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Article ID: 6599
Age Group: Adult
Posted: July 14th. 2003
If The Hissy Fits
"Never underestimate the restorative powers of a really good hissy-fit." *
This week's column could have just as easily been entitled: Everything I Know About Pagan Interactions I Learned From My Cat. But since Fritz rejects any title long enough to overflow onto another line -- and EIKAPIILFMC really makes no sense at all -- Hissy Fits, it is. Most of the dictionaries state that a 'hissy fit' is an outburst of anger or a tantrum. Ruby, on the other hand, prefers to think of the hissy fit as a valid means of communication: short, to the point and unlikely to be misconstrued as anything other than as a warning to back the furk off.
As some of our regular readers know, three weeks ago we adopted two kittens from our local Humane Society. Since Ruby has never been an only child, we thought that she might miss Dixie (a.k.a. Pissy Face) and would enjoy some feline companionship. Our two new black as midnight additions to the family -- Djinn-Jinn and Lee-Lu -- seemed to be just what we were looking for. Three very long weeks and several cat psychology books later, we are inching along towards an integration of sorts. And, Ruby is finally talking to us again.
Ruby, in fact, has quite a bit to say about how cats interact with one another. And since I was taught from an early age to look to nature not only for portents, signs and omens, but also for inspiration and insight into how organic systems work, her input in this area has been invaluable.
I know that you have undoubtedly heard the expression that any attempt to lead Pagans is like trying to herd cats. The metaphor really isn't all that far off, but not for the reasons that you might suppose. As an insider, Ruby would like to give you the basic profile of that Herd of Cats thing.
She also slyly suggests that Pagans might want to take a few notes.
The Territory: Cats are very territorial creatures. They stake out an area, mark it as "MINE!" and then scrupulously guard it against all those who would dare to infringe upon their 'ownership' rights. This is not an arbitrary bit of selfish materialism on the part of the cat. In the wild (and in the wild genes of our feline house beasts), protecting The Territory is a literal matter of life or death. But the importance of The Territory is not simply a matter of access to food. It is also a matter of pride.
When food supplies are scarce, The Territory will be fiercely defended. But even when this is true, cats can still live quite peacefully together. However there are certain rules that make this possible.
Each multi-cat group or colony most often has one -- but sometimes two or even three -- dominant feline(s). This dominant cat usually 'rules' not by force -- although force may be necessary on occasion -- but by displaying a series of dominant behavior patterns.
One does not simply waltz uninvited into The Territory and start setting up a little home base of one's own wherever one might like. Amongst cats, that is considered very rude and disrespectful. There is already a 'family dynamic' in place. And it is up to the newcomer to learn where the established boundaries are and what is allowed or not allowed within the group. Most newbies (and many slow learners) therefore will get the hissy fit initiation ritual.
Cats define every event by its relationship to The Territory. Cats are not gifted with that famous sense of curiosity for mere whimsy's sake. A cat is very sensitive to any change within The Territory. Sudden noises or intrusions will send a cat scurrying, but if the change becomes permanent, the cat will eventually have to check it out so as to see how the established equilibrium of the territorial environment has been affected. Adjustments will have to be made. And some adjustments are more easily (or more rapidly) made than others.
Does some of this behavior sound familiar? It should because Pagans are territorial, too!
Well, we've had to be. For the past fifty years or so, Pagans (and Witches and Wiccans) have been hard at work first establishing a place for ourselves in the social and religious 'territory' of the modern world and then defending 'The Territory' against those who would wish to evict us from it. We became very defensive and protective of our territory. It was, after all, a hard won victory.
We are still quite sensitive to perceived threats from without (and from within) and some might even say that we are too sensitive or thin-skinned about anything that could possibly be perceived as a threat. But being 'territorial' in itself is not a negative thing. In the world of organic systems, it is quite normal and often highly advantageous to establish a defined territory or other sphere of influence.
A high state of alertness however is difficult to maintain. It is extremely stressful. Just ask a cat.
Stress: Cats do not deal with long-term stress well. Cats are naturally conditioned to respond quickly to sudden changes in their environment and then to spend the majority of their time in recovery mode. Unabated stress takes its toll both on the individual cat (who may become chronically cranky, depressed or even ill) and on the feline colony (upsetting the carefully maintained web of relationships within the group). Cats --like people -- can suffer from emotional burn out.
Cats usually can and will adjust to one or two 'newbies' or litters in the colony (or in the home), but the influx of a large number of foreign felines would throw the entire colony into chaos. The dominant cat or cats would not have the time nor energy to sort things out properly and the newcomers -- having no knowledge of the carefully established order -- would quickly overrun and overturn the colony. Fights would break out randomly and often as the established cats of the original colony seek to merely defend The Territory. The newbies would then either be successfully repulsed or an entire new order would have to be worked out.
It would take a long time for such a colony to recover -- if it ever did recover. And there would undoubtedly be individual casualties as some cats succumb to stress-related illnesses or injuries.
Paganism (or the various faiths and/or religions under the umbrella of neo-Paganism) has seen such an influx of newcomers in the past few years. It has been very difficult to graciously absorb and nurture these newbies. The equilibrium of many established traditions, covens, groups, or religions has been shaken (if not disrupted) by the sheer volume of seekers looking for new spiritual territory. And it has put these Pagan communities -- and their leaders or tenets -- under a great deal of stress.
Often the new seekers do not understand the established dynamic of the groups -- or of the path or religion -- that they approach. Expecting to be welcomed with open arms, they often encounter the human version of the hissy fit. Welcome to the colony indeed! They are entering a system already under stress with no real knowledge of 'how things are done'. And they are bound to step on a few paws if they just barge right in. Cats are not the only the creatures who consider such behavior rude and disrespectful!
The Pagan communities need some time to recover and to regroup. Used to being 'wild', many Pagans also find the recent mainstreaming or 'domestication' of Witchcraft, Wicca or Paganism to be disconcerting if not downright insulting.
And with new people come new ideas. Only time will tell which of these new ideas can be worked into the established order of things. And some Pagan colonies will adjust, some will fold and some will repulse the majority of newbies until such assimilation can occur at a more cautious and determined pace.
Newbies then should take note that the hiss in his/her face could mean many things, but it is almost certain that a portion of that fit is the natural result of the stresses that Pagans (and their associated paths and religions) have experienced in recent years. Most Pagan groups and traditions were constructed using a family model -- a colony -- consisting of a few close associates who had carefully worked out the goals and boundaries and the use of resources in The Territory. Newcomers were only accepted then after careful scrutiny and their ability to adapt to the colony membership. The attempt to adjust to large numbers of people seeking instruction or entrance has disrupted the pattern and the success rate for broad scale newbie integration varies from group to group.
And while the humans are working that out, Ruby would like to offer a few words on another subject near and dear to the feline heart:
Self-Esteem: What structure and equilibrium are to the multi-cat colony, self-esteem is to the individual cat. I got a lesson on this aspect of feline character while I was nursing Ruby throughout her recent illness. Ruby was not a happy kitty as I was force-feeding her the food necessary to keep her alive. Even though she tolerated the feedings themselves fairly well, there was obviously something else bothering her. It took me a while to figure out what was causing her so much additional distress. Quite by accident -- and via an errant squirt of slop -- I realized that she simply hated to be dirty. She didn't have the energy to clean herself and this syringe stuff was far from a neat process.
As soon as it dawned on me that this was the problem, I began to carefully wipe up her mouth and chin after each 'squirt' instead of waiting until we were 'all done'. The impact that this one gesture worked on her attitude, I believe, helped turn her condition around. Ruby seemed much happier and I think that she was actually touched that I would do this simple thing for her. It obviously made her feel better about herself. **
Cats have a lot of 'dignitude'. Self-esteem is probably the most important aspect of 'catness'. And studies on cat colonies have demonstrated that cats reflect in their self-image the treatment and lessons learned in kittenhood.
Kittens that are well cared for and accepted by their mothers and littermates grow up to be socialized and well adjusted adults. Kittens that are rejected by their mothers or beaten up by their littermates become fearful, distrustful -- or conversely overly aggressive -- adult cats. Feral kittens raised outside of a colony -- and absent of human intervention in the first six to eight weeks of life -- generally become incapable of integrating socially with other cats or with humans. A healthy self-image and good self-esteem make for a happy and well-adjusted -- cat.
And that works for humans as well. Unfortunately, just as we don't always know the facts about our furry companions' kittenhood experiences, we also don't know a whole lot about the background of most of the people who we meet. Some have issues. And while most of us are not licensed psychotherapists, it is amazing what sort of magic just a little amount of respect can work. At least initially, if both the members in the established colonies -- and the newbies who might approach them -- exercised some of that mutual respect, we might hear a little less hissing coming from either side.
Meanwhile though, back at the Jung household, Ruby is still laying down the ground rules and Djinn-Jinn and Lee-Lu are still learning them albeit ever so slowly. And often via the business end of a big fat gray paw upside the head.
But I trust that eventually the three of them will work it all out. And I believe that we humans will, too.
We too often forget that The Pagan Territory is more than a physical meeting place or the name of a tradition or the title of a book. Our Territory -- our real home -- exists in the spiritual realm. It is boundless and there really is room enough for everyone.
Hissy fits and all.
Co-Founder - The Witches' Voice
Monday, July 14th., 2003
* Action Cat
** I would like to thank Resident 'hiss-torian' Ruby Jung for her many insightful contributions to this report.
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