This is the fourth and last post about Fidel, the third person in my series Meetings With Remarkable People. Fidel is a non-human person — a cat — who demonstrates attributes I deem essential to the fulfillment of (human) personhood.
My notes here are emphatically not about a cute, or intelligent, or human-like pet. This is intended to describe attributes and outlooks that are exceptional and deserve inspection. If “moral” seems like an anthropomorphic transference, think of Fidel’s actions in Existential terms: he adheres to a personal code — individually-chosen rules of conduct, rules of engagement with the world — that transcends typical species-specific behavior and provides an example from which we can all learn a great deal.
One of the most astonishing demonstrations of Fidel’s largesse came many years after our Middlesex adventures, in his relationship with Tux. We had moved back into town; Tux was an orphan cat who moved in next door — sharing the same porch with us — a strapping black and white cat about two years old. Fidel’s a big cat, but Tux was even bigger, and 13 years younger.
And he’d clearly come up the hard way. Tux was a charming guy if you got past his abuse-derived paranoia, but he had a tendency to snap — mentally. He was afraid and his fear triggered attack. When I walked out on the porch, he would lunge at my legs, snarling, biting and clawing, drawing blood. I’d sort of kick him away, chide him, and cautiously hunker down with him. He’d seem apologetic and we’d rub each other and regard each other with the half-closed eyelids that for cats signal calm and affection.
Then he’d do it again next time I came out.
He also attacked Fidel the moment he set foot on the porch, rushing forward with a screech and a flurry of swipes and slashing fangs. Fidel — hardly a milquetoast, a veteran of innumerable battles with neighborhood toms — waited out the initial onslaught. Then, seeming to ignore Tux, he’d saunter four or five feet away and flop onto his side. He’d stretch luxuriously and roll on the ground, utterly relaxed, showing his enjoyment of the outdoors, how confident he was on this turf. How unconcerned he was with Tux’s outburst.
I’m okay, you’re okay, he was saying. You’ve had a tough life, you’re a bit crazy, but at bottom you’re an okay guy. You don’t have to worry about me. You don’t faze me in the slightest. And I forgive you. By the way, you’re free to feel this way, too.
By living in one of our ramshackle conjoined houses, sharing the porch, Tux had become family. Fidel demonstrated what that meant. His means of showing who was really boss was to remain unruffled and to demonstrate only tolerance and indulgence. Ten minutes after one of these altercations, I’d see them sitting side by side, Fidel occasionally leaning over to do a bit of grooming on Tux, who loved it.
I had never before seen a male cat forgive another for a direct, savage attack.
Fidel showed this forbearance during dozens of these reflexive assaults, over a period of months. Always his response was the same: remain utterly calm, stretch, flop, savor the day, show no indication of concern. Let Tux get past it and then groom him a bit and help him feel okay about himself.
One day when Tux did his all-out kamikaze, Fidel took exception to it; I think Tux got in a claw where it really, truly hurt. Fidel apparently decided that he’d had enough, that Tux should have gotten the message by now. He went after Tux with a lethal focus I’d never seen in his fights with strays: he intended to kill Tux.
I have never seen that dragon ray from his eyes in any other context — all that charisma focused into a tough-love, get-the-message-or-die teaching moment. This was not a territorial issue; it was entirely about loyalty, respect, courtesy — the code.
Tux was bigger, in his fighting prime, but I had no doubt that 15-year-old Fidel could indeed kill him. Neither did Tux. Before I could intervene, Tux backed off, looking frightened, then confused. He wandered away and sat down, clearly chastened and baffled by himself.
And, having been shown what the alternative to forbearance could be, he never attacked Fidel again. Fidel demanded no deference, and Tux showed no fear of him; Tux just began to abide by the code.
Fidel’s management of their relationship showed me the value of restraint, of noblesse oblige. That the person who’s really in charge is the one who is bigger than the situation, the one who can truly relax in the face of conflict, not the one who gets most upset.
Fidel knows that those who initiate conflict are usually simply frightened and need reassurance, acceptance, and forgiveness. Give them a chance, help them feel safe, and perhaps they’ll relinquish their fears. Use force only as the very last resort.
I think one reason Fidel can be so sure of his familial connections, so forgiving, so civilized, so socialized, is that he remains wild. Though he sprawls on the beds, bulls his big head under our hands to demand we scratch his ears, and plays joyously and absurdly with us, he clearly feels confined indoors. He’s out all night and much of each day as well; he often disappears for days. In his life, he’s spent more time outside than in. In the warmer months, he eats almost no cat food; clearly, he subsists on wild game. He discovered an elaborate route to one of our second-floor windows that in summer allows him to come and go as he pleases.
I think the lesson is that we are at our best when we live in a way that keeps our disparate parts whole and balanced.
By contrast, Tux could not maintain simultaneously the reasoning part of himself — the part that understood that Fidel was his friend — and the reflex of defensive hostility. He could be a charming, even loving, neighbor, or he could be an instinctive machine ruled by endocrine triggers. But the two halves did not know each other. And the warring between his parts made him weak.
So Fidel’s example compels me to ask: Is there a relationship between retaining your wild nature and your ability to be truly civilized? Is this integration the key to being an artist, a lover, a writer, a whole human being? A leader? Does knowing for certain you are strong empower you to better tolerate, forgive, and care for the weak? When you know you are free, are you better able to endure the constraint required to live among others?
When you are truly yourself, and whole, are you better able to love and accept others?