I learned this week that seeking comfort from adults isn’t automatic in children. It’s a learned behaviour, and you only do it if you get chance (more here – https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/can-an-unloved-child-learn-to-love/612253/ ) It was something I’d suspected because when my son was born, I noticed that he didn’t find touch automatically comforting. It took a little while to build an association between touch and comfort.
I realise that I don’t seek comfort through human touch. I am not actually comforted by people touching or holding me when I am sad. It’s something I’ve tended to go along with when on offer because I don’t want to be weird with people who care about me.
It’s one of those curious coincidences that the article about Romanian orphans turned up in the same week as a kitten. I’ve been without a cat for a few months now. I note with interest that purring has a significant impact on my emotions, and how much distress I feel in my body. Having a cat sit on me, climb over me, even biting my hands, is immensely comforting. I seek comfort from contact with cats, not humans, and I’ve only just realised this about myself! Which frankly feels odd, but is useful.
Bodies are strange things, full of chemical reactions that we have set off by experiences, or we learn, or we come to associate with some stimuli but not others. We can end up learning very odd things. For my next adventure in body chemistry, I want to see if there’s anything other than preposterously long walks that kicks off a response from my reward centres. Hopefully there will be something other than walking until I can barely stand up that gives me those feelings. I’ll see what the kitten thinks…
For a while now, I’ve been taking in old cats – one at a time. Old cats are not easily homed – they come with short life expectancies, likelihood of expensive vets bills, and distress. If your old cat has spent its life with one family or human, the loss of them will likely grieve them. An old cat who has been rescued will likely have been through some shit and may have issues. Old cats, much like old dogs are slow to learn new tricks.
There can be no messing about when taking in an old cat. You know they might only have a year or two with you. So you have to be willing to love them as wholeheartedly as you would a young cat who might be with you a decade or more. You have to love from a basis of knowing you will lose them and that the more you love them the more that will hurt. But, they need you, and they need to be cared for and they need it to be ok that they will shortly break your heart.
They teach patience and compassion. They teach it as their minds and bodies fail. They teach it with their incontinence, their deterioration, their fragility and vulnerability. They teach you to think about what your own body might be like as it ages, and they help you face up to that.
Old cats brings lessons in ruthless pragmatism. They are going to die, sooner rather than later. There is nowhere to hide from this. You will have to make decisions about when to go to the vet, and when to let go and have nature take its course. They cannot live forever. They cannot always be fixed. They teach a person how to examine their own selfish urges to hang on, and how to think better about suffering and quality of life.
They teach acceptance, and trust. They bring you their fragile bodies, and their purrs, and their need for care. The ones who have been mistreated may show you their fear and you get to work with that and maybe win them round and perhaps you can teach them that the world isn’t such a terrible place after all. And whatever life has done to this point, a few good years, or even just a few good days, are still well worth having.