Communication, Compliance, and Cats

Psst. You know that video I’ve mentioned a few times that’s always TOTALLY COMING NEXT WEEK and is probably about Persephone? Well, this time I’m pretty sure it will actually be this week but will almost definitely not be about Persephone. I keep trying and I just can’t make that one work. There are things I want to say about that myth and they’ll probably wind up in a blog post. If this was my job and I had an actual commitment to do a sermon or something on it I would throw it together and force it, but since it’s not I’ve decided to give myself a break and let it be what it is.

I’ve been reading Preaching by Fred Craddock and trying to fit my videos to his sermon-writing process, while also dealing with the fact that the “selection of a text” step is a lot different when you’re not starting with a common book. How do I bring people in? How do I fit my interests to a more universal topic so that people can connect with whatever text I choose, even if they’ve never heard of it before? It’s an interesting challenge and I look forward to taking it on in a variety of ways. But for right now, in my first attempt, I just can’t pull it off with Persephone.

I’ll be talking about autism instead. Obviously something that’s much closer to me and more readily adapted to just about everything. In particular, since my church is focusing on freedom this month, I’ll be talking about autism and non-compliance. A major aspect of autistic therapy has traditionally been behavior modification. Reward the behaviors you want, punish the ones you don’t. I wasn’t even put through this type of therapy but I’ve heard so much about it from other people that even the terms themselves (“behaviors” or “compliance” being the biggest examples) put me on edge. Non-compliance has become an important value for me. It’s the flip-side of consent: we can’t expect people to stand up for themselves and exercise choice when they’ve been trained to do what they’re told and prioritize others’ goals for them.

For me, this extends to all relationships. It comes up a lot in discussions of parenting, but I’ll go further and say I think my cats have a right to say no. Obviously not with words. 😀 But we communicate in different ways. They know how to tell me they want attention, food, water. All of these wants have different cues and they’ve trained me to respond appropriately. On the other side of that, I know they’re slightly unsure about being held but always enjoy it for a short amount of time provided they’re allowed to leave when they want. We’ve worked out a system. I pick them up slowly and always in the same way so they know what’s happening. If they don’t want to be picked up, they have time to back away and I leave them alone. When they do let me hold them, they know that all they have to do to be put down is reach out for the ground. They’re pretty smart.

We don’t always agree. This is something I’m thinking about in terms of freedom and how to negotiate freedom for all when our wants are directly opposed. What if a cat really wants attention when I’m deeply involved in something important? Quite often this happens when I’m at the computer. Something about it just grabs their attention no matter where they are or what they’re doing. So I’ll be in the middle of typing a long Facebook comment, for example, when one of them sits right on my hands or nudges the mouse or rubs her face all over mine. I’ll tolerate it to a certain extent, alternate between petting the cat and typing my message. If they’re insistent enough I’ll try to wrap up what I’m doing and give them my complete attention for awhile.

But sometimes I can’t (or don’t want to) do that. Then I try to measure their needs against mine. What are they really asking for? Is it meal time and I just didn’t notice? Do they need more water? I’ll take care of food/drink needs right away, if they just want to be held or pet I’ll finish my work (or at least get to a stopping point). I communicate this by putting them on the floor. And then I try to be firm about that, and about the ways I’ll accept appeals. I never respond to claws or bites except to move them away from me. But if they’re insistent about wanting to be near me right now there’s almost always a way to do that. One of them will just lay across my arms when she sees I’m not going to move right away. I have room to type, she gets to cuddle. The other one will just stand there and keep nudging me but is mostly content with my attention being divided for awhile.

One thing that’s really impressed me is their ability to understand a sometimes-off-limits room. I figured you would need consistency for a pet to learn not to do a thing. If you only scold them for being on the table sometimes, how do they know that’s why they’re being scolded? But I shut the door to my office mostly when I have meetings or something. Some situation where their tendency to lay on my keyboard could be a much bigger disturbance. The younger one especially used to run ahead of me and get into the room before I could close the door. For awhile I let her stay unless she actually disrupted my work. Eventually I realized that was definitely going to happen so I’d pick her up and put her outside the room from the start if I really didn’t want to be interrupted. By now she knows to wait and see what kind of situation it is. She’ll still run ahead of me but wait outside the door. If I close it, she waits for me to finish. If I leave it open, she follows me inside.

My cats and I have managed to respect each other’s needs and worked out a communication system without needing words. We understand each other and that we each have a need for autonomy and choice. So we’ve gotten very good at finding a way for both to be happy (or at least fairly content). If that’s possible for us, why does it sometimes seem so hard even for two parties who are the same species and share a language? That will be my focus for the video – the need for both non-compliance (freedom) and cooperation (limiting our own freedom) and how to negotiate those respectfully.

2 thoughts on “Communication, Compliance, and Cats

    1. Thanks! It was a silly little post, but I’m glad you liked it. The whole idea of pets is so weird and cool to me – the way we’ve learned to co-exist with all our differences. Pets are amazing.


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