My relationship with my cat runs deeper than some I’ve had with close friends or even significant others. I’m serious. This thing with Thomas keeps developing. It’s a mystery as big as love itself and as old as the universe. Looking into Thomas’ gigantic green eyes obliterates boundaries and stops time. He and I are transformed into individual blobs of consciousness, contemplating each other and what it means to live, love, and exist. Neither of us has any idea, but we let The Great Unknown take us where it will.
Then he licks his butt.
See, that’s life with a cat: When you do it right, it’s equal parts love, mystery, and humor.
But doing it right takes work. This is certainly true of human relationships — including those with romantic partners, friends, family members, and professional associates — and I’m here to tell you it’s the same with animals as it is with humans. The love that results is the biggest thing on the planet. But it doesn’t come automatically. Another way of saying this?
It’s not unconditional.
Consider this: In September, Thomas and I will have lived together for two years. The intensity, love, understanding, and silliness of our bond has grown in stages, but not without work, perseverance, and patience. About 15 months ago, in A Love Letter to My Cat, I wrote that things didn’t come easily for either Thomas or myself. When we met, we had each endured our own recent losses and hardship, so acknowledging each other and saying “maybe” was the best either of us could do. But we kept at it. Giving Thomas a Tarot reading was among the things that convinced me we had a metaphysical connection. And after a while, I came to consider him not just a cat but a friend. Now, between bird-toy play and butt-licking, we let The Great Unknown swallow us up during quiet, unguarded moments. Who knows where we’re headed?
Recently, while reading through a couple of Catster posts on love and cats, I was reintroduced to a popular notion: Cats love us unconditionally. Previously, when I’d heard this idea, I said “sure.” But now I see that I had not fully examined the idea. When I did, my conclusion was a solid “No way — nor should they.”
Let me explain.
I submit that Thomas does not love me unconditionally, and that no cat in his right mind would give this level of love and devotion to any other creature without condition. Think about it. For Thomas to love me, I’ve had to do a lot more than just show up. I’ve had to show up day after day, night after night. I feed Thomas. I play with him. I give him affection. I talk to him. I treat him like he’s my friend. Daphne and I give him a place he feels safe. We take care of him when he has a physical problem. We make sure he never questions whether these things are there.
Think also about the things we don’t do. We don’t neglect him. We don’t abuse him. We don’t scream and yell and scare him, keeping him off balance.
To me, all these things are conditions for his love. If Thomas and other cats loved us unconditionally, none of this would matter. We could ignore them, abuse them — pet them only sometimes, play with them only when we felt like it — and they’d love us just the same. But it doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. Animals should love us when we demonstrate that we deserve their love. That, my friends, is as conditional as it gets.
Slight tangent: Some might say unconditional love applies to things that other humans can hold against us that cats don’t. Maybe people make fun of us because we’re overweight, for example, or our ears stick out a little too far. But cats don’t. Maybe certain people in our family hold our political views or sexual orientations against us. But cats don’t. Maybe prospective employers turn us away because we’re of a certain age. But cats don’t.
Sure they don’t. But cats also don’t have the brain capacity to grasp electoral politics, romantic relationship theory, sexual orientation, or employment law. While it’s certainly great that cats love us despite certain factors that other humans might deplore or ridicule, I don’t believe that conditional vs. unconditional is part of that setup.
This whole idea might seem like a contradiction, but it’s not. My relationship with Thomas is among the most important I’ve known in my whole life. I’m more deeply connected to him than I have been with any other cat. For him to love me as deeply and mysteriously as he does — for him to let down his guard and give me access to the universe behind those big green eyes — I have to be the good man he deserves, day in and day out.
That’s a condition I can live with.
What are your thoughts on unconditional love? How do you define it? If “it’s a cat’s world, and we just live in it,” as many of us believe, doesn’t that suggest a set of conditions? Is this all just a meaningless game of words?
Cat Dandy takes love quite seriously:
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster and Dogster.