“It's a big responsibility”
I’m not a good pet owner. I’m not one of those horrible people who keep their dog chained up outside in horrid conditions or try to force their cat to eat vegan, but recently, after spending some time with people who know much more about dogs and cats, I’ve been made aware of how mistaken my view of what a “pet” really is.
It’s human tendency to see things as being like us. We mistake a shadow in our bedroom for a person, we see a face on Mars, and we understand dogs and cats to just be small, stupid, furry people. At the same time, we also tend to see them (and all animals, really) as appliances, as things that we obtained for a purpose. In reality what we have is a life: a complex nervous system with pattern-based learning and reward systems, fully capable of being effected by trauma.
I say all of this because I view every person as having their own pet: their body. It has its own conditioning, its own rewards system, its own memory (”muscle memory”), and its own response to stimulus, all completely outside of our awareness or control. My Pet’s heart rate will speed up in a situation that it judges to be anxious based on past patterns, without the thought I may have about a specific person I’ve spotted. My Pet will become restless when confined to a small space like a car or a plane for a long period of time, even if logically I understand the need to be there. My Pet will become used to the food I feed it and be stubborn to change its preferred taste, regardless of if I consciously want to eat healthier. It’s fact that humans are taxonomically animal, but I believe that inherits the entirety of the animal, not just a consciousness in control of a mech suit.
I don’t mean to say that we are separate from our body, I instead view it as a partnership, like I sit atop (or am riding) my Pet. And neither do I view it as the Cartesian mind-body duality; I still consciously feel sensations and have the ability to control portions of the body. But I hardly believe that we are in control. When I consider how long evolution has been shaping the lower parts of the mind, to think that evolution would just hand off control of the human body to this thing we call “consciousness” seems absurd, to me. Humans are very much still animals, with all that encompasses.
On the other hand, I don’t mean to say we are just animals. Earlier I said that it is a partnership between whatever “I” am (my consciousness) and my Pet (my body). One doesn’t even have to believe in evolution to accept this viewpoint, and one doesn’t have to reject it based on spiritual beliefs. All one has to believe is that (a) animals are built to try to survive, and (b) we are animals. The rest falls into place, e.g. my Pet’s heart rate quickens because the perceived need for more blood in a tense situation of survival. What I’m saying does not preclude the existence of a soul nor does it attempt to defy the ‘spiritual’. All I’m merely trying to say is that “whatever we are, we’re also have an animal”.
My point is, I’ve come to believe that I am co-inhabiting my skin with an animal -a Pet- not just wearing a hairy suite. It’s a back and forth, a partnership between two things that don’t speak the same language and aren’t even always aware that the other is present and acting. Not only does this distinction explain a lot of my own behavior and physical problems, it’s let me step back and reevaluate my responsibility. For some problems, my Pet has much more control than I’ve previously given it credit for. But in a broader sense, I have a responsibility to my Pet, and most of it is understanding and listening.
In my experience, this viewpoint has made me much more compassionate for Pet and by extension, myself. When I’m in a difficult situation and I take a minute to check in with my body and see the signs of anxiety, I understand that my Pet is also suffering through this with me. So when I’m relatively composed and I suddenly have a rush of anxious thoughts or emotions, I understand that it’s my Pet whining, trying to get my attention. I feel compassion for my Pet, freaking out in a situation that I put (or am keeping) it in. And I feel compassion for myself for trying to ride this freaked-out Pet while navigating the situation.