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Observations: Biting the hand that feeds her

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image Abby, sleeping in my wife’s lap on the drive from Minnesota to Florida. Photo Mitch Trahagen

She was found crying in a bush outside of an assisted living facility on a cold spring day in Minnesota.  She was just a tiny, gray puff of fur; the veterinarian who later examined her put her weight at less than eight ounces.  I cradled her like a baby in one hand while bottle-feeding her kitten formula.  I also downloaded a metronome app for my iPhone and left it with her for the night, hoping the soft ticking would be soothing for the little frightened kitten.  We named her Abby.

A few days later, we made a home for her using a cardboard box and a few soft towels, loaded her into our car and made the long drive back to Florida. Everything to that tiny kitten was new so she had no fear of the car.  She spent most of the trip either playing with a shoestring or sleeping on one of our laps.  She was a tiny puffball and we were convinced that she was going to be a little, gray puffy dwarf of a cat.  

That turned out to be a ruse on her part. She kept growing, both up and around in girth, soon becoming a tubby, normal-sized feline.  She also became increasingly crabby, and, despite my reminders that I saved her from a cold life in a bush and bottle-fed her, she began to bite.  This little kitten, the miniature puffball with a meow so high-pitched that only dogs could hear it, became a biter. 

She doesn’t bite all the time, nor right away.  If I pet her, she seems to enjoy it immensely, rolling herself over in the oh-so-cute way that cats have learned to do on their way to becoming the perfect parasites, living off humans while giving little to nothing in return, barring the sheer privilege of their presence.  But a few seconds into her enjoyment, she’ll turn to bite.  Oh yes, you can keep petting her, she’ll still enjoy it, but she’ll also continue to bite.  My empty threats of leaving her to live in a bush do not seem to faze her.  She knows I won’t.  She owns me and she feels she owes me nothing.

In December, a study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General that studied the concept of “paying it forward.” Despite the popularity of the phrase, it turns out that people aren’t so good at that sort of thing.  For the most part, greed, not generosity, is what gets paid forward.  The results of the study confirmed the researcher’s hypothesis that “greed would prevail because negative stimuli have more powerful effects on thoughts and actions than positive stimuli.”

The bottom line was that people should probably start to focus less on random acts of generosity and just start being overall decent humans, treating each other equally while “refraining from random acts of greed.”

I’m not sure what to think about such sweeping statements regarding all of society.  By and large, I think people tend to be pretty messed up.  There is a lot of fear and loathing in the world today and people, in general, are angry.  Delay at a stoplight for a fraction of a second and prepare to be honked at, get cut off in traffic — or worse, be the accidental cutter — and prepare for profanities of all manner directed at you.  Try, just try, to reason with an airline for a lost bag or a botched seat assignment or a customer “service” representative from a large package delivery service and at best you’ll find indifference bordering on what could be expected from the Anti-Christ.

But all that said, I don’t buy that the best we can do is try to refrain from greed.  I’ve seen many acts of kindness over the course of my years, along with many acts of greed.  The kindness, even if perhaps more rare, towers over the greed in both memory and impact.  Greed stings momentarily yet kindness lives on indefinitely.

The study involved sharing a cash gift with strangers.  I’m not sure that in this day and age that would be an appropriate measure of generosity or greed. When it comes to money, greed is omnipresent and unabashed.  Generosity involves need and compassion, something the study seemed to fail to address.

The screws are relentlessly being turned on people. Banks, employers, power companies, even cereal manufacturers expect more from us while giving less in return. Income is stagnant or declining while prices rise and with each turn of the screw more pressure is felt, more stress is created. Eventually a bubble will burst and the result won’t be pretty.  We all have our limits and we feel powerless as we hurtle towards them.

Somehow today greed is being celebrated as success, much like ignorance is being celebrated as faith or patriotism.  But that’s not us; that does not represent real people who go to work to put food on the table and to educate their children. I know the standard can be better than merely “refraining from random acts of greed.” It has to be better than that because without generosity to offset the greed, we would be in a world of hurt.  Corporations may have been deemed by the Supreme Court to be people but that doesn’t mean they have a conscience. We do. We are better than that.

Abby jumped up on the couch next to me, tucked in her furry front paws, closed her eyes and began to purr. It makes me feel better knowing that somewhere deep down inside she wants to hang out with me.  I reach over to pet her cute, soft face, knowing she’ll bite me but I do it anyway. So much for negative stimuli.  The greedy may have wealth but at least I have my soul.

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