As a veterinarian interested in nature, I’ve noticed that all biological organisms that can move struggle with the choice to move either towards that which sustains them or away from that which harms. From the simplest ciliated bacterium to us, the struggle is a constant one. As humans, we have the potential to recognize the struggle and how it controls our lives. But the struggle itself takes place constantly below our consciousness through mechanisms that are not that different from less-advanced species.
For most simplest of animals, the choice is controlled through biochemical reactions to the organism’s environment. In higher animals, the biochemical reaction to the environment involves many cells that we refer to as neural tissue. Either way, for almost all of the countless species in our world, the decision to either move forward or retreat is programmed without any chance of self-awareness, that is, the ability for an individual to recognize that it is both separate from and connected to the world around it, is capable of introspection, and can monitor and control its thoughts, emotions, and actions.
This definition of self-awareness might seem to exclude most humans during much of their lifetime. However, I think we all have, at least, the potential for a high level of self-awareness. Self- aware or not, we are still influenced, if not often controlled, by the struggle to seek that which helps us survive and avoid that which causes us harm. Curiosity and fear, the two traits that for some reason we often metaphorically attribute to cats, control most of our day-to-day activity.
Actions created from curiosity might end up causing the curious individual harm, but actions resulting from fear can easily and quickly cause harm to a community, even a nation. Curiosity leads to connections and knowledge; fear leads to isolation. Curiosity leads to growth; fear cannot. Curiosity allows us to live; fear, at best, allows us to survive.
It seems we are becoming a nation of fear: fear of our future, fear of outsiders, and fear of each other. FDR was right when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The words and actions of others may evoke an emotional response that leads to our fears, but only we can allow fear to control us.
We all have the potential for self-awareness, and this is our hope. We can ask ourselves what is it that we truly fear, what assessment of our life led to the fear, was the assessment accurate, are we simply following the fears of others, and is the potential harm truly real or just imagined? These are difficult questions to ask ourselves, especially when they may challenge our worldview and may put us at odds with those for whom we respect.
When we understand our fears, the part of us that seeks to grow gets its chance to interact with the world around us, including our fellow man. When that happens, we’re able to see the many commonalities we have with others, not just the few differences. We’re able to seek mutually beneficial solutions to problems and not seek to win at the other’s expense. And, we’re able to see the truth that is held in the statement, “Whatever we do to the other, we do to ourselves.”
Death may come to the curious cat, but the “fraidy cat” will never have a chance to live.