Cat Comfortable

Copyright Tam Black 2013 Edited for May 2013 by permission
Copyright Tam Black 2013
Edited for May 2013 by permission

Have you ever watched a cat sleep and wondered, “HOW in the world could that be comfortable?”

Master contortionists, cats sleep curled up in balls, with their heads turned at practically 180 degrees. They balance precariously with only half of their body on a window sill, they lay inside boxes, their necks crooked against the side and two legs hanging out, or on their backs, crescent-shaped, or crammed in tissue boxes, frying pans, baskets, or bowls. They sit up, pile on top of each other, lie over grates, or rungs…for visuals see the link included at the end of the article.

Observing these positions, or seeing pictures, I can’t help but be amused…but there is also something deeply disconcerting about it. I think about how that must feel. Crammed. Crooked. Scrunched. Bent. Compressed. Stretched. Hanging. Balancing.  None of these descriptors say “comfortable” to me. Yet, for the cats, these positions are natural; they are cozy, happy, and comfortable.

This is being “cat-comfortable”: doing something that is natural and that feels right to you that to someone else might feel disconcerting or uncomfortable.

The problem of course is since you are comfortable in your natural position, you may not be aware of another person’s discomfort. Do you think cats think about whether or not I am uncomfortable on their behalf when they sleep? No, of course not.

Let me give an example of cat-comfortable in humans. Several years ago I started playing basketball with guys from work: custodians, maintenance guys, electricians, police officers. I was the only woman and it was really the first time in my adult-life that I played exclusively with men. When someone was having a bad day, the guys on the other team generally offered such remarks as “C’mon is that all you got?” “My mother plays better than you!” “You SO bad because MY defense EXTENDS…” The guy having the bad day would get frustrated and come back with some defensive retort, which would make the other guys come back even harder with their cutting remarks. Sometimes it got pretty heated…hostile even. At least, that’s what I thought. I was pretty uncomfortable with it, the peace-loving, conflict-reducing person that I am.

So, I asked one of the guys about it one day. He explained that they aren’t experiencing conflict OR hostility. This is their way of encouraging each other, picking each other up; motivating each other. When someone gives them a really hard time because they are doing poorly, it makes them dig into themselves harder and deeper to pull out the strength within and do better.

They were perfectly comfortable with these interactions. I was the one who was uncomfortable. They were cat-comfortable—interacting naturally, yet displaying behavior that I felt uncomfortable with. As soon as I realized that there was no hostility, it was just a “mode” of encouragement, I started to practice my “smack-talking” skills. I got pretty good at it. Even though it still kind of made me uncomfortable, I could participate in a way that was natural to them. I was able to expand my own sense of “comfort” outside of a familiar circle to interact in a way that was natural to others, if not to me.

Here is another example. I was helping out with the Youth Group at my favorite church and there was a high school junior who read philosophy and liked to argue, in the sense of debating. The first time that he and I “discovered” our mutual love of verbal banter, we sat among about half a dozen high school kids and “argued”. Materialism? Realism? Nominalism? Idealism? What is right? What makes a table a table? Does this table really exist as a table or merely as a set of molecules/energy!?? How do we know!!??? It got pretty intense. He and I were having fun—it is not everyone who enjoys such verbal intensity. Clearly, however, the onlookers thought we were fighting, bickering, and agitated. To them our natural state of comfort within a heated debate was disturbing. I’ve seen this type of thing happen also in work situations, where two people discuss with an intensity that makes others around them uncomfortable. Sometimes, especially when the observers tend to be “peace-makers”, intense, direct, discussion can be misconstrued as conflict or hostility, when to the people involved, it is just pointed discussion.

Everyone has their own cat-comfort—those behaviors that are perfectly natural that might make someone else uncomfortable. I ask a lot of questions — A LOT — to people who don’t know me, or people I’ve just met, to friends, to anyone. Sometimes I notice people getting uncomfortable. Sometimes I tone it down, sometimes I don’t. When people get to know me and realize that’s “just who I am” we laugh about it. But until then…sometimes people feel awkward with my questioning.

When I am the one exhibiting the behavior that might provoke discomfort in another, when I am the cat–as with my questioning or pointed, intense, discussion– I try to be aware of their feelings and to make a choice about whether or not to “tone it down”. I don’t always change my behavior but I do attempt to maintain an awareness of people’s responses.

When I am the person who is uncomfortable—as on the basketball court, I take a deep breath first and notice how other people are responding to each other. Is the discomfort mine? Is it theirs? If they are not uncomfortable, why should I be? If they are interacting in a way that is natural to them, what can I learn from this? Can I be so bold to make myself uncomfortable by interacting with them in a way that I have never interacted before? Can I expand and grow the number of ways that I can be cat-comfortable? The more I practice, the more I grow my comfort level, the more people I can interact “naturally” with, and the less I feel afraid or uncomfortable when other people are interacting.

2 thoughts on “Cat Comfortable

  1. Sus – I think this is a great article, but being a Mom now, I wonder about whether this kind of “cat-comfortable” philosophy could be used by people to justify behavior that IS destructive and unhealthy. Could sex-offenders everywhere, now use the “cat-comfortable” defense? Kidding, of course, but maybe you see my point. Bullying, harassment, peer pressure are all too common in adults as well as teenagers. What distinguished the encouraging banter from bullying? Somewhere there is a line, personally and socially, that still needs to be drawn, and making that assessment can be a challenge.


    • Dear Gretchen, Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative comment. “Cat comfortable” refers to behavior that is observed, not perpetrated or experienced directly. In the case of the basketball, I am observing, not receiving smack talk; in the case of the verbal banter, others were observing the debate, not I and my word-dueling friend. In both cases, the people actually participating were at ease; others were uncomfortable. Participation or observation is the distinction. When the dynamic shifts from observation to participation, the subjective experiences of the participants come into play. People KNOW when they are being bullied, harassed or disrespected–they feel it. Bullies often know when they are bullying. In no way does “cat comfortable” advocate a bully saying to a victim, “I am bullying you so that you can get comfortable with this experience.” If a bully wants to justify demeaning, berating and destructive behavior, s/he may do that with any number of rationalizations.

      This of course, then brings up what I think you are really getting at: How can we as thoughtful, caring human beings behave in ways towards others that are kind, caring, respectful (not bullying and harassing). How do we teach that as parents, teacher, mentors, and friends? Do the questions not provide the answer: we do it through being kind, caring, loving, respectful to ourselves, to each other, to animals, to the earth. In every interaction, be kind.


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