essays, fun with phrases

Fighting like cats and dogs


Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the phrase, “fighting like cats and dogs.”  In practice, of course, members of these two species have been known to get on quite nicely.  Within our language this analogy functions to describe the tension that results from interactions between two people who possess highly divergent character traits.  The analogy operates on the presumption that traits inhabiting opposite ends of the spectrum are fundamentally incompatible.  We know this isn’t always the case with people; after all english provides a home to the phrase “Opposites attract.”  But what about the relationship between dissenting personality traits that exists within ourselves?

At any given moment, a human being is susceptible to a measureless barrage of thoughts, feelings, and urges.  If left unchecked, the inconsistencies between these various aspects of consciousness can result in chaos.  This potential for conflict arising from the presence of heterogenous traits does not vitiate my belief that a possession of certain disparate traits is actually an integral component of success.

Let’s talk more about dogs.  Shamelessness and sincerity are the most meritorious traits possessed by these most lovable of creatures.   A human allows anxieties and a need for social acceptance to mute the genuine expression of its desires, but a dog is free from these constraints.  Freedom to express itself fully affords a dog the opportunity to engage in every situation with utmost sincerity.  This approach to life guarantees that a dog will receive more enjoyment from the most unremarkable occurrence than many of us will experience at any point in our lives.

We share some of our traits with these unencumbered creatures, if only in small measure.  These traits, what I call our puppy-nature, provide us with three components essential to success.  The first two are motivation and direction.  We possess the ability to engage in activities without enthusiasm, and are often forced to do so on a routine basis.  Investing fully in any endeavor, however, whether it be a relationship, a job, or achieving our dreams, requires that we be excited about the prospect.  Maintaining this interest in our efforts over a durable period of time is the only way to succeed in any substantial endeavor.  Our puppy-nature informs us about which goals deserve investments of time and resources, and nourishes our passion so that we may continue to pursue them with sincerity.

The second component of success puppy-nature provides is the ability to experience fulfillment.  We often get so caught up in the process of achievement that we never take the  time to actually stop and reap the benefits of these achievements.  The most essential aspect of success is taking a break to enjoy it before moving on to the next objective.  A dog will enjoy chasing the same ball its entire life if it remains intact. The human tendency, however, is to find some more important ball to chase, even if we’re already happy with the one we have. Puppy-nature teaches us to halt the constant pursuit of the next object that might provide a greater sense of fulfillment, and enjoy what we’ve already accomplished.

If puppy-nature was the only aspect of our greater human nature, we would experience some serious problems .  It’s impractical for a species facing the complex social demands of human beings to live every moment with unbridled emotion.  We are not afforded the luxury of directing our affections towards, or seeking out affection from anyone we please.  Our consciousness provides us the unique ability to infer other’s states of mind, which carries along with it the obligation to respect other’s wishes.  Humans have to set more long term goals for themselves than dogs, and sometimes this means sacrificing the pursuit of our immediate wants in the interest of more durable goals.

Cat-characteristics, the traits we share in common with our feline friends, effectively compensate for the shortcomings of our impulsive, idealistic puppy-nature.  A cat has command over its emotions at all times; it is always in complete control.  This is why a cat can fall from such a great height and remain unharmed.  While the human tendency is to flail when we feel like we’re falling, the cat remains calm.  It does not allow the anxiety provoked by the prospect of injury to prevent it from focusing whole-heartedly on the landing.  The cat can circumvent its emotions to concentrate on whatever course of action is truly in its best interests.  Whether it is stalking a creature as agile as a bird or as slow as a caterpillar, it dedicates its entire being to the hunt.  The human mind can’t help but to constantly draw distinctions, to label certain activities important and others simply necessary, and as a result we live great chunks of our lives wishing to be somewhere else.

While our puppy-nature is responsible for motivation and providing direction, and for reaping the rewards of our success, we are wholly reliant on our cat-characteristics for the daily tasks aimed at achieving our goals.  We cannot rely on our emotional mind to lay out the steps we need to follow to get us where we’re going.  Many steps along any route worth traveling will be intimidating, difficult, or at the very least, tedious.  Engaging in practical goal setting, and seeing these goals through to completion, requires a pervading sense of calm and complete presence of mind.  We must pursue the unpleasant tasks, the caterpillar, with the same willingness that we pursue the agile bird, the tasks in which we enjoy engaging.

Controlling our emotions is considered by many to be the key to happiness and success.  Reflecting on our examination of the expression that is the inspiration for this discourse, we can see this ignores an essential component of the human experience, and teaches us only to value our cat-characteristics, and not to embrace our puppy-nature.  Sometimes, it is essential to let our emotions run free, to give them free reign to guide us to the destination our soul is truly seeking.  This process demands the surrender of a certain amount of control, of letting go enough to experience our emotions shamelessly and sincerely, and thus rid ourselves of the fear of moving in the wrong direction.

The real battle lies in being a good pet owner, in taking care of both our puppy-nature and our cat-characteristics.  Instead of keeping our pets separate, for the fear that they might live up to the analogy and “fight like cats and dogs,” we must teach them to co-exist, to rely on each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.  There is a place and time for each.  You can’t expect your cat to be an enthusiastic exercise companion, and you certainly can’t expect your dog to reliably use the litter box.  But if we learn to embrace each of these disparate elements of our personality, and utilize each one in it’s appropriate time and place, I believe we can truly learn to appreciate life more fully, and actualize our dreams more effectively.

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