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Chaos cats

They will spring your traps with impunity and lie in wait just to show you who's in charge.
By Meg Barnhouse

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cat napping (© Vera Tomankova / iStockphoto.com)

(© Vera Tomankova / iStockphoto.com)

My friend Henry’s large orange cat is used to sleeping on the sofa. The sofa was a hand-me-down—butter-yellow leather, soft and long and nap-worthy. Apparently the cat thought so, too, because every time I went to Henry’s house, the cat was asleep on it. Henry told me the other day that he’d bought a new sofa, and the cat is not allowed on this new one. It’s not a hand-me-down, he bought this sofa for himself. This is his grown-up sofa, he said, and it is seriously nice, less easy to wipe off than the yellow leather. Cat hair must not be on this sofa; it has to stay pristine.

The cat is not grasping the new rule. Henry said he was tired of shooing him, yelling, waving his hands, and making dramatic assertions that he is in charge and the sofa must be respected. Still, he comes home to the sight of the cat curled up on the sofa, opening one insolent eye at the sound of the door, then closing it again. I was surprised when Henry told me he had resorted to setting mousetraps on the sofa to discourage the cat. Not the metal ones—plastic ones, but mousetraps nonetheless. The cat is fine, don’t worry. He has learned to nudge each mouse trap with his paw until it snaps shut, then he pushes it off onto the floor, and when he has cleared a space, he curls up and waits for Henry to come home so he can pretend to be asleep. The power struggle continues. Maybe it’s just a difference of vision about the purpose of a sofa, maybe it’s more personal than that. I don’t know.

I find parallels with my life as a parish minister. Sometimes people get so intent on their particular idea of how things should be that they set up long lists of rules. Getting more adamant than they ought to when they talk about it, they often are willing to hurt someone else just to get things to the way they “should” be, which feels like much the same thing as setting mousetraps all over the new sofa.

It could be about what kind of music is appropriate for worship services. Maybe there’s a new Sunday school building, and people complain about children being all over it making messes. Maybe it’s a new carpet or a new organ, or maybe it’s a book discussion group or a camping program. Maybe one person implies that the lady who disagrees with her about how the church library should be set up is a control freak and always needs to get her own way. Maybe the lady hints that the first person is of low character and if it were up to her she would watch out that books don’t start to disappear. You know how it goes.

In any organization there are tasks that need to be accomplished, dreams being brought to fruition, challenges being met, relationships being forged and then tested. It’s a spiritual exercise to balance getting the jobs done with keeping the relationships sweet and strong.

We try to do a good job of balancing kindness with responsibility. Sometimes we forget, and we get too structured or too loose. Martin Luther used to say that humanity was like a drunk trying to climb up on his donkey to ride. First he falls off one side, and then he climbs back up and falls off the other.

In a family, at work, at church, we all have ideas about how things should be. Are you a sofa-with-cats person or do you come down strongly in the cat-free-sofa party? I don’t think the chaos cats care: They just want to remind you that trying to control what cannot be controlled is a shortcut to insanity. The chaos cats are wily; it is likely that they will spring your traps with impunity and lie in wait just to show you who’s in charge, one yellow eye open to see if you’ll get it this time.

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