The other day a blogger-friend posted news of one of her cats having been injured in a feline-fight. I responded there, in one of my
annoying amusing edgy-jokey moods, recommending that the injured cat should bone up on his nonviolence skills.
You who put up with me on this blog know that I tend to entertain myself with species-confusion
from time to time annoyingly often often. That was the tone I was going for there.
One of our other friends, though, chose to take the comment seriously, and raised these important questions:
“Is an act of violence really violence if it’s pure feline instinct and nature? If there’s no malice in the action? If my intent is not to HURT something, but to protect my territory or my meal or my self?”
My quick answer is:
“No. I don’t call that ‘violence.'”
When we’re talking about cats, it seems clear that they – lacking the elaborate frontal cortex that is supposed to be our homo-sapiens pride and joy – usually operate by instinct: Their conduct is basally inspired (from way back in the brain stem). They act in a manner that’s clear, direct, and in line with core, species-specific survival skills.
But as many of us know, “even” cats can learn to modulate this kind of behavior. We all recognize this posture:
And if we should be so foolish as to accept what, to the uninitiated, might look like an invitation to rub the belly – unless we have a relationship with the particular cat – we know what tends to happen next.
Except that over time, Bugs has learned to moderate this behavior. In the appropriate moment, I know now that I actually can reach in there and rub his belly, without risking a trip to emergency. He knows – he has learned, praise Cod – not to rake and bunny-kick with intent. He can do that to my hand and arm, now, with his claws sheathed. He’s learned. (Praise Cod I cannot praise Cod enough on this one.) (And I can’t stick around too long to enjoy this miracle, before the prey-drive kicks in and woe betide.)
That ability to moderate seems key, then, when we turn to our friend’s question as it touches on human behavior. If we have been trained from an early age to feel our feelings, to include all of them in the canon of our experience, to be held with care when we’re frustrated, to be understood and connected-with – we can grow into patience, impulse-control, self-calming, and consideration for a wider picture than just our own internal frets and drives.
Which is what it means, to me, to practice nonviolence.
If, on the other hand, we have been trained from an early age to use force to repress our feelings, to wall off the “unacceptable” and “inappropriate” from our attention, to be punished when we’re frustrated, to be misunderstood and disconnected-with –
We will grow to become helpless before a tsunami of neurotransmitters run rampant. We will have lost the potential, the skill inherent in our exquisite biological heritage, to return to homeostasis – to come home to balance, equanimity, and self-regulation.
And murder will out.
Marshall Rosenberg teaches in Nonviolent Communication that there are some occasions where “protective use of force” is required. To stop a child from running in front of a moving car. To take liberty from humans if they present a danger to themselves or others.
The Jesuits have devoted elaborate philosophical consideration to what constitutes a “just war.”
Had my maternal forebears not fled from Hitler, I would not be here. (That’s him, to the left, as a baby. When there was still time.)
These are deep and complicated conundrums for our species to work out. Things are simpler for cats. But things are not so simple for cats either. If cats can learn – and there’s no “if” about it – then things are not so simple in this realm either.
Ask, ask, ask. We will never arrive at the complete answer. But in asking, we move closer to a life of the kind that I, at any rate, want to live. So I’m glad our friend has asked. I hope you’re glad too.
On behalf of his less-fortunate brothers and sisters, Bugs wants us to hurry up. With some provisional answers at least.