I recall, with some amusement, one of the things my girlfriend told me when she and I first met. She asked me if I had any cats and when I said no, she said, “You’re single, and you don’t have any cats? How do you survive?!?”
She was right. I am not sure how I did survive without my cats. Though I love all animals — be they cats, dogs, birds or fish (about the only pet I cannot imagine having is a pet rock; they’re not very affectionate and tend to have a very stony demeanor) — I have a preference for cats. A lot of my male friends, years ago would tell me, “boys are supposed to have dogs, and girls are supposed to have cats” but I have never subscribed to that type of thinking. These were the same guys who were no longer my friends when they discovered that I am bisexual.
My Mother used to say that “pet” stood for “positive emotional therapy” and while that makes sense to me, I’m convinced my pets are something more. They look like felines, they walk on all fours and meow at five in the morning so that I will get up and give them fresh food and water, but they’re not cats. They’re little angels with fur, little blessings with a purr. It took a long time for me to finally realize that, but now that I have, it makes perfect sense. To the outsider who does not understand (which is fine with me as I am used to not being understood) they look like cats. But what they are to me are living examples of unconditional love — not unlike the unconditional love that I believe God truly is. They are little gifts from God that remind me of how precious life is, and how good things are even when it seems as if they are not.
A little history: I have two cats (a girl and a boy) and they came into my life at the same time God came into my life again a few years ago. Let me rephrase that more accurately: they came into my life at the same time I let God back into my life. One of them, the girl, I got from a “pet orphanage” on Easter Sunday 7 years ago, a few hours after I attended the first church service I had been to in about 13 years. The other, the boy, was a gift in the form of a newborn kitten from my girlfriend that the girl cat (and myself, to some extent!) ended up playing mother to.
Just as they have those amusing photos of people who “look like their pets,” (In my case, that is somewhat true. Someone showed me a picture of one of my cats and a picture of my face, and while anatomically not even close, the expressions were pretty close.) they say you can tell a lot about a person by their relationship to their pets. I have seen that mirrored in real life. What I also see in many cases is that a person’s relationship with their pets can also be a microcosm of how they feel about God. More on that in a little bit, but I wanted to reflect on how it is that my relationship with my cats reminds me of God’s Love. They just love me, and I love them; I care for them and they care for me. Which, in a nutshell is sort of how I feel about God. Unconditional Love is the driving force behind the relationship.
My cats do not care what kind of day I have had. They do not care when they curl up beside me on the couch if my hair is a mess or if I haven’t cleaned the house in a week. Those two bundles of joy are just always there for me. They never judge or criticize me. They never get in a mood and decide that they are going to shut me out or deny me love. Even if I have had the worst day imaginable or am under stress or am feeling blue, they just jump on my lap and start purring and somehow that makes the bad feelings subside, if even just a little. (I have concluded that purring is cat for, “I love you, I trust you and I am happy to be with you. Itës all good.”). It is at times such as this that I am reminded that this is just one of many ways God shows me that I am loved unconditionally — through the unique and special bond with these creatures who I have been as a human being trusted to love and care for and who love me in return.
To receive unconditional love like that is, in a word, awesome. But what is even more awesome is the joy of being able to return it. When one of my cats decided in my absence that they didn’t care for the picture on the wall, and I came home to find it on the floor, I was not angry. When I came home and found that they had successfully subdued and plucked the feather duster, and I spent the evening cleaning up feathers, I merely laughed, and picked up and cuddled them. When one of them decides feeding time is just when I was getting to sleep and demonstrated that concept by leaping atop the dresser and then dive-bombing the bed until food was acquired, I did not express any discontent. It doesn’t matter what they do-I love them, I don’t punish them. The only time I find myself concerned is when they choose to get into a little cat fight and I feel as if the play is getting too rough, or if I see them jumping on top of something that could be injurious to them. I have striven since they came into my life to make them feel as loved as possible, to the best of my ability; and they have returned that love. Even if they had not the sheer pleasure of loving and caring for them is gift enough.
Not only do pets give unconditional love they have no judgments about us. The only thing that can create dissonance in our relationship with them is if we are deliberately or thoughtlessly unloving. If we treat them with love and affection, they love us. Beyond the basics — that we treat them kindly, that we do our part and keep them fed, and do not neglect or mistreat them — that is the simplicity of it. They do not care what sexuality or sexual orientation we are, who we choose as our partners, what church or denomination we belong to or do not belong to, what doctrines we believe in, what parts of the Bible we see as metaphorical or not, what color our skin is, what political beliefs we have, etc. They base their criteria on one thing and that is how loving we are. They look to us for love, and if we are loving to them, they remain loving and devoted to us.
And this is not unlike the way I feel God’s Love is for us, albeit on a different level. I feel that the only thing that can create dissonance in our personal relationship with God is when we forget to be loving to others. Just as pets require us to be loving which means caring for them (keeping them fed and safe, changing the litter boxes or taking them for a walk, and treating them with love and kindness) I feel that God set up the world in such a way that what is required of us consists of one thing: being as loving as possible to others. Being forgiving when others ruffle our feathers or rub us the wrong way. Taking care of those who depend upon us, and trust us and not neglecting them or mistreating them. Being able to give love of ourselves. In a nutshell, being loving.
Just like pets who love us unconditionally and without judgment, I feel that God’s Love is exactly like that multiplied: God does not judge things that are not hurtful of others. God does not judge me based on my sexuality or sexual orientation, or the fact that I am bisexual with a female and a male partner. Nor does God judge those I know who are bisexual in similar relationships, those who are gay or lesbian or bisexual and in same sex relationships, the transgender, leathermen and women, or those in alternative lifestyles. God does not judge those who understand the Bible not as “literal” but instead as a book that contains both metaphor and spiritual truths and guidance. God does not judge based on political affiliation. God is only concerned with one thing: that we learn to love one another as all of God’s children, the teaching which Jesus embodied as the example that I feel God wanted everyone to follow.
Another thing about pets: I have never seen either one of my cats worry. Life to them seems based on simplicity; eat, sleep, play, and love. They don’t sit and endlessly debate life (at least, not that I am aware of!) but rather are content to simply be, to live. They live and love, and do not pick it apart and argue about things; they are content simply with being alive.
Granted, human beings have needs that are far more complex, but sometimes I think all of us could take a lesson from that. When we allow the trials of life to make us frantic, at times the best cure for that is to go back to the basics of life; the pure wonder of life itself. One day I was running around, trying to get a million things done that in the grand scheme of things were really insignificant. I walked through the living room and both my cats had sprawled out for a nap in the sunlight, purring peacefully. I decided to take a little break, breathe deeply and inhale the moment, and rest. Sometimes it’s okay just to lie down for a rest and feel the warmth of the sunlight.
I think much of the reason for their happiness is that is that rarely do they get angry, unless provoked, or more likely, are afraid. Interestingly enough, the times that my cats get into a cat-fight later on they are curled up on the sofa or the bed beside each other, giving each other a bath or sleeping with a contented purr. The love they have for each other (yes, animals love one another as well) overrides whatever cat-differences they may have had.
And that reminds me of how people are, in a way; we may cat-fight or bark loudly at one another, but in the end, love is what keeps us returning to peace, if we choose to accept it. And in life, it is my experience that most people become angry and attack for the same reason some animals do — out of defense, or fear. Many times that fear is unfounded, imagined, or illusion, akin to the dog who barks and sounds ferocious because they hear a strange noise they have no explanation for, or a new person who they are not used to and sure of; or the cat who may hide under the bed or scratch a person who they are not used to when that person goes to touch them. The animals are not attacking because they are “bad” — but because they are afraid.
I had a girlfriend who had a dog once. It was one of the most loving animals I have ever met. It would only bark or threaten to bite on two occasions; when it was first introduced to someone new who startled it, or if it felt someone was endangering her owner. Once it was assured that the person was not a threat to it or to her, the dog would warm up become affectionate, often coming up and licking the person on the face it was barking at a few minutes prior. In other words, once the dog’s fears were alleviated and it understood that there was no threat, the anger, the attack, the fear turned to an openness to love.
And among humans, I feel that the same principle exists; although God created humans with more intellect than other animals, we are at times close to them in many ways. I feel that those people who lash out, who either thoughtlessly, or at times deliberately, attack others and do something which is hurtful, do so not because they are “bad,” but out of fear. When we are afraid, on the defense, or unsure of a new situation we might forget, at times, how much we are loved by God and become angry, or react out of fear of something we do not understand rather than out of love.
I think that an excellent example of this would be those who persecute the LGBT community. Nearly every time it seems to result from fear and misunderstanding. Many who spew hatred and anger at the LGBT community only do it because they are afraid. They are being confronted with things they were conditioned to be afraid of through inaccurate religious teachings based on human fears and not God’s Love. There are those who do not understand what it is to be LGBT and their reaction to LGBT people without even knowing them is one of fear. However, in many cases, when the fears are alleviated — when they actually look past the fear and look at the person — the anger, the homophobia and whatever prejudice or anger they may have had suddenly no longer exists.
And I see situations like that with pets as well. My Mother “rescued” one of her cats. At the time, she lived where there was construction going on. A group of the workers was mistreating a stray cat that was at the site, and one day it wandered over to her house. When she approached it, it was terrified, it did not want her to come near or if she tried to pet it, it would scratch. So instead, she put out some food and water, and would talk softly to the cat when it would come by every day to eat and drink. Eventually she was able to get close enough to pet it, and over time, trust was developed. It took her being patient and loving for the cat to feel the same way. Now the cat loves her and trusts her and does not run away or try to bite or scratch when she comes near but jumps up into her lap.
That too, to me is a lesson that humans can learn from animals. Many times when people avoid us, or are angry with us, it is due to the fact that they are afraid or they have been hurt, or maybe both. Yet, love and patience can break through the barriers that divide us and keep the kind of love God intended from happening. Having a pet is often a great way for a person to learn and practice loving patience or to learn how that real and unconditional love is patient and forgiving. In these times, when I see many people allowing fear of the unknown to seemingly run away with them, and justify lashing out to cope with those fears, I feel that the lesson that love and patience teaches goes a lot further in life than defensiveness, fear and anger.
I have to touch on the idea as well that one can tell a lot about a person by observing how they treat animals. By that I am expressing that one can tell what a person feels about life, about God, and about what God is like. I have never met a person who was an animal lover who cared for their pets and saw them as “family” who was filled with anger, hate, and fear. In most instances, those who I have witnessed who were cruel to animals or who did not care for their pets were those who fit one of three criteria:
- They were in terror of what they believed God to be, having set up a monstrous understanding of what God was in their own minds, which in their view was that of a dominating, harsh and punitive tyrant; they had turned away and rejected God’s Love completely out of the notion that such an unconditional love was “too good to be true” and that the simple Commandment of Jesus that we “love one another” was a wishful pipe dream;
- They had given up on the idea of love itself, having had love withheld by others who sought to have control and dominion over them. In their illusion of powerlessness against their own circumstances, were taking it out on the animals who only sought to love and be loved by them.
- Another case I witnessed was where having the responsibility of having a pet was considered to be a “hindrance” to their financial well being and orderliness they sought to their life. It was little surprise to me that this person had difficulty with interpersonal relationships with people as well as they had chosen a life of total materialism.
In every case, though where I have seen people impart outright cruelty to animals, one of three conditions always exists: they either have no belief at all in a God, they place no value on Love, or their understanding of God is one that is distorted by fear. I have never met anyone who believes in a Loving God who could ever deliberately or negligently impart cruelty on an animal or allow it to suffer, nor could they be able to put little value on the unconditional love that pets can give us.
And the same type of thinking, in my experience, applies to the way we treat each other. Often, those who treat other people with little respect for their feelings or well being are either trapped in the fearful state of imagining a God that seeks to judge, reprimand and punish rather than love, or believing that the idea of unconditional love is “too good to be true.” If they do believe in God, often in order to be loved by God they feel as if that love is dependent on rules and regulations. What could be a beautiful awareness of a Creator that made life good and loves us unconditionally, sending us that message and the message that all that is required it to focus on love for one another via the life and message of Jesus and others who have come along and echoed that message, becomes a mental mess of never feeling adequate, never feeling fully deserving of that love. There is not a feeling of contentedness, of peace, that they are loved and cared for by God and that that is demonstrated by the love of others in their lives. Instead there is fear. Just as when we are loved, we often seek to let that love spill over through us from God and into the lives of those around us, those who fear often pass on the fear to others, and only love can break the chain of fear.
One of the things I feel when my cats curl up at my feet or in my lap to sleep and they purr contentedly is that they are saying to me, “I feel happy, and I know I am loved unconditionally” and that fills me with happiness. To me, that is what I feel when I pray or meditate and focus on God. I feel at times, when I am silent and focusing on my feelings of oneness with God and a sense of purpose in the Universe simply by being, that God is happy that I am happy and content. It doesn’t matter that there are others who would put who I am, my life and beliefs under scrutiny and label me as “not good enough.” I feel loved just as I am. God gives me Love, with no questions asked, just as I give these small creatures who are depending on me love.
There have been times in my life that my cats have helped to pull me out of feeling down and afraid myself. I recall a night, years ago, when I was anxious and depressed and alone. Things were not going well, and I was suffering from the illusion that no one understood, no one wanted to, and no one ever would. About 30 minutes after that, my electricity was shut off due to an unpaid bill (part of the stress I was going through at the time) and I had lain down in the bed, allowing myself to slip into a place where I felt even more alone. I recall praying that things were going to somehow be all right, that I would get through this and then falling asleep. A few hours later something woke me up and it was both of my cats, curled up beside me, purring very loudly. It was as if they knew I was feeling afraid, and had come to comfort me. But in my mind, and the way I believe, God was comforting me through them, just as God has comforted me through the kind words and support of other people, in my time of need. Only this time, instead of angels in human form, I was sent angels in feline form. No, they didn’t pull out a check to resolve my financial situation at the time and that was deep down not what I really needed. I just needed a reminder that I was loved.
So in closing, I reflect on what things my little angels with fur have taught me. They have helped to affirm my knowing that God can speak assurance to us that we are loved through something as simple as the contented purr of kittens, or the faithful dog that follows us around and barks anxiously to see us when we arrive home. They have helped to remind me that love is a tremendous responsibility; when a pet loves and trusts us they are placing their lives in our hands, counting on us to care for them. They have helped to remind me of God’s Unconditional Love for me and for everyone else.
They have reminded me that what is most important are not individual bits of doctrine or opinion, but rather how loving we are and can strive to be. They have reminded me that despite the worries and tribulations that life as a human being can bring, that life is essentially good and perfect, if we take time to relax, to live and to simply be. They have reminded me of the value of love and patience in dealing with others. They have reminded me that even when there are a few who would claim to speak for God and impose their judgments on me and attribute them to God, that God Loves me regardless.
They constantly remind me of the majesty and wonder of God’s Creation, both that expressed through Nature and the animal kingdom as well as that among human animals, as diverse and as beautiful as the rainbow, and of the gift it is to give unconditional Love as well as receive it. They remind me that with the love and freedom that God has blessed each and every one of us with comes a responsibility to care for one another as well as our beloved pets. And they have taught me so much about how to love unconditionally; not to be loving for any other reason than, “just because.”
The animals who have become that part of family most of us all “pets” depend on us, and love us unconditionally. We depend on them for support and the special kind of love they give us and give them the same. We depend on God, Who loves us with an unconditional love. God depends on us to share love with others. I truly feel that when Jesus said that we should Love God with all of our heart, mind and soul and Love thy neighbor as thyself, what He meant was that in following the second we were accomplishing the first. And I truly feel that one of the most important things that animals can teach us is the lesson of Love, a love without conditions, a love with no questions asked.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.