A recent Associated Press poll asked, Are pets better listeners than spouses? I suppose it should surprise few Americans, given the state of marriage today, that many respondents said they preferred to talk their troubles over with their dogs or cats than with their marital partners. Twenty-five percent said their dogs were the preferred listeners; alas, only 14% said cats.
Having written and spoken extensively about the spirituality of cats, I was more concerned with the latter data than with the fact that people talk in depth to non-human partners.
So I want to write on behalf of feline listening. Cats are ideal listeners because, first of all, they have superb, antenna-like ears with dozens of separate muscles designed to pick up sounds we can scarcely imagine. More important, as I p0int out in my book Writing With Cats, felines are unusually skilled contemplatives. They live fully in the present moment and thus exude a peaceful aura (most of the time) that is conducive to reflection on the part of their human staff who happen to be writers.
Thus it comes as no surprise that most of the world's great writers have lived with cats. When Hemingway wrote that he valued the cat's emotional honesty, he was on to something important that I have noticed in our cat, Lizzie, who is an excellent listener. She can pick up the emotional subtext of what I say and can sense, with exquisite intuition, any apprehension or distress on our part--as when we are preparing to take her to the vet. And she is never phony in her responses, even when they are not what I might prefer. If she misses the meaning of my words, she gets their tone and resonance.
I don't really need Lizzie as a therapist since I am married to one. Lynn, although retired as a counselor, is a gifted listener. But we both talk to Lizzie and notice that she is fully present to us when we do so; she enjoys hearing her name mentioned and is more alert and sympathetic as a listener than many of the people we know. I mean those concerned with their own agendas who pause only long enough in their monologues to breathe. Or so it seems sometimes.
Good listening has to do with giving full attention to another. In most circumstances, Lizzie scores well in this category.
I think we can learn some lessons from our feline friends, especially about living in the reality of the now and being fully present to those around us. One drawback with cats is their tendency to walk away suddenly in the middle of a conversation. But that's what comes with emotional honesty.