As I was walking home from my old dorm tonight, I encountered a cat. It mewed plaintively and padded up to me. Unable to resist anything so fuzzy and pathetic-looking, I reached out a hand to pet it. But before I could get close enough, the cat hopped up on its hind legs and pushed its head against my palm, petting itself with my stationary hand. Even as I petted it, the cat still brushed itself against me, unwilling to be a passive pettee.
There was something very sad about the self-petting. It was as if the cat had not been petted by anyone before, and had learned to make do with whatever it could get. As if the cat would not let itself depend on anyone else for its touchy-feely needs.
I guess we all do that, to some extent. We need things from people: friendship, compassion, sympathy, generosity, love—but we are afraid of letting others give these things to us. If other people give us these necessary things as gifts, they can just as easily stop giving them. And so we find ways to use these people in ways that allow us to feel like we are in control, rather than put ourselves at the mercy of someone else.
The cat followed me half of the way home. It stopped from time to time and looked behind us, toward some anchor point that symbolized security. The further we went, the more frequent these backward glances became. Finally, it stopped in the glow of a streetlight and refused to go any farther. I walked the rest of the way home, turning around from time to time to see it sitting in the middle of the road, like it wanted me to come back or wanted to follow me, but afraid or unwilling to make the leap of faith.
This too seemed sad to me. I don’t know why. I couldn’t promise it a better life than it already had. I couldn’t even promise it a warm place to sleep and three square meals. Maybe what seemed sad to me was the uncertainty it displayed, its refusal to depend on someone else. It is sad not to be trusted, but it is even sadder not to trust at all.