Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Parable of a Demonic Feline

--by Mike Adams

My story begins at two in the morning on a weekday night several years ago, when thankfully, for perhaps the first time in weeks, my toddler slept. He had managed the slowest recovery from chest infection in history. This meant that each night, for more than a week, I had awoken to the sounds of his gentle sobs and wheezy coughs. At intervals of several hours apart, I had risen from bed to comfort and care for him until he dozed in my arms. This repeated night after unrelenting night and each morning, my alarm bellowed, pitiless, and demanding, insisting that I rise and leave for work.

...On this night, however, my little one slept.

Meaning, I too could rest. So there I lay dormant in my bed, sleeping like a battle-weary veteran, when suddenly, I was awoken by the tortured wail of an injured feline.

I stumbled forth from the warm embrace of my bed with the same automaticity that drove me while I tended to my sick child. Down the stairs, into the dark living room, off to rescue the, Super Mike was on the scene. Our cat had managed to drag himself to the back door, and as I approached, he let loose a blood curdling screech, which filled me with concern.

I searched for a switch and ‘click’...the light revealed a cat with no outward sign of injury nor obvious physical distress. Apparently, he had simply hit upon a new and unpleasant way to use his voice.“Great!” I snorted, “The only thing he needs is to go outside...right now! I can’t believe I woke up for this!”

The next morning, I let everyone know what had happened and carefully explained that the cat would not be permitted inside after sunset. My two older sons, however, sharing both the compassion of Albert Sweitzer and the lack of interest in rules common to all children of their age, had other plans. They continued to let this demonic beast into our house.  Every evening, while I was upstairs tucking in my little bug-a-boo, they granted entrance to our cat, who would secret himself away, stowed underneath a table or behind some furniture until two or three in the morning, when he would announce his desire to leave, with torturous volume. This infuriated me, so after a week of sleepless nights, I finally threatened to wake everyone in the house if the cat was let in again. The kids relented and each night, this underworld fiend was ejected from our house, so that Dad could rest and his tirade could cease.

Life resumed normalcy and Marmalade Lion would vocalize an occasional yowl, but generally, he was pleasant, maybe even cute. The problem was that he had found an effective tactic and those are never easily forgotten. M. Lion would, with increasing frequency, employ his demonic yowl to get what he wanted. His wail, which could aptly be described as half strangled kitten and half of a choleric demon, would inundate my senses, pushing me towards a precipice of blind rage. On and on this continued, day after grinding day, until that moment of inspiration, when Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s notion of “conditioned reflex” dawned on me like the loving embrace of morning’s sunlight, gently caressing the cold, hard earth. I had just explained the history of Pavlov’s dog to my then eleven year old son, when it occurred to me that with the deliberate and consistent use of a well aimed spray bottle, I might train our cat to use a more pleasant sound when making requests.

With high hopes, I undertook this project in secret. I would not be thwarted by the Sweitzer-like instincts of my wife or kids, who never once woke up to deal with cat. I proceeded to administer a squirt to our feline on any occasion that his voice assaulted my serenity. Just one squirt, simple and consistent, this experiment continued for more than a year. I pitted my stubbornness against his instincts, betting on Pavlovian conditioning to carry the day. Each day, I would spray and each day, the cat would yowl. I sprayed again, and he yowled AGAIN. This cycle repeated, until our cat was reduced to a pitiful, sopping wet mound of fur and I, a defeated man, with little faith in the rational nature of life.

Ultimately, my cat learned the wrong lesson. To him, I became the Overload of Terror, the Man of remorseless Spray, a tormentor to be feared. He never associated the spray bottle with his vocalizations. Rather he hid whenever I entered the room and, from his shelter, his serenade courted ghouls.

Finally, I relented. I accepted that he would not be trained, that his vocalization must be hardwired and I could not change it. This was a blow, but I knew I had been wrong. Let me assure you, I did not undergo a thorough change of heart. I still dislike Marmalade Lion, but I do regret having traumatized him. If I had it to do all over again, I’d perhaps, search for a cat muzzle...or perhaps, just leave him alone.

This article is not, however, about my cat. Rather it explores what I have learned from him, about myself. I have learned that through me, Pavlov has tormented not just one slightly barmy feline but also my children, my wife, my co-workers and countless others. Like a merciless scientist, I have, periodically lashed out with this idea of “conditioned reflex” and wounded those who are closest to me, leaving them hurt and confused. Always, this has followed some incident where I interpreted their actions as cruel or callous. Usually, they were simply trying get something done as best they could and they had no more intent of malice than my cat had when he wanted out.

Frankly, this bothers me. I could easily conclude, based on this insight, that I am a thoroughly rotten person. That I have little or no self-control. That there is something seriously wrong with me. But my conclusion would be erroneous, my reactions are rather typical.  It seems, that virtually everyone has a bit of Pavlov in them. His retribution lurches forth from our bruised feelings and inflicts emotional pain on others. This leaves us in the position where either we confront our mess and try to offer a meaningful amend or we justify our cruelty, placing blame solely on those we love.

Now, when things get ugly and we’re looking at poor behavior, there is almost always someone thinking, “This doesn’t really pertain to me.” More often than I care to admit, I am that person. So, if you find that you are having those thoughts, take a moment to reflect on these typical sorts of human interactions:

A parent says to their co-parent, “DON’T talk to the kids that way! You ask why I snap at you and criticize? That’s why! You make me so mad. Stop talking to the kids OR me like that, and I’ll quit snapping at you.”

To which the first parent responds, “Give me a break! You can’t possibly pretend ignorance to the fact that your constant negativity and criticism angers me to the point where I get mean. Why don’t YOU stop?!”

Meanwhile, somewhere else, a married couple has the following exchange, “exasperated GASP...you spilled that drink down the front of the cabinets and walked away? Do I have to do everything around here?”

The other spouse says, “Do everything...seriously? If you could trouble yourself to reattach the lids to juice bottles, vitamin containers and spice jars, we wouldn’t have so many spills. I don’t know why I should clean anything up! Maybe if you did a bit more, you could figure out how to close containers properly.”

I think we get confused. We forget that we’re talking with someone important, like our spouse, our best friend or our children. Instead, we act as if we are dealing with some sociopath, or a rabid Nazi.  We act like Pavlov, remorselessly harming the subject of our experiment.


One of my favorite definitions of insanity, has been attributed to several professional athletes, to Albert Einstein and finally to Benjamin Franklin.  It is frequently quoted in 12-step recovery groups and it reads “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.”

Doesn’t this seem to describe us?  From my perspective, we humans have a strong tendency in this direction. We seem to have some pathological streak that compels us to believe it is not only OK, but advisable to treat people like this:
Wait a minute, that person just acted like a jerk!
I better make sure they know it.
Maybe I can teach them a lesson while I’m at it...They’ll never do that again!
Then, I’ll forgive them...comfort them...and love them.
I am such an enlightened soul!”

This never really works out, but we persist in it anyway. You can see it play out in every theatre of human interaction, spanning the gamut from our close interpersonal relationships to our international policy and cultural diplomacy.

In my life, this oft repeated drama plays out after dinner, during clean up. Each one of my kids is unusually distractible. In fact two of them have a diagnosis of ADHD. So every evening, right after dinner, we all head into the kitchen and begin the cleaning cycle.

It is important to note that when I say “We all begin cleaning,” what happens, is that I begin cleaning, while the kids saunter around our small and crowded kitchen not cleaning. My frustration mounts as I repeatedly ask them to look please at their chore lists. If I’m not careful, this is is where I become possessed of a fury. I begin barking orders and cause all pleasantry to dissipate as I plunge our kitchen into drudgery.

This usually ruins the entire evening, so recently, my wife and I agreed to try and characterize dinner cleanup as time spent with our kids…a time to talk with them and enjoy their company.

To be honest, this takes a considerable effort on my part. I often force a smile and say, “yeah that’s pretty clever...say, how much is left on your chore list?” A few seconds later: “pretty funny, but I don’t think you should be putting the dish towel in your mouth.  Oh that reminds me, how’s that chore list coming along?”

I understand no one would be reminded of chore list, because they see someone chewing on a dish towel.  This communication tactic is effective, thus my kids have never noticed the transition...shhhh!

I suppose the reason I’m sharing this with you is that it points to something I think is important. For a few years now, I have been writing these sermons and delivering them to groups, which are filled with people, who can make a difference. At some point, I had to contrast my actions towards those closest to me with the values about which I speak so passionately. “Parable of a Demonic Feline” is the result of that insight.  I believe that humanity’s ability to coalesce around anything important is rooted in how we treat each other. I am worried about the world we are leaving the next generation. I’m worried about our debt, our pollution and our tendency to constantly be engaged in some military action. All of this seems so overwhelming and truth be told, I will not be able to change the world!

I can, however, try to inspire the best in those around me. I can share my shortcomings, my struggles, my hopes and my dreams. Perhaps, if I’m honest enough, if I share enough hope, enough inspiration and enough passion, then, someone else might do the same and share their dreams. Together, we might start a chain reaction, we might inspire more dreamers and cumulatively, this could cause humanity to change this world.

So I am publishing this article, because I believe that you can make a profound difference for future generations. I believe that you are the agents of transformation. Though I am an atheist, I have faith in my fellow human beings.  I have faith that, despite our Pavlovian tendencies, we humans are miraculous, capable of the most astounding beauty and incredible charity.

You are my teachers, my heroes and my inspiration.  I am writing to try and mirror back to you, your own greatness. I am writing to try and inspire you to walk out into this world sharing that greatness.

I hope my message is well received and I thank you for taking the time to read.


  1. Thank you so much for including the text of your talk. It's easier for me to absorb through text :).

    1. No Problem! Glad you were able to read it, though my delivery is pretty darn good I think. :-)


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