By Riane Konc
I’m a cat person. I didn’t become a cat person until I was 22, but when it hit, it hit hard. My family had animals when I was growing up: a dog, a couple of bunnies, and a series of cats whose unexpected euthanizations always happened to be scheduled while I was away at basketball tournaments and church camping trips. It happened enough (twice, but that’s enough in my book) that whenever I came back from a week away, I always half-expected to hear that another pet of mine was dead.
I liked my cats, but I wasn’t very attached to them: I was sad that they died, but I didn’t cry about it, even though their deaths were always unceremoniously announced to me upon my return home from a fun week away. “Let’s see, Riane, while you were gone we repainted your bedroom, the Nelsons came over for dinner, we, hmm, what else, oh, we killed your cat, your brother’s T-ball team won their tournament, that was exciting. . . .”
This was before I became a cat lady. However, now when I think of not crying about the death of a cat, it is completely unfathomable to me. Both of my cats—Oliver and Mira—are alive and well, but if I even begin to consider the likelihood that they will pass on before me, I start tearing up. I cried the first time Oliver hissed at me; I cried once when the vet suggested that they might have to pull out all of Oliver’s teeth. I didn’t cry when Oliver switched from kitten food to cat food, but I won’t pretend I didn’t feel extremely emotional about it.
Loving and Being Loved
Before you start judging me too harshly, let me say this: I realize this sounds insane. Try to believe that I am, in most other aspects of life, a basically well-adjusted, high-functioning adult. I have human friends and a human job and a human husband. I have no interest in owning fifty cats, I do not dress Oliver or Mira up in human outfits, and my husband and I both refuse on principle to refer to our cats as our “children.” But something happened five years ago, when my friend gave me tiny, fuzzy, orange-and-white Oliver as a surprise gift, and now I am a ridiculously sappy, emotional person who tears up at ASPCA commercials and has feelings about transitioning to cat food.
Becoming a cat person has made me a little crazy, but it’s also opened me to a new kind of love. The ability to give and receive love at all—between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between friends, between strangers—is a gift; it’s one that, at best, is a reflection of the ways God sees and loves us. I have a friend who never really believed in God until she gave birth to her son; she told me that she was so blown away by how much she loved her son that she started believing in God, right then and there.
God has a habit of revealing himself to us through earthly things: through the physical act of giving birth and of loving another person deeply; in the Bible we see him in burning bushes and talking donkeys; he speaks to us using angels who look like men and still, small voices. I think that the experience of loving and being loved by an animal is also a precious gift, one that reflects certain truths about the love of God.
I know a lot of people who say that they like animals more than they like people. I happen to like both people and animals a lot, but I understand where they’re coming from: there is something simple and untarnished about an animal’s love. An animal loves you, and that’s it. It doesn’t love you and then talk about you behind your back or make passive-aggressive remarks about your job performance. A pet doesn’t love you for a while and then decide to break up with you to explore other options.
When animals love us, it is a pure and simple love, and it gives us the ability to love purely and simply back. This is a concept that is hard for me, and I didn’t realize how hard until a recent conversation I had with my husband about getting a dog.
Exclusive or Unconditional?
In case you’re wondering how my husband handles all of my cat craziness, don’t worry: he loves our cats just as much as I do. He’s a little more balanced about it—he definitely wouldn’t cry if a cat hissed at him. But one of the many things we have in common is how much we adore our cats.
He’d be the first to tell you, though, that in general, he’s more of a dog person. His family had dogs while he was growing up, and he desperately wants one now. We talk about this a lot. My reasons for not getting one right now are logical: dogs are expensive, dogs are a lot of work, dogs eat your garbage. His reasons for wanting a dog are also pretty straightforward: dogs are cute, and he wants one. Those are our standard lines when having the “should we or should we not get a dog” discussion.
A few months ago, though, the conversation went another way. He was trying to explain how wonderful and loving and loyal dogs are, and I found myself exclaiming, “I don’t want something to love me that much! I only want to be loved if I’ve earned it!”
The conversation ended pretty quickly. We both realized that what I said had implications beyond owning animals. On the one hand, I meant what I said: one of the things I love about having cats is that their love feels exclusive, specific to me. My cats adore me (and my husband), and are afraid of most other people; having their love makes us feel like we are special, like we’ve done something wonderful that no one else could do to earn their trust and affection. Dogs, on the other hand, are not as picky. Typically dogs will love whatever human is around to be loved, for no other reason except that they exist. This is why so many people love dogs, and it’s why I find them cute but annoying.
Haven’t Earned, Cannot Lose
As a cat person, it pains me to draw any comparison between dogs and God. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I viewed the love of God the way I viewed the love of a dog: somehow less valuable because it is unconditional. I think it’s perfectly fine to enjoy the exclusivity of a cat’s love, but what does this attitude—this “I only want love if I can earn it” mentality—mean about my ability to accept the love of God? What was it in me that felt that true love should be earned, not given freely?
If God only loved us based on our ability to please him, then we would all be in deep trouble; but if God loves us solely because we exist, because we are his children, then there is nothing we can do to earn or to lose that love. That kind of unconditional love is terrifying and utterly freeing. It does not mean that we can do whatever we want without consequence or that we cannot please or displease God with our choices; but it does mean that there is nothing we can do to gain or to lose God’s love. It is already ours.
When a former youth minister of mine would put his daughter to bed every night, he would tell her that he loved her. Then, as part of their routine, he would ask, “Is there anything you can do to make me love you less?” She would reply, “No.” He would ask, “Is there anything you can do to make me love you more?” She would again say, “No.” He would finally ask, “Why?” And she would say, “Because I’m your daughter.”
In some ways I think that caring for and loving an animal is a way for God to remind us of his unconditional love for us: love that we have not earned and love that we cannot lose. In other ways, I think God loves us and delights in giving us gifts, and so he allows us to love animals for the pure thrill of loving and being loved by another living creature. And I think that in Heaven, when everything is made right, we will find not only the wolf living with the lamb, not only the leopard lying down with the goat, but perhaps also—and maybe I’m just being optimistic here—the cat person and the dog person living side by side, in perfect peace.
Riane Konc is a freelance writer living in Covington, Kentucky.
The Love of Animals
• “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”
• “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
• “Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.”
—John Grogan, Marley and Me
• “Pets devour the loneliness. They give us purpose, responsibility, a reason for getting up in the morning, and a reason to look to the future.”
—Nick Trout, Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon
• “No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration as is the relationship you have with a good dog. Few human beings give of themselves to another as a dog gives of itself.”
—Dean Koontz, A Big Little Life