Let old habits go

Dr. David McGarva writes:

When our cat came from the pound, she was terrified by the sound of vacuum cleaners. We didn’t know why. We never will. Probably some event when she was younger.

She doesn’t know either. Animals can’t remember events that happen to them. Remembering stories is called “episodic memory”, and it isn’t installed in most animal brains.

This is hard for humans to get our heads around, because it’s so different from the way our memories work. When something happens to a dog or a horse, all they take away is the takeaway (“I like Mary” or “humans with sticks are dangerous”). They don’t hold on to what happened. Because who needs a head full of stories and anger and resentment? That works for them: they know enough to stay safe. Most of the time that’s all you really need.

Slowly, Camilla learned to trust us. And one day, while she was sitting on the arm of a chair, I put my right hand on her back (where she likes it) and I turned on the vacuum with my left hand. She sat quietly. She was fine. She’s never been scared by a vacuum again.

It took less than five seconds. It’s lasted eleven years.

It should be that easy for everyone.

Mostly it’s not. Mostly, humans are too smart to let themselves relax like cats. Most of us have bought into the nineteenth-century story that the only way to edit your hangups is to spend years analyzing your childhood.

Of course childhood affects who you grow up to be. One of the most important things we learned as kids was how to live in our surroundings. When surroundings changed, we changed with them. Then, one day, it seems we forgot how.

There’s no reason not to keep on growing, and be the best adult you can be. The back story is only a back story: childhood is the first thirty minutes of your personal movie, and then the adventure begins.

Camilla’s not very bright. But she knew enough to outgrow a part of her kitten personality that wasn’t useful any more. It should be that easy for everyone. Mostly it’s not.

But it could be within your reach.