I’m the caretaker of a cat. It feels weird to call him “mine,” or “my pet,” because he generally does what he wants and I generally accommodate that. But sometimes his whims conflict with my own. Like at 5:00 a.m., when he meows loudly in the silence, or walks on my head, and I have no idea what’s happening or what he wants. Or he’ll be about to break something I care about or go somewhere I don’t want him to, such as the keyboard of my laptop or the shelf I’ve balanced a week’s worth of papers on. I tend to get angry, and because I am bigger than he is, and his cat brain can’t comprehend my mouth flapping around, I usually pick him up and drop him on the floor. Occasionally, I have been rather more forceful than was required. This despite the fact that I love him, in all his infuriating fuzzy aloofness. Why do I get so upset with someone I care about?
But lately I’ve been trying something else. I was despairing of social media, and the number of people I scroll past—I know, never read the comments, mea culpa—who say that the opposing political group is beyond reasoning with and they’ll never listen to them, because they’re [belittling epithet]. But humans are still humans. I tend to think most of them want the best for everyone, even if we disagree how best to live. Given that earnestness, it makes as much sense for me to try to see things from their point of view as it does to get angry about their position.
So with the cat, I’ve tried to put myself in his paws and imagine how things look from his point of view. He can’t get his own food, or scoop his own box, and he’s just up because he doesn’t have to deal with jobs and outside obligations. Because cat. It helped, a lot.
Synchronicitously, I clicked through some list of links to find Rebecca Knight’s article “How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You” in the Harvard Business Review, of all things. It’s not long on scientific papers, but does have a lot to say about cultivating empathy. We probably could do well with a bit more in the world.