Cat Lady: an Inspiring Tale of Perseverance

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels

As usual, this morning around nine I was walking towards the office. I get off the subway, after an hour-long ride, at the last station. What awaits me when I surface is not a pleasant sight: covered parking lots, polluting traffic, tall commercial buildings that populate the horizon. While I was prosaically dodging a dark green station wagon entering the parking, in a glimpse I caught a running ball of happy fur on the other side of the street. Tail held up high, I understood it was approaching its breakfast in a hurry.

This is a scene I’ve already witnessed a few times. There is a colony of cats living in a big abandoned field, previously home to a gypsy community. Sometimes, when I’m not too late nor too early for work, I happen to see this morning ritual: an old lady shows up bringing food for the strays, that usually seem to shy away from human contact. By the time I cross the street, they’ve rushed towards her, in festive hunger, a dozen at least, demanding their daily meal.

Simple enough, nothing peculiar.

But today it hit me: I get it, I thought. I get why she manages to wake up every morning, fill up her trolley with delicious (supposedly, by the ecstatic reactions) cat treats and roll it along the cold grey streets in these rather unpleasant outskirts. This moment is her reward. It’s the running, purring, jubilant cats that surround her in a matter of seconds. Feline affection, and that fulfillment that comes from doing something gratuitous. This is what makes her decide to be there every day.

Of course, skeptical side of me, I could be wrong. I don’t see her precisely every day. And I don’t know if it’s actually some animal rights association that’s sending her. Perhaps she’s not even paying for the cat food, she just delivers it because she lives nearby. Do I care though? Not really. In my eyes, she’s a wonderful old lady that every day is there to feed the stray cats, getting very little in return.

To me today she was the image of perseverance.

That got me thinking.

It’s almost that time of the year when we start reflecting upon our new year’s resolutions. A time full of good intentions. A time to believe in ourselves. How long does it last for you, I wonder? Is it just me or, once established that we’re most certainly going to lose weight, quit smoking, learn German, or [fill in here your spectacularly crafted new year’s resolution], the easy part is over? Is it just me or you lose the grip on your very good intentions in a matter of days, too?

Why? They’re very good ideas. Things that generally will make us better human beings. Why do we quit so fast? Or better put, what do we need to keep our motivation alive? Those beefy dudes that never miss a day at the gym, are they a different species? What is perseverance, this fleeting quality that I so admire in others? That I have always longed for but never seem able to seize? How do I start living by it?

How do I become the cat feeding lady?

I’ve decided right there, in those few steps that separated me from the frenzy of my inbox, that this would be my fairly philosophical new year’s resolution: understand perseverance. And then, persevere.

Now, since I can’t summon a dozen purring cats as my reward every day (sadly), I started pondering about reward mechanism in general. My rather disorganized information about neuroscience tell me that (very simply put) our brain functions best when it doesn’t feel threatened and for each effort it gets a reward.

A reward is the attractive and motivational property of a stimulus that induces appetitive behavior in operant conditioning; rewarding stimuli function as positive reinforcers. (Wikipedia)

The prospect of being rewarded by reaching the final goal of our resolution is however too far from the present. If I want to lose weight, I very rationally know that eating cupcakes is not a good choice. Easy-peasy. Is it? Being healthy is something that my neocortex wisely decided, sure, but will take time: quite not soon enough for my limbic system (that nervous freak that wants it all and wants it now). The sweet song of the cupcake is seducing my very present ear. Ergo: I will unwisely choose the cupcake, and the immediate pleasurable reward my brain craves for.

Find a way to reward the brain in the short-term that does not compromise your long-term goal. In other words, find happy cats!

Here are some ideas that could work:

  • Journaling: ink on paper or digital, writing about our achievements could be a good way to give ourselves recognition; could be done weekly, but probably works best if a few lines are put in daily. Plus, journaling is a good life hack for many reasons.
  • Sharing with someone: sharing achievements with a person (partner, friend, parent, colleague…) that knows about our long-term goal could be very rewarding; obviously, we need to refrain from lying about our achievement.
  • Hedonic reward: planning to give ourselves a treat (like something good to eat, a day at the spa or a short trip), provided that it’s something that’s aligned with our long-term goal, could work very well.

There is evidence that intrinsic reward (gratification that generates from within ourselves), as intrinsic motivation, is way more effective than extrinsic reward (like a treat). Another interesting evidence is that our brain tends to get addicted to pleasurable things; which means that the same reward that used to be very effective could become less powerful in time unless we increment the dose. So better be creative!

Let’s then keep our achievement visible and monitor our results: an intrinsic sense of achievement more powerful than any treat should arise from the acknowledgment of what we’re capable of. Then we can challenge ourselves, little by little, to do more.

Ok. That’s the issue of rewarding somewhat tackled. 
But, I keep asking myself, what if that’s still not enough?

I’ve read this many times: our brain loves rituals and routines. Routines lower the level of stress and help us save energy, and this is exactly why we are naturally drawn to them. If everything in our life is a routine and our routine goes on for years and we come to dread change we have definitely crossed a line and stand on unhealthy ground. But, adopting long-lasting good habits is an excellent use of our natural proclivity towards routine behavior.

It’s a common misconception that it takes only three weeks to consolidate a new habit. If we can manage to stick to our plan for those 21 days, if we’re able to get a streak of success going, we’re out of the dark for good and on the high road to victory. It could be. Or not. It depends for example on how far from our current habits is the new habit, or on how big our goal is.
That said, trying to stick to our resolution for at least 30 days seems a good rule of thumb.

Make a habit out of an action that leads you to your goal and force yourself to stick to it, at least for a month. I know cats may hiss at you in the beginning, but you will win their affection if you keep coming.

What if we can’t even manage 30 days? Did we ask ourselves why we chose that specific goal? Is it something we really want to achieve? Did we choose our great new year’s goal just because it sounded sensible? Because others would have approved of it?

Furthermore, did we set the bar way too high? Or did we set a goal that is not challenging enough? When we decide for an impossible point, deep down we know it. And we know that we chose it precisely to avoid guilt when we are necessarily unable to reach it. When our goal is too easy to reach, we tend to procrastinate and to think that probably it is not even that meaningful anyway.

You still can’t persevere? It’s time to ask yourself if your goal is truly something you want/are able to achieve. Try and understand if you really like cats. Maybe you’re a dog person!

We can’t work properly on “HAVE TO”: our goal needs to something we “WANT TO”. If we don’t really want to reach our goal, we will always be able to come up with excuses or more important things to do. The mother of all excuses? “I don’t have time for it”. It’s so common and so well accepted, that we hide behind it incredibly easily. But if you think about your resolution as a priority, as something you really desire, you will also be able to make time for it.

Banish the sentence: “I don’t have time for this” and replace with: “This is not a priority of mine”. It hurts a little bit, right? Because we don’t want those cats to starve, do we?

With these few good principles in mind, let’s now proceed towards beautiful new year’s resolutions and shiny new life goals. And may the strength of the perseverant cat lady, our suburban hero, be with us!

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