Monday, June 15, 2009

A feline introduction to original sin

A heron decided to hang out just past the end of our deck while I was making spaghetti for our visiting teens, so I abandoned the stove and went outside with my camera to see if I could get that perfect heron shot. Our cat, Alex, was outside, sitting by the hot tub and calmly observing the heron, but when I came out he sauntered over to me and demanded to be picked up.

I suggested he might prefer to go indoors, and opened the door for him, but, no, what he wanted was attention. I tried to ignore him, but he began trying to crawl up the leg of my jeans. Disentangling him from the fabric, I snuck around the corner, moving closer to the heron, and focused again. Alex tried to climb my leg again and meowed a couple of times, but I was still trying to get that perfect shot --

-- which means my telephoto was fully extended when Alex got so frustrated he decided to abandon my side and chase the heron away. By the time I could retract the lens enough to get them both he had jumped off the deck and the heron had squawked and flown off to the nearest log in a huff. Clearly the cat was offended that my attention was elsewhere: he felt strongly that his need for a hug should come before my need for a photo, and he took immediate steps to remedy the situation when it wasn't going his way.

This fairly primitive and selfish response for punishment and revenge seems quite natural (if irritating) in a cat; it's not so different from the child who hits her brother if she thinks her brother is getting the lion's share of maternal attention. It is this behavior that school and parents try to correct over time in an attempt to "civilize" our children, to make them more productive and cooperative members of society.

And, of course, it is this intention -- to counteract selfish and thoughtless choices -- which often lies behind religious and spiritual impulses. Unfortunately, although a number of spiritual teachings tell us to let go of fear, greed, and the desire for power, those teachings tend to be unsuccessful because fear, greed and desire do not lie at the root of the problematic dysfunction.

The problem, according to Eckhart Tolle, is that, "Trying to become a good or better human being sounds like a commendable and high-minded thing to do, yet it is an endeavor you cannot ultimately succeed in unless there is a shift in consciousness. This is because it is still part of the same dysfunction, a more subtle and rarefied form of self-enhancement, of desire for more and a strengthening of one's conceptual identity, one's self-image."

The problem, the fundamental dysfunction, is that we all carry a strong attachment to the ego, and it is the ego -- not that universally connected Self, the real Being that lies at the heart of each of us -- that is so desperately attached to what IS; that fears destruction and loss; that believes they can be avoided by acquiring more things and more power.

I am thinking of all of this now because of a situation that is about to flare up in my little community: a couple from Florida, who are only here in the summertime, are about to tear down the little A-frame cabin they bought a few years back and build "their dream home" -- which is apparently a three-story home with a two-story attached garage. This dream home will be built out to the edges of the existing lot, and is pretty much guaranteed to remove a great deal of light and block the views for their fulltime next-door neighbors to the east, who are horrified and depressed at the thought of the impending construction (due to start in less than a month).

The neighbors on the west side of the disappearing A-frame are weekenders from Seattle, who are already fighting legal battles with importunate neighbors to THEIR west, so we're all anticipating that some of the nastiness is going to get worse, and efforts will be made on both sides of the conflict to recruit sympathetic supporters. And, of course, it doesn't help that the Floridians have a rather east-coast style, more confrontational than their more passive-agressive northwest neighbors: it's easy for this to degenerate into yet another religious war, a we-they situation where one side is CLEARLY right and the other CLEARLY wrong.

At the heart of all these battles, of course, is not just the usual distaste for change, but also that key word from the egoic consciousness: MY. This is MY dream house; you are blocking MY view; you are driving across MY lawn; your fence is making it hard to access MY driveway. I have been wondering how we as neighbors might defuse some of this situation, but I realize that though I have been thinking about it as OUR neighborhood and wondering how to get folks to consider each others rights and needs, what I'm really worried about is the impact on MY neighborhood, and whether I will find MYself forced to take sides or get involved somehow in the conflict.

It is this "MY" word that lies at the root of what Christians call Original Sin -- not so different from the Buddhist contention that it is desire that lies at the root of suffering. And I'm not sure what it would take to overcome that catlike impulse toward revenge and punishment in the face of thwarted desire. What I do know is that exhortations to "do the right thing" will probably fall on deaf ears; that somehow "I" and "my" needs to move to "we" and "our" -- and I can only begin to imagine how to achieve that sort of massive transformation. All I know is that ignoring the situation won't work: eventually one cat or the other is going to take steps to drive away that which interferes with their wishes.

The most important step I can take toward peace, I suspect -- and since resolution is unlikely, peace, I suspect, is the most we can hope for -- will be for me NOT to take sides, to continue to respect and appreciate all the parties involved, not to demonize anyone, and to hold up a vision of "WE" and "US" that will allow for movement toward a sense of connectedness. It's a small step, and doesn't obviously fix anything. But, like a mustard seed, it does contain within it a huge potential for growth. And I guess that's all we can ask.


altar ego said...

This is such a huge subject! I have long mourned that a sense of altruism has vanished from our culture/society, and that entitlement appears to have taken its place. I am more inclined to ask, "how will this decision affect others?" and wonder if that's a nature or nurture gift? I find it so amazingly irritating that so few others are willing to consider that question (or disregard the answer) when making choices and taking action. I don't get it right all of the time myself, but I have peace knowing I tried.

Time for zoning restrictions where you are? I imagine such things are in discussion, though perhaps too late for this situation. Prayers for your community. said...

The sad thing is that we actually HAVE zoning restrictions, but anyone with piles of money can get the town to bend the rules. Sigh. But I also know that this is not the first time a cabin was knocked down and replaced with a big house on our street (the guy who built our house, some 10 years before we bought it, did that, too, although our house isn't as large as the newer ones going up now). There is always resistance to change, and there will always be change...

Anonymous said...

My first reaction is always to want to stand up against the bully, to be confrontational...but then my mother or, now my Marty, tell me to sit down and be quiet and be nice. It's a constant struggle with me.