Our family had a cat named Princess, who at some point developed a fear of the front lawn.
She would never quite walk across it. Instead she would creep up to its edge, wide-eyed and serious, then dart across.
My dad guessed she had once been in the wrong place when the sprinkler came on.
Like most cats, Princess found it excruciating to be touched by any amount of water, unless it was her idea.
A single raindrop would send her fleeing for cover, yet she would also wait at the bathroom door for you to emerge from your shower, then push past you to investigate the leftover puddles.
A cat’s non-negotiable stance towards involuntarily touching water illuminates what might be the most important difference between humans and other animals: we can overcome our own reactivity.
We can learn what our impulses are, reflect on whether they’re helpful, and practice not always acting on them.
We can learn to suspend judgment, for example, even when our impulse is to hate or blame a person.
We can practice being generous, even when we fear not having enough for ourselves.
We can learn to save the cookie for later even if we want it now.
This is the Great Ability that makes us human.
It was undoubtedly a game-changer when we figured it out we had it, because human cultures have made a huge deal about it.
There’s a reason our religions emphasize resisting temptation, practicing generosity, not having sex whenever you feel like it, not stealing even when no one’s looking, not clawing at people just because they annoy you, and otherwise not being an animal.
Our news stories revolve around about people succeeding or failing at the Great Ability.
Bosses exploiting their subordinates for pleasure or personal gain. Health care workers saving lives despite the risk to their own well-being.
Did the politician make the hard, counter-impulsive “right” choice, or the easy and tempting wrong choice? If it’s about the Great Ability, it’s compelling to us.
Animals can’t reflect on their instincts and conditioning, so they are bound to act them out.
No matter how many errant raindrops or timer-operated sprinklers a cat encounters, it will never have the brilliant idea to allow the water to seep down and touch its skin, and see whether the resulting sensation is indeed the end of the world.
Because you’re human, you have the Great Ability, and every moment is a chance to strengthen it. You can practice opening up to experiences your instincts reject, and stepping back from experiences your instincts draw you towards.
When I started as a land surveyor, I quickly discovered how much easier the job gets when you embrace inevitable discomforts like coldness and dampness instead of resenting them.
At first, you can’t help but despise aggressive gusts of wind and cold raindrops running down your neck. But when you learn to open your nerves to these feelings, they stop causing you suffering and inhibiting your work.
Human spiritual traditions have always prescribed methods for improving the Great Ability — mostly in the form of long lists of what not to do.
You can see how strengthening the Great Ability like this might completely open up your life, empowering you to do right by yourself and by others, in ways you couldn’t previously.
Difficult conversations could be had instead of avoided. Rewards could be more easily delayed, and goals more easily achieved. Lawns could be crossed without fear.
When you’re strong in the Great Ability, neither rain nor sleet nor sprinkler can drive you away from doing what you think is right.
*Featured post photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash