This column is about family estrangement, Christmas and cats. Bear with me. First, about estrangement. Surveys conducted in the U.S. and Europe suggest some degree of alienation among family members is surprisingly common. In a U.S. study, only about one-third of parents and their adult children reported feeling emotionally close and fully engaged, another third said they were deeply estranged from one another, and the middle group indicated fair engagement overall but some ambivalence around the emotional connection. And when, pray tell, does estrangement most often rear its ugly head? The holidays, particularly Christmas. Most of us don’t like talking about it, but these gatherings are a primary mental petri dish for conflict and divisiveness.
So, what are the main “ropes” in these familial tugs of war? Predictably, the usual suspects of politics, religion and, more recently, the pandemic. Just as often, however, disputes arise over competing versions of the past: who did what to whom, blame shifting, perceived slights, sibling rivalries, favoritism, etc. And while we sometimes chuckle about family discord and base entire sitcoms on it, this interpersonal dynamic generates some ugly impacts. Feelings of isolation, rejection and resentment usually follow a contentious family gathering, and can result in permanent alienation among so-called loved ones. Having worked with many families suffering this sort of relational paroxysm, this holiday season, I found myself pondering why we humans so often struggle to get along. This is where the cats come in.
His name is Gus, and, pushing two-years old, he resembles a small panther. She goes by Bess, or Bessie-Bess, and is a petite thing nearing seven months on the planet. Gus is your basic natural born killer, the sort of cat that clears the mice from the house once word gets around the rodent community. Bess is a rescue cat plucked from the streets, so while she’s an affectionate sweetheart, once provoked, she takes no prisoners. When we first put them side-by-side, a David and Goliath dynamic seemed to emerge.
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Hissing and Snarling
However, under the deft tutelage of my cat whisperer daughter, Bess and Gus gradually became fast friends. Sure, not at first. The requisite week or 10 days of hissing and snarling preceded the cessation of hostilities. This reminded me of some family therapy sessions I’ve facilitated. The difference is that the cats don’t hold grudges. Instead, the two started snuggling and grooming each other, and then moved on to play fighting, which is always a real test of the bond. They passed with honors. No hard feelings. But what’s all this got to do with Christmas?
Well, on a late winter’s night last week, when the rest of the family was out cold, I ambled into the living room, illuminated only by the Christmas tree lights. Sitting at Sphinx-like attention, Gus occupied the chair closest to Bess, vigilantly observing her all the while, curled up as she was on a footstool below him. This kitten was being watched over by her older, adopted sibling.
Gazing at those two felines, bonded and peaceful despite their many differences, I contemplated all those families who spend their holiday gatherings pushing each other away, focusing on what divides them. Many animals, particularly those we call “pets,” know how to be there for each other in ways that often escape Homo sapiens, insistent as many of us are on constructing psychological walls rather than bridges. What’s our problem?
Well, most often, the method to our madness incorporates language and ideas. We go to war with each other or manage an uneasy peace simply because of concepts, beliefs and attitudes drifting about in our psyches like so many disembodied apparitions, which we then hurl at those with opposing viewpoints. Cats don’t get caught up in this untethered, abstract crap. Sure, they have disputes, but not involving opinions, and when their tiff is over, it’s over. You won’t find them lambasting each other over vaccines, political allegiances or bitter feelings about the past.
So, if your family gatherings tend to unravel and you need a role model for a peaceful holiday, look less at people and more at pets. They seem to get the “peace on Earth” part of Christmas that eludes so many humans.
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