I don’t like my cat.
It’s a relief to say it. I don’t allow myself to think about it very often, and saying it out loud (so to speak) is a bit scary, but also sort of like letting out a breath after holding it in for a long time. A good deal of my friends and family are animal lovers, so talking about you don’t like your own pet is not exactly acceptable in my social circles. You’re not supposed to say that you don’t like your cat because they’re annoying. Because they’re more likely to scratch you than to lean into a head rub. Because they pry the registers out of the hardwood floors. Because they meow at exactly 2:43 a.m. each night—often for half an hour or more, plaintively, longingly.
While my cat meows downstairs, I lie in bed, alternating between writhing in pure rage and being genuinely concerned that this time she will actually be sick or hurt, or stuck in a vent shaft. But no, when I drag myself out of bed, out into the hallway, and down the stairs, she’s fine. Every time, she’s looking up at me from the living room, silenced by my presence but sure to start up again the moment that my head hits the pillow. I hate my cat.
And, this, for me, is a problem. I am decidedly A Cat Person. When people tell me they don’t like cats, I think less of them. I wonder how they can’t appreciate the joys of these mysterious, slinking creatures, fickle in their attention and affection. I cared deeply for Theora, our cat who passed away last summer, after us making every possible effort to save her.
Based on logic alone, I suppose these two truths are easily reconciled—loving cats in general is not the same as liking one cat in particular. But from a personal standpoint, it presents a small internal crisis for me. I am A Cat Person. I love cats. And I hate Ellie.
I readily acknowledge that my two-truth cat problem is decidedly silly to lots of folks reading this, so let’s try some other multiple truth scenarios. Sometimes, like my cat, it’s a truth we’re comfortable with versus one that is difficult: I love my husband and I’m having an affair; I love my job and I don’t make enough money. But of course, it can also be two truths we feel good about or two we dislike: I want my kids to be close to their grandparents and I want to live abroad; my wife and I need help and she doesn’t want to go to couples therapy.
No matter the configuration of truths, effectively dealing with them begins the same way, which is to accept both. In these situations, our instinct is to deny or minimize one or both truths, to tell ourselves, maybe I don’t love my husband as much as I thought, or if my husband doesn’t find out, it’s not that big of a deal. Therein lies the road to suffering. We can waste a great deal of time and mental energy, trying to refute what we know to be true. I have, both personally and professionally, experienced the intellectual round robin nightmare of trying to talk oneself out of something truly felt or known. It is a toxic line of thinking, and often leads to paralysis and indecision.
This is why I think the term ambivalence is so valuable. Ambivalence has commonly come to mean not really caring much about a thing, but it’s original meaning is to feel two ways about something. This second concept is much more useful—it allows us to fully acknowledge that we can feel multiple, contradictory ways, without one diminishing or taking away from the other. We can then accept both truths as real and valid.
Once we’ve accepted both truths, we’re in a better position to make a good decision, because we can recognize our authentic selves and needs, and weigh what’s truly important to us. Let’s tackle a big one as an example here, I love my partner and our relationship is not working. Sometimes we feel that if we truly love our partners, then our relationship should work. But, of course, this is not the case: love is simply a platform on which we do the work of staying together. But I see folks get stuck here all the time—thinking that since the relationship isn’t thriving they must not really love this person, or thinking that since they love this person, they shouldn’t be so bothered by the relationship problems. But once you accept both truths, it frees you to acknowledge that you love this person but somehow this relationship is not giving you what you need or want. You can then make a clear-eyed choice based on what is meaningful to you about what to do next—whether that is trying to improve the relationship, leaving, or accepting it for what it is. Whatever choice you make, you’re making it from an honest place, which decreases angst and inner turmoil, and increases the odds that you’ll make a decision that reflects your values and needs. You’re also able to recognize and accept from the beginning that you’re likely going to be forced to give up something that matters to you or reconcile with something difficult in order to move forward.
So…what am I going to do about Ellie? I’ve decided, essentially, that my truth about being A Cat Person is more important to me than my truth about disliking this cat in particular. I can’t directly change my feelings, but I can choose to love her anyway, in the sense of keeping her well-fed, cared for, and yes, occasionally getting up in the middle of the night to make sure she hasn’t gotten stuck in the duct-work. Not because of who she is, but, frankly, because of the same reason we love anyone—because of who I am.