Human beings are a lot of things, the first of which is (often needlessly) complicated. Few things about the human condition are either black or white, but instead a spectrum of thought, desires, and emotions which help to make us who we are and function (and dysfunction) the way we do.
There is, after all, a reason why psychiatrists spend so much time attempting to learn both the biological and emotional underpinnings of the human animal. And the good and dedicated ones even manage to understand some of what they learn.
Most of us don’t keep the “Freud Daily Reader” on our nightstand, nor do we have assorted medical degrees and a string of letters after our names on stationary or as part of our email wallpaper. Luckily for us, that isn’t necessary for the purposes of going on about our lives and dealing with our personal allotment of the nearly seven billion other humans currently on the planet. A basic understanding of our fellow human beings can be had by applying a few simple shortcuts such as an awareness of why we personally do the things we do and a modicum of empathy toward the rest of the world.
The Christmas season is a good time to understand what really motivates our friends, neighbors and the greater community in which we live. Yes, it has been commercialized, and yes, buying presents shouldn’t be the focus of the season. But those things — and possibly “road rage” while shopping — aside, it is a season, a period of time out of the entire year, when people really try to be people instead of “the human animal.” And hopefully it is also a time when we all live up to the maxim of “It is better to give than to receive.”
Now, giving and receiving is perfectly acceptable. We exchange gifts for various reasons as a show of our connection with another person, and it can even be seen as a show of mutual respect. But giving itself, actually giving when we expect absolutely nothing in return, is something we see a lot of during the holidays. It is an obvious example of empathy when we give to fulfill a need or simply as a desire to reward someone we feel is worthy or deserving. The best of us can maintain that empathy beyond the season in a variety of ways. And it says a lot about us as people.
A good way to measure a society is to examine how the members of that society exhibit the traits of giving and empathy. And a good way to measure those traits is to examine how a person treats animals. Some might argue that animals aren’t actually people (a fact for which I am grateful), but they are so much a part of our society that we couldn’t envision life without animals.
And they are a perfect example because they are unable to return any gift we bestow on them in like kind. Certainly, companionship has value, as does a “lick” from a tongue which might possibly have been recently used for grooming purposes, but animals lack both the ability and finances to purchase and deliver presents.
Still, regardless of their purchasing power, most people adore animals and shower them with gifts. And as is the case with any gift, whether we personally experience it or not, there is a return. It may be nothing more than the warm feeling we get knowing we have helped another living being somehow, but that value alone is incalculable. There is also a lesson to be learned as well. With every morsel of food, every treat, or in the case of “wild” animals, forbearance, the kindness is appreciated in the way they know how. Even the raccoon that won’t stay out of your garbage is glad to have the garbage.
I think about these things when I consider how much of the cat food I purchase is consumed by random creatures such as possums, raccoons and whatever else comes up on the porch at night while I’m not there. That’s one of the reasons why I was so pleased to see pictures of a possum — complete with holiday finery — on the Dawg House pet grooming website. Most people might think of possums as vermin, but here someone has adopted one and is caring for them in grand style. If I can track the owner down, I believe an interview is in order.
Now, this photogenic possum might not be ready to take over the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in a local theater production, but it is dressed for the season, and is an example of how kindness works. A little empathy can go a long way, and almost anything can return kindness. And even the most unexpected people might surprise us when we are kind. We should remember that when we are dealing with each other this holiday season, or any season. Who knows what is possible if we just give because there is a need.