It was a long weekend. The third one in a row that involved too little sleep, too much driving and junk food and (for this introvert) too much face time with too many people. They were all good in their way and I am glad for all of them, but today I am feeling the late hours and strange beds. My back hurts. My head feels so full of other people’s sorrows and triumphs and words I can barely remember my own. My refrigerator is empty and my laundry basket and trash can are full.
I am grumpy.
I could meditate to reestablish my inner silence. I could do some yoga to stretch out my back and legs. I could go shopping for healthy, tasty food. I could blast some music and turn cleaning into a dance party. I could shove all that aside and finish the wonderful book I got for Christmas. I could do any of those things and feel better.
So what *am* I doing? I am sitting here drinking coffee and skipping from site to site on the internet. I am telling myself I am catching up on the news (for a very broad definition of news) I missed while being fully immersed in Life. But if I listen closely and honestly to myself this is what I hear:
Who’s worked up about what on Twitter? What’s that? Seth McFarlane was awkward and obnoxious at the Oscars? How bad was he? I’d better search some news sites for the details. Hm, not that bad. I’d better check in on how the sequester battle is coming. Does everyone still have their head up their asses over the budget? Yes, but nothing much new there. Did any of my Facebook friends post anything irritating while I was gone? No? Then, let’s take a spin through a couple of those religion websites that I disagree with. I can read a couple of articles and then get lost in the comments sections and then . . .
. . . and then I will be that drunk woman at the end of the night yelling “What are you lookin’ at, bitch?”
I’m not really in that bad a mood. But I am uncomfortable. Irritated. My mood is maybe best described as “itchy.” And we all know that as good as it feels to scratch an itch, it just makes the itch worse and if you are not careful, you are off on a cycle of itching and scratching, itching and scratching that doesn’t end until someone slaps your hand away.
The biology behind itching has always fascinated me and lately I am getting fascinated by this need we seem to have, when stressed, to seek out bigger and bigger stressors. We seem to have a compulsion to make things worse for ourselves, not just casually or through laziness, but through direct (and sometime forceful) action. We go around itching for a fight.
Several years ago I heard a speaker tell a story about his cat. Every evening, a neighborhood cat would hop up onto the patio and walk right up the patio doors, where he would sit and look into the house. The speaker’s indoor cat would somehow sense the Other Cat’s presence and come running into the room where he would pace back and forth on the inside of the patio doors. But while the Other Cat was pretty mellow about the whole thing, Indoor Cat would arch his back and puff up and hiss and growl and generally work himself into a froth. There was nothing Indoor Cat could do. But also, he was in no danger. He didn’t need to fight. But he did anyway, even if he never touched the enemy. Eventually, the Other Cat would wander away and Indoor Cat would need a whole hour or so to calm down.
I don’t remember who the speaker was, or even what he was talking about (besides cats). But I do remember his conclusion to the story:
I wanted to say to him, “There are dozens of other windows to look out of. There are no other cats out those windows. Just look away from the other cat!”
“Look away from the Other Cat” has become short hand in my family for “You are picking a fight you don’t need to.” It’s how we remind each other to lower our hackles and own the fact this fight exits only because we sought it out.
I am by no means saying we should turn a blind eye to issues that concern us. I don’t think we would all be better forgoing debate and healthy conflict for a bland and shallow “niceness.” I am all for a vigorous exchange of ideas. But I also know where are times when that’s not what I am looking for. I am stressed and edgy and picking a fight sounds way more fun than taking care of myself.
Richard Rohr says the only thing we can control is our attention. We can’t control what other people do or say. We can’t even control how we will react to what they do or say. But we can control how much attention we pay them. We can control where we look.
I can’t control how I feel after a long, emotional, social weekend. I can’t control what someone said or didn’t say at the Oscars or in the halls of Congress. I can’t stop the urge to pick a fight when I am too tired and emotionally wrung out. But I can control where I put my attention. And when I pay attention to my moods and my actions and my motives, I can start to notice when I am involved in serious debate and when I need to look away from the Other Cat.