June 29, 2009
My neighbor inspired this blog. This morning and evening he has been looking for his cat who has been missing. The cat has been very distant since the beginning of the summer and I suspect that this change in behavior has to do with someone alienating his affection. Last fall I alienated the cat's affection by offering him food and shelter from the cold. You see, cats have a very specific loyalty to their feeders, but will quickly betray that loyalty for a second person who is willing to feed them more or better. This is especially true if the cat finds a place that they like better. Humans can learn a lot from cats but this behavior in humans is often seen as disloyalty, conniving, selfishness, or infidelity. Sadly a person who simply wants more friends who treat them well is somehow less valuable to their friends. This is becoming more common as people branch out using digital technology such as cell phones, social websites, and of course dating websites.
Good relationships are based on mutual self-interest and yet the word love is used to encompass a far greater range of emotions, actions, and philosophies. The topic of love is so complicated that I dare not even show my ignorance of other people's issues. My father for example finds himself in a situation that he has no control over, one that comes as a complete shock to him. To a seasoned cynic in the business of love this comes as no surprise. Power in love does not work like power in business, family, society, computing, or anything else. That is only one of a huge list of issues that people commonly have.
Cats have a pretty good philosophy in my opinion. Regardless of the above vices that cats are naturally guilty of (disloyalty, et al), cats do not get the short end of the love stick because they have a few things going for them. Let's take a look and see if we can separate our distaste of the cat's complete lack of honor from what the cat actually does. As you can see in the title and the intro paragraph, I have already done this and labeled it: mutual self-interest. Of course it doesn't have to do with love so much as relationships. A lot of people get mixed up when they think about relationships -- a relationship describes a connection between two entities. It can be between anyone and anything, living or not. Since we're looking at cats, the relationship between a person and a cat depends entirely on the cat's and the person's needs. Cats are naturally cute and friendly which make them great friends to those who like their company. They are not very needy, some are crazy, some aren't. But one thing that you can really depend on is their reliance on their food source. Cats understand when they are being malnourished so they always find a food source when they're hungry. A cat understands where home is but the survival and curiosity instincts will make them seek out new and definitely foreign places.
If this sounds familiar you are right, hackers are defined by natural curiosity and travelers seek out new and definitely foreign places. I am both and I consider the cat to be a natural analogue to hackers and travelers. Even though cats don't migrate, they certainly understand the territory that they can cover by foot. Though this may be mistaken as territorial activity, most of cats exploration is not in defense of a perimeter so much as a quest for the unknown. A permanent version of human "grass is greener" attitude causes the cat to continually search for better until he/she is infinitely satisfied or too weak to walk.
This is probably the reason that I admire cats and their philosophy so well. It's about as logical as it can get without requiring sentience, complex communication, long-term memory, or complex reasoning. So what can we learn from cats? If I am disloyal to a friend in the same way that a cat is, it is pretty likely that I won't have very many long term friends. But most people have very few long term friends. You don't know who they are for a while, so you have to act as if each of your friends are long term friends. But friends will sometimes conflict. Often when friends share a house they have issues such as cleanliness, bathroom usage, and so forth. Cats get around this by being detached from those they live with. They have their own lives and only hang out with their owners when they are quite starved for attention. This is an admirable trait but doesn't directly translate to human friendships. Humans have a ton of issues that makes the detached, rare interaction a pretty poor friendship. People don't have a lot of free time, so friends usually have to wait for events or a free night once in a while to get together. People have a ton of methods that allow long-distance communication which allow people to satisfy their friendship requirements without losing much time. The main thing about the feline detachment is that their caring is conditional to their competitive self-interest. While human relationships depend on mutual self-interest, that doesn't mean that a person will drop all of their friends to please new friends who spend a lot of money on them. Self-interest in humans in so incredibly complex that I am doing it a great disservice by comparing it to a cat's self-interest. A cat cares about food, shelter, affection, bathing, and sleep. A person who is working through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs will care about hundreds or even thousands of competing cares that require varying involvement from other people. The social need that humans express through relationships requires varying degrees of interest in various people. Cats normally use a ladder system to decide who they are interested in. Their owner often sits at the top of this ladder. In the case of my neighbor, it only took a friendly female who was willing to take care of the cat and stop it from returning to his owner. After a week of food from his recent captor, the cat will only have a small memory of his previous owner which he will return to if he is curious enough when he is let out. This doesn't mean that the cat is loyal to his previous owner nor to his current captor, the cat has permanent "grass is greener" attitude and will never be fully wooed by any person. A person who acts like this will have trouble making long term friends or familial relationships. Human relationships can be thought of as tree-based (or web based). A person can have multiple simultaneous relationships that all make logical sense (or not) that have floating precedence. Precedence can change at a moment's notice like a cat's ladder, but can easily be more flexible. Human relationships do not require precedence while feline relationships must. Communication allows humans to be loyal to multiple friends without harming relationships with their best friends, their mate, or anyone. The complexity however is absolutely stunning.
What I find incredible about the cat's philosophy is the elegance of the cat's relationships. The cat genuinely cares about many people that it knows. And yet the cat (if fixed) finds itself entirely lacking sexual relationships. Cats live extremely fulfilling lives with plenty of genuine friendships with humans even though they can only express a handful of emotions with a single word: "Meow". I hate to sully the topic of feline relationships with the word, but I want to make a point: cats care about humans beyond food, beyond shelter, without loyalty and without any strings attached. We can't act like cats without stunting our human relationships, but we could possible learn a thing or two from them. They are a proof of concept for us to contemplate.
I briefly mentioned digital technology changing the way that humans relate to each other. I'd like to explain a bit more on this topic. Three technologies that are currently changing our behaviors are: cell phones, social networking sites, and location-based friend finding. Each of these change the way that our relationships work. Some of them make us more like cats and others can make us less like them. Which direction each of them go really depends on the technology and how people use them. Cell phones make it easier for people to find each other when meeting and allows us to contact our friends at any hour day or night. This is very unlike a cat. Cell phones also foster relationships that wouldn't work out if we are too far away from our friends, so it bridges the same gap making stronger relationships. And yet cell phones make it so that we are more able to branch out to new friends and neglect our current friends because we are out more often. This is most certainly a good thing but the change needs to be well understood and not forced. A person like me who resisted a cell phone for so long because of money reasons can completely miss the issue that being available all the time makes the obvious constant unavailability caused by being busy more striking, which sours relationships. Planning becomes more difficult when my schedule is busier. A single event that I can't miss can seriously affect my entire social life. In fact, my social experiment came to an abrupt halt when I skipped Halloween 2007 because I felt awful (and had a huge acne breakout to boot). All of my friends at the time were soured by random events that didn't seem significant to me at the time. A social experiment gone completely wrong, every time I tried to find an old friend on the location-based friend finder service, I came up empty handed. I went to Europe for a month and came back to a very quiet social scene. Luckily I was burned out and enjoyed the peace that I had earned before and during my absence. And really, all my good friends are still friends to this day.
Alas humans are rather poor subjects for social experiments so long as you care about their feelings. That's one thing a cat will never have trouble with: hurt feelings. Their consistent attitude of disapproval makes them the coldest misanthropic anthropomorphs that will always get another chance at being your friend.