When entering the cat shelter, even though we are greeted with a variety of responses from all 75 cats, there is one overwhelming response and need that dominates the whole place: attention. Almost every cat there wants to be petted, rubbed, roughed up, or scratched.
My family and I have been volunteering at a local cat shelter for the past couple of years, where we come in once a week to clean cages, change litter boxes, feed, and fill water dishes, but for the most part, what these cats want more than anything else, is to be acknowledged through human touch. Since they don’t have owners, their exposure to people is very limited, so when we get near Mew-Mew’s cage or see Joey waiting at the door for us, we know that they just want to have some much-longed for attention. Sure, there are the few who want nothing to do with people for the most part, as initial reactions are clouded with bad memories and fear, but even the most hardened of feline hearts melt after enough time. Just ask Smudge, who went from batting at us with open claws to full on mush who just needs to have his neck scratched.
What I’ve observed from these cats is that despite their rough exteriors, their past experiences, or their temperaments, there are common character traits among all of them. There exist desires that they all share, needs that must be fulfilled, with the biggest being a need for people to pay attention to them. It’s as if they are preprogrammed at birth with this trait. To them, there is something fantastically comforting about rubbing up against us or having us stroke their backs. Perhaps they feel comforted or validated. Maybe it reminds them that someone’s taking the time to devote efforts to them. We may never know the impact that such a small gesture makes, but we know that they all want it.
This need is not regulated to just their world: these are human needs, too. We have a tremendous need for attention and validation. Don’t believe me, just check your friend’s Facebook or Instagram feed (or maybe your own). We have a need for others to like our pictures or statements, commenting on how impressed they are with our lives. And there’s nothing wrong that need; it’s just an observation of who we are as a species. Despite what Simon and Garfunkel may claim, no man is a rock or even an island: we all desire some sort of connection with others, so that we know we are not alone.
When we need it, it can be frustrating and devastating when we don’t get it. Posting a picture to social media that gets no likes can be upsetting. Those days where you walk into work and no one acknowledges that you are there, almost as if you are invisible, seem surreal. Having waitstaff walk past you while you’re trying to get his or her attention is baffling. During those times, you feel like jumping up and down and waving your arms because you can’t believe no one notices you. Not getting noticed when we need it is an exasperating experience.
And a great deal of consolation comes when we finally do get acknowledgement. Over the winter break, my students were given a task: make a difference in the lives of three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it. I purposely left the assignment very open-ended to see what they would do. When I read their responses, the creativity was quite surprising. Some took it upon themselves to help others where they saw need, but others decided to just change people’s lives for the better by handing out random compliments and smiles. The responses they got surprised even them, as people radiated the kindness that was given them. Individual’s days were made significantly better by such small gestures, as we feel comforted when someone notices us.
Feeling noticed and having connection isn’t regulated to the weak, either. The strongest of us need companionship and connection, too. The night before Christ was to be arrested and crucified, He knew it was coming, and feeling the immense pressure of His impending sacrifice, asked for someone to be with Him. He withdrew to Gethsemane and prayed, taking a few of His disciples with Him. “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26. 38). Feeling alone, overcome, and lonely, Christ felt the need for companionship and asked that His friends stay and support Him. He knew that just being there with Him was enough of a consolation, so that He wouldn’t feel as if He was facing hardship alone.
We should never feel the need to go at it alone. Even the most hardened of exteriors longs for human connection beneath. We all hurt, we all want connection, we all want comfort. Just like the cats, we are all preprogrammed at birth with the same basic human needs. I continually impress upon my students the need to acknowledge someone who is all alone by giving them just a smile, a friendly hello, or whatever else they are willing to give. Sometimes, just asking if someone is okay is enough to make them feel better. The idea that we don’t need to suffer alone is a great comfort to many, giving quiet consolation where there is loneliness.
Knowing this fact, don’t feel the need to face things down alone. Ask for people to be near you; reach out to others when feeling the hardships of life. Just making that connection with another is sometimes enough to get you through things. And when you spy someone alone, remember that despite what they may look like on the outside, they may be silently struggling inside. Don’t be afraid to smile and greet them, as that extension of warmth might be just what they need to get through that day. Amen.