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🎧Instead of Happiness, You Find Contentment
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The decision to get another cat isn’t one my family necessarily agrees with. Six months ago, I had a kitten that had been taken from her mother too young and not socialized properly, and I ended up rehoming her.1 When I tell my sister about trying again, she says, “Oh, Sarah,” her voice redolent with concerned disapproval. My father responds, “Oh, okay” with encouraging bewilderment. My mother says, “Are you sure?” and proceeds to recap the highlights from the kitten saga.
A therapist would likely say that my reasons for getting another cat aren’t sound. To some degree, I’m using him to prove that I really have healed from serious mental illness. There’s plenty of other evidence: teaching is going well, and I’ve started doing publicity for my memoir Pathological. But having a cat, a creature I bond with and take care of after being so unwell and feeling so hopeless I couldn’t live independently for five years, would be something akin to water-tight evidence.
I’m also making the mistake of believing this cat will make me happy. The internet says his breed are some of the friendliest, sweetest, cuddliest cats in existence. In the photo, his sweet face says he’d never attack me. Never. It will be perfect.
When I pick him up, his owner takes him out of the carrier to show him to me. He’s a Birman tabby—sweet-faced and stocky with white-gloved paws, deep-blue eyes, and a champion floofy tail. (Birmans were originally temple cats, bred in Burma to catch mice, so the monks didn’t have to deal with the vermin. Tabby cats have stripes on their legs and markings in the shape of an m on their foreheads.) His father is the number four Birman in the world and the number one Birman Tabby. (Yes, cat shows are bizarre and cruel. You can read about my experience attending one here.) And big—nine pounds.
He’s too shy to be a show cat; that and the markings on his back paws aren’t quite long enough. His shyness is also why he wasn’t adopted with the rest of his litter.
He submits to her but with a little sass. He doesn’t seem shy. Confident, actually. A little bossy.
She puts him back in the carrier. We sign the requisite papers and talk for a bit. I open the carrier and poke my head in. He hisses at me.
I jump back. “He hissed.”
“Oh, just ignore him when he does that.”
There’s still time to tell her I’m not going to take him. She assures me he “never bites.” I pick up the carrier, pay, and thank her.
For the first two days, he mostly hides under the bed. This is fine with me. No attacks. I worry because he isn’t eating, but eventually, he eats the food I slide under the bed. He scouts out the apartment at night while I sleep.
It takes a few days, but he finally comes out in the daylight. He’s all floof. His gorgeous white coat is long and luxurious. The fur on his tail is as wide as his body. His belly is Buddha-big. I name him Sweets—in the hope that calling him that will ensure he is.
The shyness he exhibited when he arrived quickly fades. I’m convinced he faked it to get out of the hard work of being a show cat. Initially, I wanted to play more often than he did. He used to stroll around my apartment—from the water fountain to his food bowl for a snack, around the kitchen to the scratching post, around the main room, and back to the bedroom to play quietly or shimmy under the bed for another nap. Now, he wants to play every time he’s awake and viciously attacks the wand toy.
One evening while putting food in his bowl, he comes around for a pet. I scratch his back, which he seems to prefer over his head. He purrs louder than he has since he arrived. I scratch. He purrs. I scratch. His floofy tail goes up with satisfaction.
He turns and looks at me with crisp blue eyes—and bites me. I snap my hand away and go into the bathroom. No blood. He has adult teeth that aren’t as sharp.
I jump back and walk away from him. My stomach sinks.
There is no definition of happiness. Even those who claim to have found it can’t fully describe it. What we identify as happiness is usually conditional happiness, which is dependent on a person or object. Most of us mistake it for perfection. It’s the illusion of control, getting what we want when we want it, and never feeling painful emotions or having troubling thoughts and experiences.
When I get home from teaching one night, he comes out of the bedroom, his eyes sleepy. He utters low, abbreviated meows. Cat complaints: Where have you been? I was all alone.
One spring evening, I’m sitting at the kitchen table. He’s in the other room. It’s not how I wanted it to be. No cuddles.
I sense something in the room. I look up. Sweets sits in the doorway. His white fur extends almost like an aura around his plump body. His eyes are sleepy, almost soporific. He’s pure calm, like a little Buddha. He considers me, his expression saying, Why are you trying to control what can’t be controlled?
A calmness comes over me. He’s a little ornery and seems strangely dissatisfied with life. He finds safety under cover: the bed, my desk, any chairs. He likes his alone time and to be petted when and how he wants it. He’s shy, anxious, untrusting, reclusive, and has difficulty accepting affection. He bonks his head on the wall, petting himself when he wants attention. If he were human, a psychiatrist might call his quirks “disorders.”
My love for him has grown because of these quirks. He’s mine to care for. I get to love him, not the other way around, necessarily. After a few months, he’ll trust me enough to sleep at the bottom of my bed. Soon, he’ll be the boss of the house, not allowed on the counter and the table and consistently lying on both.
I’ll start to strive not for happiness but contentment—in all things. Contentment is so often ignored while happiness hogs the limelight. To be contented means“feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.” It’s enoughness. Just saying the word contented makes my stomach release. Just typing this paragraph stills my mind.
Contentment isn’t ambitious; happiness is a race for who can do, have, say, and feel the most. Contentment asks us to look at what we already have. For me, it’s my balcony looking out onto the lake so blue that it shimmers, my couch, the cat tree, the cat toys, the cat baskets and tunnels, and Sweets.
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Read all available chapters of Cured.
Cat people, note: the kitten is very happy in her new home. It turns out you aren’t cosmically punished for rehoming a pet. One of my students at the university where I teach works at Chicago’s Humane Society. I admit to her that I rehomed Zosi and tell her how terrible I feel. “Don’t,” she says. “We don’t want people to keep an adopted pet if it’s not working out. Pets sense that sort of thing.”