“I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.” ~ Thomas Merton
“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” I bet we have all been asked it at some point, or have all identified as one or the other at some point. I know I have.
In fact, I always thought I was a dog person – I moved to Seattle at 23 years old with a beloved dog who I had for the next 13 years, some of the most formative years of my life. My dog Lulu was sweet, funny, and loved me unconditionally. Not only was I a “dog person” but I had the best dog ever. When Lulu was about, oh i don’t know, seven years old, my housemate got a cat. I liked the cat just fine, but I was really into my dog, so while I was kind and loving toward the cat, I never really connected with him deeply – until my dog died and my housemate moved to NYC leaving the cat with me. Suddenly, he was my cat, and my only pet. In no time I fell utterly in love with Cassius and when I had to put him down too, I was heartbroken.
Just after we put Cassius to sleep, we decided to relocate to our home in Mexico. Within less than a year, we ended up adopting an old dog from a neighbor who couldn’t care for her, especially in the special needs of her old age. Prieta was the best dog ever and once again I was a dog person – I loved how she greeted me at the door, sat with me while I did my practice and wagged her tail in a circle. She was our only pet for a while – until we found Loki, the tiniest kitten I had ever seen – probably just about three weeks old. We fed him with a little eyedropper, rubbed his belly to get him to poop, and slept with him in a little basket in our bed. Loki and Prieta became best of friends, and when we had to put Prieta to sleep, Loki was definitely lonely and confused. I felt so sad for him and would sometimes just look at him feeling like my heart was going to explode with love. I had the best cat ever.
And then we adopted three kittens who had been abandoned. I knew we couldn’t keep them all, but Loki definitely perked up and loved playing with them. We fostered them for about three weeks, and when we finally had to let two of the go, I was again deeply sad. I cried as I carried them, little, warm and trusting, out to the car of the woman who would adopt them. I was left with just Loki and Indie – or El Tigre as we also like to call the little one – two sweet cats. The best. I was again a cat person.
I’ve been thinking about this analogy lately as I have the privilege of teaching IMT and Teens online to a group of therapists and future IMT practitioners. We’ve been talking about how so many people seem to not really like teens and find or imagine them difficult to connect or work with. I shared how when I was in grad school we had to choose between the child track and the adult track. I was definitely in for the adult track – I wasn’t a “kids person.” But later, in my first hospital job, i was offered a pediatric position and, because it was a job that paid, I took it. I became the only one in my clinic who saw the whole lifespan since I had trained in adults but ended up in a position where much of my caseload was children. In fact, that only was one of the main seeds of Integrated Movement Therapy as I realized so much of what I learned with adults really didn’t work with kids, and so much of what I was doing and intuiting with kids did seem to work with adults. I started to become a kids person as well as an adults person, and later, an everything in between person.
I saw in my clinical career how the “dog person”/”cat person” thing seemed to translate to human beings. Many of my colleagues worked with kids and only kids, and in fact, did not want to work with anyone over the age of 12. My other colleagues worked with adults and only adults, and didn’t want to have much to do with anyone under 21. Which left a big gap of ages that were underserved and misunderstood.
What I have learned through my contemplative and clinical practices is that all of this cat/dog, kid/adult dualistic thinking only leads us to create and reinforce identities for ourselves and others. We miss that cats and dogs and all animals are God’s creatures, sentient beings in need of love and care. We miss the special characteristics of the other, and we miss the opportunity to see more dimensionality in the animal of our preference, specifically because they are not the other. It is a both/and (missed) opportunity to see more clearly. I have become convinced that if I found a baby rat, or a hurting old possum, I would love it just as much as I would any cat or dog, simply because it was the one in my care.
Likewise, when we over-identify with kids or with adults, we are also missing that each of those is a part of the other, that adults we all once children, and we can connect with that vulnerable, innocent aspect of them, just as kids will someday be adults, and we can recall that we won’t likely abandon them as they age if we truly love them now. So kids and adults and teens and old people and all the inbetween ages are all parts of each other, all parts of God, and all parts of us. If we do the work to dismantle our ideas and projections and our own identities as people who like one age more than another, we do not only ourselves a huge favor of opening more fully to love, more fully to the divine and more fully to the different aspects of ourselves. Just as I fell in love with cats because they were right in front of me needing my care, I can also fall in love with any age group. As a clinician, this allows me more freedom and experience in my practice, and as a human being, it allows me more freedom and opportunity in my life and in my heart.
Of course as these circles of understanding widen, we can include all beings everywhere. Who are the people we think we like more than others? What are the identities that we create and project and then decide that these are the types of people we gravitate towards and these are the ones we avoid? And can we imagine that if we knew them, if they were hurting or otherwise in our care, that we might change the way we feel about not only the individual, but about the group?
It is true that we may not ever have the opportunity to have many cats in our life, or many dogs, or many kids, or many old folks, or many people who are very different than we are. But it is also true that if we hold in our hearts and in our meditations and prayers the truth that all beings, all people, all animals are part of the whole, part of each other, part of us, part of God, we may be able to invite, allow, include and even move toward any other being, free from projections, free from our own self-imposed ideas, free from being cat people or dog people, and in this movement toward a wider circle of inclusion, our hearts and minds also widen and we find a deeper delight in our shared being-ness, and deeper love for our own selves as we see our own multi-dimensionality. Not cat or dog people, not kids or adults people, just people committed to loving and caring for all other beings in all their miraculous complexity.
We love what is in front of us. This moment, this being is the best because they are the one in our lives, in our care, in our presence in this moment. We only have to open eyes, our heart, our mind and our sphere of exposure to feel deeply the worth of all beings, and with that feel deeply our own worth, and our own connection to all that is, cats and dogs alike.