It is said that the trait which sets human beings apart from all other animals is an algebraic mentality. That is the ability to formulate, share and comprehend abstract symbols. Artists are good at that, an arrow pointing in a specific direction to follow, a green light indicating that one is to move forward, or the little silhouette of a man or woman on the restroom door, are examples of abstract symbols. These are just a few of the many. Even the letters you are reading here are abstract symbols, just squiggles in your eye, which as a part of our culture; we have learned to understand that the squiggles combine as an expression of ideas.
I’ve wondered if animals really lack the ability to work with symbols. Chimpanzees seem to have a kind of culture of their own. Some of them use sticks to dig termites out of the termite mound. That stick, as it lies on the ground, is not useful to the chimp unless that chimp sees it as more than a stick lying on the ground. Can a stick be a symbol? Does the chimp see the stick as an abstract symbol? Are the chimps teaching each other? That chimp has to connect all of the thoughts of food, termites, and tools useful for obtaining termites as food. It must mentally convert that stick on the ground from a stick idea to a tool idea. Is the tool a symbol for food? Other animals, including birds, and sea otters, also have the ability to discover objects to use as tools.
I find this all so interesting that it has inspired me to work with my cat, Maryann. I’m trying to teach her to learn an abstract symbol. I’ve been trying to teach her to look in a particular direction when I gesture by pointing with my index finger; in this case my finger is an abstract symbol, an arrow. I want to say she is a slow learner but I think cats know what they want to learn and not learn. They seem to have a lot going on in their little heads and are very discriminating.
Each time I begin Maryann’s lesson on abstract symbols, I call her name, and using my manly right index finger, I sternly point in a particular direction and announce a verbal clue, “Look”! Each time I do this, every time, rather than to make an attempt to understand my abstract symbol and look in the direction that my pointing finger indicates, Maryann insists on sniffing the end of my finger. I guess she is trying to teach me that my pointing finger is her symbol to sniff.
That reminds me of the philosopher Alan W. Watts. To paraphrase Watts from one of his many books, my memory has lost the exactness of his words; he spoke of a spiritual leader who pointed The Way, The Way being a virtuous path to follow for a useful, fulfilling life. Watt’s used the pointing finger as a symbol when speaking of pointing the way and said the people choose to suck the spiritual leader’s finger for comfort rather than follow The Way. Watts point was, to have a belief, to be aware of the way, was enough for the followers, to put the belief into action, to learn to live honorably required some work. Much like Maryann sniffing my finger, which is less work than actually trying to figure out what I meant by pointing. And it must be comforting for her to sniff my finger, secure in knowing that I’m on the other end of it, able to meet her demand to feed her and scratch her tummy.
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, written by M. Scott Peck, M.D., Scott makes the point that “the road less traveled” is a metaphor for the self discovery that we, as people, must do to assure ourselves a fulfilling and useful life, and he felt there were fewer people on that road. Scott’s book is his symbolic finger pointing down that road, the road which requires hard work for achieving results and a rewarding life.
I have participated in therapy groups where it seemed to me that a larger percentage of the people there, rather than being honest in an effort to improve their position in life, were there to enjoy the immediate gratification of the comfort the social life provided, to symbolically suck the pointing finger, so to speak. Fewer people seemed to take the hard, road less traveled, for solving their problems than those who were there to socialize. The social folks seemed to be lacking the honesty, discipline and motivation, to do the work required to learn the reasons for the chaos in their lives. They appeared unable to discover a fulfilling life and seemed intent on avoiding the work required to learn what would keep them from becoming someone else’s burden.
Now my cat Maryann, as a cat, seems to know what she needs and doesn’t need. I don’t think she feels a need for abstract symbols or to know The Way, she already knows her way so she sniffs my finger. Her life is complete without the symbols. Maybe, rather than bother her, I should just make sure I’m one of those folks on the road less traveled. Doing the work which assures me of a life fulfilled, so I’m useful to myself and others, including Maryann. And Maryann will just continue to be everything she needs to be for herself and me, an innocent spirit; a cat.