The cat spent a few days on a drip. Despite the initial suspicion based on the symptoms, her bladder was intact. As well as that, she was able to move her feet and so we knew the spine was OK. In order to be able to know whether she’d make it, we needed to X-ray her. As we all know, X-ray presupposes that the object doesn’t move – and for an animal that means sedation. As she was quite unwell after the accident, they delayed the X-ray. Those 2 days were pretty hard for me.
The morning of the X-ray, my mother and I went up to the clinic as soon as it opened. The exhausted post-call vet did the X-ray. It transpired that her pelvis is broken as is the distal femur. The femur fragment was more aligned with the tibia than it was with the femur…
By the cage-side, the vet asked me: “What do you want?” English isn’t his native tongue. He was asking me whether or not I wanted for him to operate (as distinct from putting her down). I didn’t understand what the X-ray findings implied at this point.
The vet explained that within about 2 weeks she will be back walking – and fully recovered within 6. A light shined somewhere inside of me.
The cat was asleep still with the X-ray sedative. Her surgery is booked for Monday.
Some thoughts pass by
As I stand there, petting the poor cat, I hear a number of people crying inconsolably in the examination area. I instantly think: “That’s a very intense reaction in the context of a pet.” How could I possibly think this? Seconds after finally finding out the cat will get better after narrowly escaping death, after spending 3 days on the verge of tears, for that short moment their whaling seemed incomprehensible.
The Buddhists say that thoughts are like the weather: they aren’t really ours or anyone’s. What makes the difference is what we do with those thoughts.
I was certainly letting that particular thought dissolve.
It is interesting to note how quickly one can become unempathetic once their own pain subsides.
In that same vein, my guilt felt much diminished all of a sudden.
Guilt is confusing. In theory, it should be related to our actions, in reality, it is closely related to consequences beyond our control.
My actions could have lead to the cat’s immediate death – or her needing to be put down due to injuries that the veterinary medicine couldn’t help with. Now that I know that the cat will get better, I feel that my efforts over the last few days paid off – and the guilt is melting away. It’s not gone, but it is smaller. Feelings are, by definition, irrational – and all the more interesting to observe.
Trying to regain focus
On Monday, I am angsty – and it’s a bit difficult to hold it together in the office. I think I have a low grade fever. In my job as an editor of a healthcare publication, my mind kept shifting to the cat at each hiatus. I both do and don’t want to think about the cat. I do – I am naturally drawn to thinking about the poor creature. I don’t – I know that there’s nothing to gain by obsessing at this point. While focusing is hard, it is also pleasant because it takes my mind away from replaying the events of the last few days, perhaps, being a bit self-destructive.
This self-inflicted limbo is the standard MO for many of us. Just as we approach any fears, hopes or potentially unpleasant realisations – we look away and shift out attention on to our phones, our emails, work, whatever.
I made a conscious effort to focus by reminding myself to be here and taking a few deep breaths to interrupt the distraction.
I rang twice to see whether she’d had her surgery. These conversations are awkward as the receptionist keeps asking for the cat’s name – but the cat doesn’t have one. I didn’t name her because I felt it wasn’t my place. However, at this point this was clearly a vanity in the way of the cat’s welfare as it was interfering with communication. The vet referred to her as Tiger-cat because of her fur colour. I decided that will be her “working-title” name now, Tiger. I was told that the surgery will take 2 hours and is planned for 3 pm. Good luck, little kitty.
When I arrived to see her, she was just waking up. She was well though dizzy as the anaesthetic was wearing off. Over the last few days, she’s been improving. Her appetite is huge. She’s going to get better. I think I am repeating that too much.
Lessons in guilt
Guilt causes dangerous self-hatred.
Rationality and the survival instinct kick in to say that it is important to forgive myself.
Guilt caused me to not judge the situation as good or bad.
I see myself as part of the chain of events that caused so much pain for this innocent creature. All that was relevant was what I could do now to make things better – and what I could learn from the experience.
Guilt reminds me to be grateful by making me more aware.
This story reminded me of how transient and fragile we are. I am second guessing my decisions more too.
Imagining the world from the point of view of an animal is an incredibly good way to activate one’s empathy.
Words don’t matter here. There’s no explaining what happened, no blaming – action is the only meaningful thing.
The conscience screams that I ought to do everything I can to make it better for the victim.
It also questions whether I am labouring to alleviate my guilt – or help the victim, as those two things aren’t the same. Guilt evolved so as to minimise the consequences of a “bad” action for me, not for the victim.
Guilt is a strong motivator.
After realising my poor judgement and various ways I was incompetent, I was still able to mobilise my resourcefulness so as to do the most I could.
Guilt makes the rest of the world appear unempathetic and self-obsessed – until of course it subsides.
Then one is left wondering how they were so passionately involved and how people in similar situations are so overwhelmed. Genuine empathy cannot be consistently sustained.
Shame is part of guilt.
It is evolution’s way to minimise the consequences of our mistakes. It’s another reason why people write fiction and express experience in parables.
Mindfulness takes people away from sadness over the past or worries over the future. What if the now feels stressful? With the brutal honesty this situation deserves, I describe the fleeting thoughts and finer insights I’ve been able to obtain by being in the moment as much as I could – in a difficult situation I caused. I felt it more, which was painful, but I also learnt more than I would have by not paying attention. Once again I learn that what made this situation difficult was rooted in the past or projected to the future. This story may be difficult to read for anyone who love animals, especially cats.
A charming new friend
I’ve always loved the furry little creatures. Maybe it is growing up with The Lion King as a favourite cartoon, I am not sure. Last Monday, coming back from work I felt quite lonely. There are a lot of feral cats near where I live. The community here feed them, it’s like a little sanctuary for them. In case you were wondering, cats can live in a kind of a pride, they’re not always solitary like it is normally presumed. I don’t usually pet them. i tell myself the reason is that they have all kinds of parasites, etc. There’s something else that bothers me though:
I feel there’s something disingenuous about petting a stray cat. I am interfering with its life, implying that I can be good for the cat, but really I don’t know if I am habituating it to being accepting of humans when it shouldn’t necessarily be.
However, this cute grey kitten of about 8 months old sat there on a garden fence, looking at me. I came over to pet it and it seemed very happy. I was very happy too. We played for about 10 minutes and then she followed me for a long stretch of the journey home. I even wondered – should I bring her to stay in my garden, feed her, etc. But there are other cats living there, who knows what they’ll do. We passed by someone in a man hole and the cat didn’t want to keep going.
She made eye contact with me as I regretfully waved at her – and ran back to her part of the beach.
Talking to a friend later that day, I reminisced about the cat that we had when I was younger. She had to be given away as I had bad allergic rhinitis. My friend reassured me that it was good for me to befriend a cat like that, and it would be right to have the cat migrate from where it normally lives.
On Thursday I was passing by the same stretch of the beach. All of a sudden the very same kitty appeared out of nowhere. I know that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but this cat new who I was as it came over very confidently awaiting to be cuddled. About 10 minutes later, I decided it wouldn’t be right to play with the cat and not feed it. After all, these cutesy cats know how to play us: they are very used to getting fed by humans. So I decided that we shall cross the road and get some tuna in the shop. You know where this is going…
Watching the consequences of bad judgement in real time
I carried the cat across the road, but as we were finished crossing, agitated, she wanted to get out of my arms. And I let her. She jumped on the pavement. We were a good few metres away from the cars at this point – and all of a sudden she bolted back to run to the other side of the road.
The next moment seemed to last forever.
I don’t know how long it took her to get across. I remember the tiny pieces of cat fur vaporised in the air as if they were feathers. I remember anxious drivers mindful of their blind spots but also aware of the traffic behind them on a busy road… At the same time, it happened so fast, I don’t even know which car hit her. I stood there terrified. Even after it was injured it relentlessly kept searching for safety, breathing fast, its back arched and eyes wide open, pulling itself by its front paws.
I felt that I had taken this defenceless trusting creature, promised her safety and negligently let her fall into the Styx.
The adrenaline was pumping, but I knew that I couldn’t just go out into the stream of cars to save her. Between the traffic coming from 2 sides and the frantic cat, all at night time, there were more moving parts than I could safely handle.The hardest part was standing there, watching the poor cat trying to get to safety having absolutely no insight into how traffic works knowing that this wouldn’t have happened without me and realising my own powerlessness.
Most of this blog is in some way related to mindfulness.
By and large, mindfulness makes life easier to be mindful as the vast majority of moments are better than anxieties about the future or ruminations about the past. This wasn’t one of those moments.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – neither should I.
There were just seconds between being a happy friendly kitten and suffering the most intense fear and life-threatening injuries.
When I came over to her, her little heart was pounding so fast I could barely distinguish a pulse.
As I lifted her, it was obvious her back legs weren’t functional. She tried to climb into a bush, dragging herself by her front legs.
As a doctor, I have a certain confidence when it comes to emergency situations: I was trained to handle emergencies. However, it turns out this only applies to specific emergencies. Given the time of day, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a vet. Just like the cat’s, my instinct was to hide in my own metaphorical bush – carry her home, to my safety. As I carried her, I thought she might be dying. Cats’ pupils are usually so tiny. This cat’s were so dilated, I could barely see the green of her irises. She was supine in my arms, staring into space, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth.
I’d never seen so much anguish in any creature’s eyes.
Reflection and rumination
What stopped me from crossing on my own to get the cat food? It seemed like it would be so much fun to go together. It seems that with all that scrolling through Instagram, I’d forgotten that animals aren’t a form entertainment. They have fragile lives that we don’t understand the same way that they do. One of the reasons I didn’t think that it was in issue to bring the cat across was that I’d seen plenty of cats crossing the road like they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve seen a few lucky escapes by less than knowledgeable cats, but they somehow didn’t come up in my mind quite so prominently. It was possibly a semi-conscious decision to refuse insight as it seemed that doing things together with this cat was my way to connect with it and to feel less lonely. She’s a lonely stray cat, and I felt like a stray that day too.
It felt right to pick her up – and felt wrong to be overly calculated about it.
As she ran back across I tried to stop her. Even at that point, I was a bit scared but mostly confident she knew what she was doing.
There’s a certain arrogance that comes with being human.
When I picked her up the first time, I was sure I knew how to handle a cat. I felt I knew more about what’s good for the cat than she did. But really, what am I capable of? I can’t pause the traffic. I can’t keep a cat due to family circumstances. I can’t expect to find someone to home a sick cat in a country full of stray cats. I can’t even be sure I can pay the vet’s bills.
It’s a terrifying realisation: how fragile we all are. It is so hard to handle this concept. It’s hard to not feel helpless knowing how vulnerable we really are.
Not only was this creature fragile, but also lacking in insight. This poor cat didn’t know how it worked even though it lived by the road.
And it just reminded me of how we all are: we don’t know why things happen the way they happen.
Things seem random and dangerous. We try so hard, we give it all we’ve got, but we don’t know how to get to safety any better than this little kitten.
Guilt, guilt, more guilt
Is it all just guilt? There’s a lot of guilt. While everything I did was well intended, it was also negligent. I should have known that the feral cat isn’t that used to being picked up, that it may want to run home, that it may not understand how the road works.
It’s difficult to recognise that being well intended, I ended up putting this cat into a horrible situation.
At the same time I know that I was never going to be perfect. I err; it is my nature as a human being. I can forgive myself at some point, given that I learnt. It’s tough to write this. All of this is written while crying. I’ve been crying multiple times a day since this happened. It’s my n-th draft. The least I can do is learn and share what I learnt. I can’t let go of this until I learn everything I can – and of course, do everything I can for the poor cat.
Of course, I realise that all of these ruminations aren’t very mindful. However, I have no intention of purging them as I know they’re trying to teach me something. Most of this is written as they occur.
I know it’s better to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings: the good, the bad and the ugly rather than trying to get rid of them. It’s the choices and actions that count, so that’s my focus now.
No vet was open at this late hour. I rang a few “emergency” numbers where the vets all advised me to wait until tomorrow. I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to focus on my breath as my mind insisted on replaying the events of the night as well as all the ifs and the should haves… It was particularly hard to let go of those. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I woke up very early the next morning. It wasn’t clear whether it was alive as it hid behind the air conditioning unit. I didn’t want to wake it. It was only a fleeting thought of yet another part of me that I am seriously not proud of that she was dead so that I wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions at the vet’s like having to “put her to sleep”. It wouldn’t be sleep though, would it?
When we got to the vet in the morning, this woman in her early 40s didn’t seem enthused at having to see a stray. She examined the cat: there was reason to believe that the spine could be broken and the bladder ruptured, both of which a guarded prognosis. I cried again in the vet’s office. The vet wasn’t in any way unprofessional, but she had a cold and clinical style. It seems I was sufficiently inconsolable to get her a bit more involved. When she was writing up the cat’s chart, the vet asked me what the cat’s name was. This is when I really stopped being able to speak through the tears. Obviously, cats don’t give consent, but if they did, I felt that I surely didn’t have it. I failed this animal, I didn’t have any rights over her and surely she was not the sort of cat who has a name. She was a feral cat, and it was time for me to finally respect that fact.
I am crying again while I am writing this. My emotions seem completely overwhelming.
I had a role to play in this cat’s misfortune. I made an error in judgement. I realised yet again our fragility and transience. It’s bad, but it doesn’t explain how intensely bad I feel.
Transference and empathy
To some extent, I feel that this isn’t a stray cat, but my old cat from years ago. Freud called it transference. On another level, I feel that I have much in common with the cat. I believe that is what they really call empathy. Being an NT type on Myers-Briggs, it seems to me that I don’t feel things as intensely or as quickly as some others seem to. I might come across as cold to some people, but I it’s not really what it’s like for me. I cry from watching films, reading books… I can’t watch fail videos… I couldn’t even finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in the same way that, I would argue, the main character wouldn’t finish it either.
Having a habit of reading deeply into things, I wonder if being a thinking type (as distinct from a feeling type) is a form of defence – because experiencing real, insightful empathy is utterly intolerable.
Perhaps that’s why most nerds seem kind of maladjusted socially and don’t relate well to people.
IQ combined with EQ allows one to see things that are very scary – and nobody wants to be this scared. Perhaps having a high grade on both of these stops being evolutionary advantageous.
Of course, it is about how one uses it, but even that requires constant overriding of primal limbic empathy. I remember seeing pictures of Syrian children that went viral and feeling awful on one level, simply as any human being would towards a harmed child, on another – recognising that such emotionally charged images are used to promote certain political interests, that most people who see the images don’t realise this and that this lack of insight from the mass readership of social media and newspapers is instrumental in the advancement of the said political interests. It’s not that I have the opposite political interest, it is the fact that politics is involved that made it feel nasty. In other words, suffering children are used to condition the masses in a way that suits some elite. This isn’t all that deep, but it’s just an example of IQ and EQ working together to show how the world is a hugely complex place. Why am I using the word complex? Why not just say that its nasty? Well, because I know that I don’t fully understand it. Maybe the consequences of this media reporting are going to be better than the alternative. I will never know.
A few attempts at rationalisation
Years ago, I read about Shingon Buddhism. It’s not something that is written about a lot on the internet or indeed in print. It teaches about right and wrong in a way that we’re not used to.
For example, if a tiger kills an antelope, we conventionally feel sorry for the antelope. There’s something wrong about it. In reality, the tiger needs to kill the antelope because its little tiger cub will shrivel and die otherwise. What is right and what is wrong?
We like the day and fear the night: but they can’t exist without each other. I guess Buddhism, in general, tells us that it’s difficult to judge what’s good and bad, at least as far as external circumstances we’ve no control over are concerned.
Of course, part of me is consoling myself and searching for a rationalisation. However, there genuinely may be some good that will emerge from this experience. Maybe my learning will help me – or someone reading this – to do something better than what we would have otherwise done. In a strange twist, a day or two before this happened, I was replying to someone’s comment and saying that meaning remains after death, regardless of whether one’s top of the food chain homo sapiens or… a feral cat. I hope she doesn’t die from this, but in any case, she is very meaningful to me.
Lessons I learnt
We’re all fragile. A moment can change everything. It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.
What else did I learn?
At no point during the ordeal did the cat show any signs of giving up.
I am here lamenting and analysing. The cat is getting on with her life. Tildeb recently introduced me to some old English literature, and in particular this:
Whether fate be foul or fair,
Why falter I or fear?
What should man do but dare?
The cat doesn’t give up. The cat is always preoccupied with her surroundings. She’s constantly looking around and just does her best to adapt. The night before we went to the vet she cried, I assume for her relatives and because of pain. I’d never heard a cat cry before. It’s kind of like a dog squealing, but less protracted and a bit more like a meow. It’s also completely heart-wrenching.
I also learnt a huge amount about guilt, compassion, motivation, bias, empathy, sense of self and expectations.
Being a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I read his new article today. It relates to the significance of extreme events. In short, Taleb says that it’s not the high rep low intensity exercise that builds strength, but rather the extremely high difficult exercise. He compares it to assessing the strengths of a bridge: you need to test it using the heaviest vehicles – rather than driving a normal car back and forth on it lap after lap.
In his book Antifragile, Taleb discusses the useful of stress. He talks about how people create great things by, in the best possible sense of the word, overcompensating for their shortcomings.
Taleb’s concept of the usefulness of stress is really helpful when you are experiencing stress. It won’t all have been for nothing. People often bring up Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The disheartening thing about this quote is that it’s out of context and misunderstood. Nietzsche said that if you manage to make it through, it means you were strong to begin with.
Stress does make you stronger, up to a point. Rather than resenting the fact that I am going through stress, this thought helps me focus on the way in which it will all make sense in the end.
A few days ago, for the first time in years, I found myself in a horrible mood – completely out of the blue. On reflection, I got into it through comparing myself to someone else, being inflexible and impatient under the pressure of my own big dreams. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was suicidal. I was thinking of how I owe it to the people who love me to keep going. I knew that I felt like this before. Because of that, cognitively, I knew it would pass. Cognitively, I knew that the kind of words that were floating around in my head were only words that clumsily tried to explain how much pain I was in. All the same, it was a really dark three or four hours of self-hatred and hopelessness. It was made worse by the vicious cycle of feeling guilty and weak for feeling bad.
Cognitively, I knew that the faster I interrupt this horrible mood, the better. Bad moods beget more bad moods. At this point, I stopped judging myself for feeling bad, acknowledged that this is simply the way it is – good or bad – and it’s time to get myself out of this horrible state. But how? How do you get yourself out of this mood swamp? Common wisdom would say: look for support. I couldn’t fathom talking to anyone. I know now that it’s silly, but there was no arguing with the upset-me. Common wisdom would say: try and feel grateful for what you have rather than feel bad about what’s missing. That just seemed like some kind of evil joke.
The answer, as always, came from asking the right question. The question I asked was: What’s useful about this? I knew this lesson from before. I’ve even written about it here. It just goes to show that these lessons aren’t only cognitive. It takes time and iterations to learn them. Even with all my knowledge, it took me a bit of digging around to find where the right button was.
What was useful about it? I knew that I need time to look after myself. In and of itself, that was useful information. I looked back and wondered what upset me – I learn from that too. It wasn’t the first time that being super focused and not flexible enough got me into trouble like this. However, rather than judging, I will just take this is another data point and another note to self: be more flexible. This is high level theory, but I’ve already implemented measures that would make it easier for me to be more flexible. I also realised that today wasn’t a good day to do any work. My alarm bells went off – I am glad that I don’t have to work?! Rather than accusing myself of laziness, I dug deeper. I was doing something important, repetitive – and boring. It was super easy. I am sure many people don’t mind those kind of tasks, but I can’t handle them at all. My relentless focus on doing what needs to be done got me into a situation where I couldn’t play to my strengths. So here’s another lesson: doing things that don’t come naturally for too long isn’t sustainable. I think that’s valuable as next time I will be able to assign who does what and when better.
As I am writing this, I am able to not just hope that that horrible feeling never happened – I feel grateful that I learnt from it. I really mean it. It’s all about learning, progress, small wins and getting closer to the person you want to become. And not judging.
The truth is, it’s highly unusual for me to get upset. I wasn’t just born this way though. There was one thing that made me go from super sensitive to where I am now. When I say super sensitive, I mean if the person who poured my coffee in the morning looked at me wrong – I would feel uneasy for hours. What made the difference for me wasn’t some sort of soul searching or even mindfulness – it was straight up physical exercise. I don’t know whether it is just the flood of endorphins, but it really helps with the art of just not giving af when appropriate. Exercise is the one thing that makes the biggest difference to both mental and physical health for a healthy person.
There was some cognitive work too, but it would never have happened without the initial boost through exercise. The cognitive work was something like this: the barista doesn’t care about you, you are just a person with an order and a wallet. They are in their own world. It’s not personal. They are just trying to get through the day the best they can. I think there’s a word for that – it’s called empathy. Exercise isn’t known to cause empathy, what’s going on here? Exercise requires focus, so in a sense, it requires mindfulness. Maybe that’s part of it. In any case – in my unblinded non-randomised non-controlled trial of n=1, it works.