Good Cat, Bad Person: the Human Intuition of Being “Wrong”

William James, who wrote the classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, had an uncanny ability to boil religious ideas down to their essences. James wrote,

The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: —
1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers. (Lecture XX, “Conclusions”)

Though James was working from a Western way of processing knowledge, as am I, I think with a little tweaking this way of seeing religion is useful outside the Western monotheisms.

  1. We perceive that there is something wrong with us as we are;
  2. We perceive that a proper connection to reality (larger than ourselves) will save us from this “something wrong.”

At least in my understanding, a wide variety of human religions work this way.

But why is it that we human beings perceive of ourselves as “wrong”? Don’t cats and dogs, for example, at least appear to see themselves as perfectly good cats and dogs?

I don’t buy the argument that our feeling that something is amiss is because we have a soul. Nor do I buy the argument that it’s because we have consciousness alone, since every observation points to sentient beings having consciousness as well. I suspect that such theorists as Ernest Becker are correct that our discontent arises from the fact that — alone among animals — we have the ability to contemplate our own deaths.

The poet Wallace Stevens, who was atheist, intuited that our consciousness of extinction is what gives meaning to existence; it is this that connects us to “higher power”:

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.*

For Stevens, nature itself and its endless flow is the higher power. We are, in other words, part of the flow of nature that goes on and on, despite our individual expiration date. Existence itself is sublime exactly because it is continuous change.

The biggest “something wrong” is our knowledge that we ourselves and everyone and everything we love are mortal. We can deal with this fact in one of two ways: we can deny it, believing that there is eternal life somewhere; or we can accept it as the central reality of being itself:

So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.

As cats know, there’s nothing wrong about that.