Today I’m very grateful I have a cat. Through caring for him, I’ve come to a new level of understanding what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
That phrase can be expressed in so many ways. “Do unto others…” “Treat others like you want to be treated.” We’ve charmingly fit it into the phrase “Golden Rule.” I often tried to follow the golden rule, because when you’re little that’s what good kids do and when you’re older it’s what you’ve learned to do without giving it a second thought. It’s rote memory like multiplication and ROY G BIV.
But there’s a downfall in swallowing the pill so easily. By not unpacking the phrase, I’ve followed the rule without really understanding its meaning. I condensed the Golden Rule down to a transaction that had nothing to do with love and care. “Do this for me and I’ll do this for you and vice versa.” It boiled down to caring less how people felt, and more about how the response would impact me. It wasn’t that I meant to be rude or even that I was consciously doing so. But the Golden Rule had become so trite, why would I need to check myself? And how could I understand that I wasn’t following the advice when I didn’t really know what it was saying?
Enter my cat. He’s often very needy. When self-assured, he voices his desires loudly and insistently. Meows are distinctive, translating: “I want food now!” “What are you eating? Share!” “Let me outside!” Notice me!” Other times my cat is quiet, but still confident. When he’s tired and wants company, he walks up and snuggles against me. He rubs his head on my arm, waiting until I pet him, scratching between his shoulder blades. Even when someone refuses to pet him or let him snuggle, he tries again and again and may still claim a spot of love. He’ll lean against the person and just go to sleep. And I like those quiet calm moments enjoying each others company. At whatever decibel level, my cat looks for and accepts opportunities to love and be loved. There’s no transaction. Just honesty.
There are times when my cat is uncertain. He’ll want to go outside but is wary. A person walking across the street is too much of a possible threat to him (though of course they could really care less). Sometimes I see nothing that could instill fear and yet my cat remains on the threshold while I stand holding the door open, shivering in the cold gusts of wind. It’s tempting to just push him out despite his timid whines or just close the door in his face, keeping him inside. Sometimes I do. But I try to leave the door open for as long he needs until he is comfortable enough to make his own decision.
Because that’s what I would like.
So often I rush to do something or avoid decision entirely because I’m afraid to rest in the decision making process, which can take some time for me. I don’t expect others to be patient with me, to hold the door open with love. My indecisiveness is a weakness, but also something perpetuated and made more persistent because I’m not comfortable and act apologetically about it. Giving my cat the space and time makes me a little more brave to try and live in such a way that I just am. I can claim a space and be open to love whether it comes or not. Being open, I think that invites the love in.
Loving my neighbor as I love myself isn’t about rules or figuring out what I want from you or what way of love I want to demonstrate. It’s being open and vulnerable. Open to the opportunities and moments when I could act without love, act without thinking, but take the time to treat someone as they need and deserve instead. It means I see you and not what I want from you. There’s a level of understanding and an allowance of grace and love. There’s compassion.
It’s wonderful to see an animal behave naturally. And it has hit me the power of truly living life of connection is. Even when my cat is worried or scared because of something I’ve done, I have the opportunity to change my tactic and respond out of love. With something as simple as a cat I’m understanding and growing to extend grace to myself and my fellow human beings, my neighbors.
I feel I’ve learned this over and over with people. I’ve made great friends and learned from great mentors. But sometimes something simple hits again. The glimpse of truth to loving my neighbor that I found interacting with people was easy to lose when distracted by conversations and busyness and everything else of life. And for some reason observing my cat just brought all those small lessons to fruition of a new way of seeing it all, one I could verbalize.
Pulling apart the meaning behind the Golden Rule may seem like splitting hairs, but to me, there’s a profound difference. I feel I can be more loving when there are no strings attached, when it’s truly unconditional, backed with the full intention of the saying instead of its trite facade. I know I’ll mess up but how freeing it is to know that each moment is a new opportunity. This isn’t a race to measure up, to be good enough to get the gold star for the golden rule. It’s living and loving, being truly connected, open with, and full of grace for another person. That’s what it is to love your neighbor as yourself.
My prayer: May I, by noticing this small example, notice the bigger opportunities to love and honor my neighbor.