One of our cats, Danny, is a real piece of work. I expect that he always will be wild and difficult.
Danny is cute as can be, with a chubby kittenish face, strangely long legs, and a stubby, crooked tail. He’s good at luring people in with his curious, wide-eyed expression, his head cocked, seeming to invite petting or scratches behind the ears. But as soon as he’s got you in range, he bites, growls, claws, and snarls. With Travis and me, he can be really sweet sometimes. Towards visitors, however, he’s unfailingly ornery and aggressive.
My niece, Mary, is a total cat-person. I mean, she loves cats. She even likes the musical Cats. She can’t stand Danny.
While Mary was visiting this past week, I found myself making excuses for him. Explaining and apologizing on Danny’s behalf. Constantly. “Well, you have to understand, he got a real rough start in life… I think he might be in constant discomfort from his broken tail and other hip/joint issues… He really can be cuddly and nice, sometimes, I promise! And would you just look at that adorable face!”
Mary wasn’t buying it. She raised one critical eyebrow, reminding me of my mother, who was very fond of the old saying, “Handsome is as handsome does.” Meaning: one is only as attractive as one’s actions.
It’s a fair point. Plenty of pretty people and gorgeous animals can be real a-holes. True beauty has a lot more to do with our character and behavior, with how we show up in the world, with how we participate in our shared reality. Beauty isn’t skin-deep; I’d call it soul-deep. And by these measures, one might reasonably say that Danny’s not really all that cute most of the time. You might even call him “ugly.”
But/AND — he also has those gentle moments, when he snuggles up next to me asleep, looking like an angel. [Full disclosure: most of Danny’s best moments are when he’s asleep]. Even when he’s being horrid to our guests, I think it’s entirely possible that he’s trying to be protective of Travis and me and our territory. I suspect that this is his way of contributing, doing his job, doing his part for the family.
I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and judge him according to his best behaviors, his best qualities, his best intentions, his best days.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has said something very similar when talking about writing the character of Aaron Burr in his hit, Hamilton. The show hinges largely on the lifelong rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and culminates with Burr killing his titular nemesis in a duel. When asked if Burr is a villain, Miranda counters with another question: “If any of us was judged on our worst day, who would we be?”
If any of us were defined by our worst behavior on our worst day, who would we be?
And this, for me, begs all sorts of follow-up questions:
- By which moments do I define myself? Which achievements, which failings?
- By which qualities do I define myself? By the perceived inadequacies of which I’m ashamed, or by the parts I’ve judged good enough? By my capacity for greatness and kindness and generosity of spirit? Or by my snarling, self-protective, wounded meanness?
- By which moments and qualities do I judge and define others? Something lovely we shared, or that time they wronged me?
- Also, how about those strangers of whom my impression has been filtered through someone else’s reporting? I’ve got real strong opinions about all sorts of people I’ve never met.
Each and every one of us is a mixed bag of glory and regret. We’ve all had good days and bad days, moments we’re proud of and those we’d play differently if we could do them again. What’s the truth of who we are?
Handsome is as handsome does. Okay, well, which parts are we gonna look at?
It’s not a new idea to suggest that everyone, pretty much, is always doing the best that they know how to do. It’s not a new idea, but I think it’s worth repeating and remembering as often as possible. Especially when I’m inclined to judge someone (myself or another) by their worst behavior.
I’m definitely not suggesting that we acknowledge only the good, disregarding or denying what we don’t like. Honesty is important, too. And we all need the feedback of what’s workable and not, what’s hurtful and what’s healing.
I am saying that there’s a wealth of compassion and love available in actively looking for what’s best. In looking for our own and each other’s best days. This not only gives others the benefit of the doubt, allowing for more intimacy and connection. We also grace ourselves with a relationship to the world that is less hostile and more beautiful, a world in which more good is possible.
Carl Sagan wrote: “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another Danny, another Elon Musk, another Dolly Parton, or another you. Thank you for sharing the beautiful uniqueness, the stardust miracle, the Divine incarnate that you are.
I can’t wait to be with you this Sunday, at 10:00 am, at Maple Street Dance Space. Holy Water and Whiskey will be our special musical guests! And don’t forget to set your clocks back an hour. XO, Drew
©2022 Drew Groves