How a Stray Cat Taught Me Empathy

Earlier today I saw a man at a coffee shop drinking coffee. No phone, no tablet, no laptop. Just, staring into air, staring at the distant horizon, perhaps pondering his next meal or the biblical end of times. I thought, at first, that this man is insane, to have coffee without the accompaniment of technology. But then, I wondered, maybe this man represents everything we could ever hope for in a friend, or a brother, or a son. Thoughtful, contemplative, laser-focused in the face of digital distractions (such as this post). Perhaps this man, alone with his coffee and his thoughts, could come up with more ingenuity than all the wisdom of Google and Wikipedia. I wondered what he was thinking about — maybe some utter nonsense. Or, maybe he was thinking about teaching children, helping animals, giving to those less fortunate. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids; I don’t have any kids but if I did I’d probably try to impart on them these type of values. A lot has happened over the years. Things change, people change, circumstances change. I’ve changed. And we’ve all been tested by all manner of challenges, individually and collectively. Yet, this man sipping coffee alone, he gave me hope.

On the other hand, I thought, maybe I was rushing to judgment in assuming that this wonderful man had reached some sort of counter-cultural nirvana. We all make assumptions about people based on an initial impression. People are judgmental–all of us. I would imagine I’m judged, for instance, based on my long hair. Some people assume I’m a voracious consumer of weed–not correct. Others assume I’m a rock star–very wrong. It’s worth remembering a line from Harper Lee: you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you step into someone’s shoes and walk 1,000 miles in their skin. It’s so easy and tempting and almost self-indulgent to critique–I’m guilty of this no less than others–but it’s harder to empathize and understand.

In any event, this guy sitting in solitude made me think about where I’ve been and where I’m going, what I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong. What I could have done better, what I can do better, what I should do better. Inevitably over the course of the coming year I’ll make some mistakes and so will you. That’s what happens when we try. The road may be long but perhaps the most we can hope for and strive for is to travel it together. Someone recently asked me where I see myself in five years, further down that road. That’s a difficult question answer. Surely, I aspire to be desired. I would bet that we all aspire to be desired, and to be desirable. I’d like to be President of the United States but God help us if that were to ever happen. Or, I’d like to be Prime Minister of Israel, but the Jewish people have been to hell and back and they (we) deserve better. I’d like to make people laugh, contribute to the public dialogue or discourse, make some impact on something positive that matters to me.

The first thing I need to do is buy a new laptop because the one I’m using is fucking garbage. And I need to stop going to sleep so late. I am prone to distraction and frequently read about Swedish meatballs or the health benefits of mustard seeds or Bill Clinton’s dead cat (Socks Clinton) at 4:30 AM. Although I did make some progress over the course of this past year. I spent most of the year getting a master’s degree at IDC Herzliya. It’s been a positive experience–not quite over yet–to spend some time on a beautiful campus, meet new people and see new things. I started eating Brazil nuts. They’re a bit pricey but high in selenium. I came to the judgement after much contemplation and consultation that the selenium was worth the extra money. I stopped eating dairy products made with cow’s milk. Goat milk is better. And more interesting. Consuming goat milk, kind of, accords well with the art of living, at least my interpretation of it. I did a lot of traveling, aside from spending time in Tel Aviv and New York. I made it to Belgium, Holland, Sweden. Los Angeles, reluctantly. As a New Yorker I can’t bear to say positive things about Los Angeles. People in Los Angeles walk too little (and too slowly) and drive too much. And I considered going to the UK but still hold a grudge about the British burning down Washington DC in 1812. I mean, come on. Those redcoats. Just, why?

And maybe I’ve become more empathetic over the past year. I find myself feeling sorry for an array of people and things. I took a liking to a stray cat who lives outside a supermarket and sleeps on the seat of a motorcycle. I don’t think he owns the motorcycle but he’s always sitting on it. What I see in this cat is a delicate being that can’t really fend for itself. It depends on the goodwill of human beings. It would be unfortunate to rely totally on others for every meal as this cat does–to be utterly powerless. So, occasionally I give him some chicken liver or beef cubes or other scraps that, to him, probably seem like a Michelin-star meal. I recently saw him sitting high atop a pile of carboard boxes at about 4 AM. It was a Friday night and perhaps he had gone out to socialize with some other cats, although he strikes me as somewhat of an introvert. I wondered if he was just waiting for someone to give him food. Waiting for food is his patient plight. So I walked into a store and bought a can of heavily-processed salmon masquerading as Fancy Feast. He seemed to appreciate it although he tends to act demure. I derive some enjoyment and warmth from feeding this cat, although, it is admittedly a thankless job. The cat doesn’t show much emotion. He doesn’t make me cry, although he doesn’t really make me laugh. When he starts eating the food I give to him, he ignores me. Maybe that’s a good thing. Feeling unworthy could build thick skin. Although everyone needs to feel loved, including myself. That notwithstanding, I just can’t let the cat go hungry. If I don’t feed him, who will? If I rely on someone else to take on this responsibility, the cat might not make it. He’s deserving of a chance like anyone else. And there’s room for everyone as long as they’re willing to try. There’s personal responsibility, and community responsibility. And the cat is a member of the community. Perhaps I am the one this cat has been waiting for.

To that end, perhaps we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Perhaps our problems–society’s problems–are in our own hands. I have a tendency, like many others, to procrastinate, or simply hope for the best, or hope that others will take care of the issues that stymie the forward march of my own progress or that of the whole. It’s tempting to wait for someone else to do the heavy-lifting and problem-solving. I’ve been guilty of it many times. But nothing productive will happen if we wait for another person or another time or another generation. Things would be so much worse if everyone waited for someone else, for a savior. But I don’t know if saviors exist–only those ordinary folks brave enough to apply themselves, even when the odds are great, even when the road is long. Maybe, this is our moment, to seize what should be, to seize what ought to be, and not wallow in contentment and complacency, convinced that the way things are, are the ways things must be. Maybe, for the cynics, their time has come and gone. Maybe 2019 will bring to bear some amazing things and vindicate that optimistic cliche that we are lucky to be alive at this moment in history.

About the Author
Daniel Dolgicer is a native of New York City, a real estate broker and investor, holds a JD from the Cardozo School of Law and an MA in government from IDC Herzliya. He's had a lifelong connection with Israel and Zionism and an academic interest in both Israeli and American politics. He once won $100 for knowing the capital of New Zealand. His greatest merit--and fault--is that he doesn't take anything particularly seriously. Of man, it has been said, the goal is to die young, as late as possible.
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