Monday, October 5, 2009

Lessons From My Pets

People can be very devoted to their pets. Why do we respond so positively to our pets, and what can our feelings about them teach us about relationships? I've been thinking about these questions, and here are some things that I've come up with:
  • Loyalty. When I was growing up, I had a black lab mix named Princess. Princess would come whenever I called her and would happily spend long periods of time with me. She was willing to follow me around while I did chores or sit next to me on the porch while I read a book, and she even put up with me hugging her and sobbing into her fur when I was upset. Princess responded the same way to me no matter what clothes I was wearing, how much I weighed at the time, or even how recently I had showered. No matter what, Princess was always ready to greet me with a wag of her tail, and I really appreciated her for that. Perhaps her unconditional acceptance of me can teach me to judge less and support more and challenge me to be a faithful companion myself.
  • Soothing Presence. I have two beautiful and soft Bengal cats. They can charm nearly anyone by cuddling and purring ostentatiously. It's as though they are saying, "I'm happy just to be here with you," and then they back up that message by being all warm and soft in your lap. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, there are often personal space issues to be considered, but many of us benefit from physical proximity with other people. We like to have loved ones around even when we're doing independent tasks, because we feel soothed by the other person's presence. It's special to know that someone is content to just be with us even if we aren't being particularly entertaining, that our company is worth something in an of itself. I've found that this is even more true at times when we are emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes we don't need our loved ones to do anything but just be there with us, to tell us by their presence that they care and that they're willing to support us. I would like to learn how to be more like the cat whose purring tells people that the world is a friendlier place than they might have thought or the dog who stays beside its crying master.
  • Playfulness. We like to watch our pets play. Sometimes, we even join in and play with them. Society often pressures us to give up the playful parts of our nature when we grow up in the name of maturity and responsibility. But even as adults, we don't want to have to feel self-conscious all the time—even we want to be able to laugh and play sometimes. I may have a more playful personality than others, but I love to play games, and sometimes I even like to dance around with my friends or be outright silly. Manners are important, but it's also essential to have chances to connect with others on a more open and authentic level and to unburden ourselves from social pressures to behave in a certain "adult" way. 
  • Physical contact. I realize that not everybody likes physical contact. I don't like it all the time, but sometimes I really do. It can be really nice to have a warm animal in your lap or sleeping next to you. Likewise, I really enjoy having some sort of physical contact with people I love. I'm a big fan of hugs, and I don't mind if someone clasps my hand when we're talking. Sometimes even those brief or seemingly unimportant physical encounters help solidify a relationship, and I've noticed that being comfortable with having someone in my personal space and being emotionally comfortable with that person often go hand in hand for me. Of course, I realize that everyone has different preferences for physical contact, and that there are sexual taboos that we need to be respectful of, but I think that physical contact can be a positive part of a wide variety of relationships.
I feed my pets and see to their needs because they're counting on me to take care of them. While the people in my life are much more self-sufficient than my pets, I need to remember that they may be counting on me, too. We all have needs, and we all need loving individuals in our lives to help meet those needs.

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