eating, (even if this benefits others) for you must eat to live. It is caring to let someone else decide the movie to see, the restaurant to go out to, the channel to watch, or the vacation destination. It is quite another thing to give up the things that actually make you you. Or to let someone else define you.
It’s the age-old story of the parents who want their child to be a doctor, or a quarterback, but he or she really wants to paint or sing. To truly love someone (including one’s self) you must allow them to fully become themselves, and not who you want them to be.
Now I’m not talking about drop-kicking the cat out of the house. I’m not even talking about denying the cat her food and water, shelter, or even some tender petting. What I am saying is that you should not allow your life’s calling to be derailed simply because every time the opportunity to exercise your own unique blend of giftedness (the things that make you feel alive, like you make a difference) comes along, you have to say, “I can’t now because the cat is comfortable. Maybe later.” Just remember that sooner or later those acts of selfless love can become seeds of bitterness if they are allowed to keep you from the things that you feel you were designed for.
You’re not resigning your cat to a life of outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. You are merely saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable,” or “I have something I need to do right now. You need to find another place to get comfortable.” Sound cruel? I don’t think so. And, what if the cat would benefit as well from who you could become (and what you could do) if you weren’t the sole source of comfort for her?
I want to be thought of as a genuinely loving and kind person – to both people and animals. But I will have failed at the greater things of life if it is said of me, at the end of my life: “Well, he never disturbed the cat.”