By Rev. Michael Karunas
At the recommendation of a friend toward the end of 2019, I requested (and subsequently received) Jordan Peterson’s best-selling book 12 Rules for Life for Christmas. Peterson is a Canadian psychologist and his book is mixture of theological history and philosophy as well as behavioral psychology. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the 12 rules which, themselves, are pretty straightforward (always tell the truth, measure yourself against yourself and not others, etc.). However, their explanation and treatment is quite dense and each chapter therefore long. I say all of that because I just got around to finishing the book this past week. This I found ironic, as the last chapter was titled “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One.”
Peterson suggests that petting a dog is easy, predictable and therefore uninteresting. We know what we’re getting with dogs – a human’s best friend. Dogs will always approach us with interest, will wag their tails, offer sniffs and licks, and enjoy being scratched and petted. Nothing surprising. With cats, however, we don’t know what we’re getting. A cat might run away from us or arch its back and hiss. It might be completely aloof and not deign to notice our presence. But it might also curl up on our lap, nuzzle into us deeply and purr loudly. Precisley because we don’t know what we’re getting with cats, there is the possibility for great disappointment but also for great joy and gratitude.
Peterson compares this to the limited nature of being human. To be human is to have limitations – of knowledge, of ability, longevity, etc. To be human is not to know or do everything. It is to suffer grief, brokenness, injury and death. This limitedness causes us great stress. We agonize over what we can’t understand or control. But it is precisely limitation that allows us to experience transcendence. Only because I have limits, for example, can I ever rise above them. Only because I am not perfect can I experience and recognize glimpses of perfection. Only because there is a goal I have never before accomplished is there the possibility of that goal one day being attained.
Earlier, I mentioned it was “ironic” that I completed this book last week because of how the emergence of the Cornonavirus has invaded our lives. If anything reveals to us our human limitation, this is it. There is so much beyond our control right now – from an ability to guarantee our own safety and non-exposure, to assuming that the items I want are on the shelves when I want to purchase them. Situations like these remind us that we cannot control how the next few days will unfold, let alone the trajecorty of the rest of our lives.
Which brings us back to cats. For whether you are a “dog person” or “cat person” we have a choice. We can view COVID-19 as an obstacle or an opportunity. Focusing on it as an obstacle is easy. It’s the predictable way we usually view disruptions to our schedule, feeling disappointment and aggravation at best or fear and grief at worst along the way. Or we can be surprised by what this time in our history allows us to do; asking “What is the unique opportunity ‘social distancing’ gives us the chance to explore?” Is a time of self-quarantine an opportunity to do sometning at home we’ve been neglecting? Does it invite us to to reach out and connect with someone we’ve been putting off because we’ve been “too busy.” Is it giving us a chance to be more “still” – as Psalm 46:10 instructs – and see God in stillness and rest?
I don’t know how you may answer this question, but I do pray we think of cats this week. Life is indeed unpredictable, and in its unpredictability reveals obstacles that bring to light our limited and finite nature. But at the same time, and often in the very same events and circumstances, there are opportunities to be amazed, joyful and grateful in ways which, because of our limited nature, we may have never before considered.