Fred was an epic cat. Really. While most pets are special to their owners, Fred really was special; if nothing else, he lived to be almost 22 years old, which you have to admit, is special. As nearly as I can tell, the oldest cat currently alive is around 27. Fred came close, which is pretty special. But what was most special about Fred was his attitude towards life. As any cat owner can tell you, saying a cat has attitude is redundant, but as he grew older, Fred’s attitude morphed from typical cattitude to Stoic. (Cattitude is a word, right?)
When Fred was younger, he, like many cats, was easily offended. The best example of this came from how he treated Tracy (my wife) and me when we returned from a trip. Early in our marriage, Fred would ignore us for several days when we came home after traveling. Fred’s treatment of us was classic feline passive-aggressiveness. Fred was mad, and he was going to punish us by denying us his company. The Stoics teach us that life is too short to get upset over things we cannot control. (Actually, Stoics think that getting upset is pretty pointless regardless of our level of control.) As he aged, Fred’s post-travel behavior changed. No longer were there several days of kitty cold shoulder. When we returned, Fred would come to us, purring, meowing and showing great affection. Rather than extending the upset over us being gone, he chose to find joy at our return. We can do the same thing in our lives. When things go, or might go, wrong, don’t make it worse through anxiety over the possibility or regret over the past. Find the joy where you can.
Fred was also remarkably tolerant, especially of our dogs. When the dogs were tearing around the house chasing each other, Fred didn’t complain, he simply got out of the way. Even though Fred was a Stoic, he was also a cat. When the dogs needed correcting, he was up to the task. Interestingly, Stoics believe that we have a duty to instruct others, we are part of the world and it’s our duty to help others. I’m not sure if Fred was upset (a very non-Stoic attitude) or was just trying to help the dogs improve when he swatted the dogs, but when we instruct others in living well, we should do it out of an attitude of affection, not anger.
Fred also seemed to have a sense of what he could control, and what he could not. This is a foundation of Stoic thought: “Some things are up to us, and some are not.” When Fred was hungry, he would jump on to the table where we kept his food dish, look over at one of us, and wait patiently for his food. He seemed to realize that he couldn’t open his food bin (curse the lack of an opposable thumb!), but he did know what he could do to signal his hunger. So, that’s what he did.
Fred also found joy in simple things, whether cuddling with Tracy, playing with a string or just lying next to me while I worked. He wasn’t one of those animals that jealously guarded his things. If our dog Maggie wanted to play with Fred’s string, Fred didn’t care. It’s just a string; why get upset over a string? Stoic teaching tells us that no possession brings us good if we worry about losing it. Fred seemed to get this.
Finally, Fred accepted death when his time came, another Stoic practice. Animals often know when their time has come. Fred was fine one day, and seemed off the next. Then he simply walked out of the house (we still don’t know how) and drifted off into the sunset. Sadly, I was out of town when this happened, but I hope I’ll remember Fred’s example when it’s my time to go. Live as best you can while you’re in this world, then when it’s time, simply fade off into the sunset. Fred lived a long life, he lived it well, and he accepted his fate without complaint. We could all do well to follow his example. FBN
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
I am grateful to serve as dean at Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,500 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke