No longer centre of the universe

I have no idea what my cat wants. He squawks like a random parrot for no reason that I can fathom. Does he want more food? A cuddle? Does he want lessons in how to walk in a straight line without swerving under my feet and tripping me up?

Lately he’s been bringing home tiny birds that have been tormented to death. He doesn’t even have the decency to eat them. He’s a fluffy assassin.

The other day our boys rescued one of his newborn birds. They saved it from the cuddly jaws of death and put it in a cardboard box with some leaves. The bird was excruciatingly small. Featherless, it looked like a sad little cartoon.

I’m sure we did everything wrong to save it. We managed to feed it a worm. It had no chance and it died overnight, probably in pain. I felt so guilty.

How significant was that pathetic blip of life in the grand scheme of things? Not very. But it kept me awake, the thought that this little creature was suffering in our kitchen. Just because I didn’t know what it was experiencing didn’t make the suffering any less real for the bird.

I have been thinking about empathy, about how hard it is to view the world through anything other than our own egocentric perspective. That’s because we live in our own heads, not in anyone else’s. It’s not always easy to get out of your own head.

There’s a line in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughy’s character says, “We’re just here to be memories for our kids.”

Interstellar is a huge film. It’s bombastic, confounding and magnificent all at the same time. If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey then you’ll be well prepared for it.

I really liked it. Despite its problems I was totally wowed. Sometimes you have to set aside your inner critic and allow the flawed monster of creative ambition to carry you away.

But that line about parents just being memories for their kids? I’ve been arguing with it all week. It’s an uncomfortable truth. I have decided it’s only half of the story.

My dad told me that as the years tick by he doesn’t feel any older in his head. He said he secretly assumes that everyone else is much more grown up, as though they’ve all turned into responsible adults and he’s just pretending.

I found this amusing and encouraging. Partly because I’m no different and also because it reminds me that while I am busy being the star of my life, Dad is still very much the main character in his own story.

As a kid, you tend to view your parents as automatons who exist outside of normal human experience. Then one day you realize, with a certain amount of shock, that your parents actually have a vibrant life that is filled with the same passions and emotions you had assumed were only invented the year you had your first crush.

Eventually we have to grow up and acknowledge that the universe revolves around more people than just us. Other people matter too, even those who got to the front of the cinema queue before I did. They have as much right as me to buy a movie ticket. Darn it.

When we get too caught up in our own story we either can’t or won’t acknowledge the validity of other people’s situations. That’s when we start treating each other poorly.

I’ve rambled a bit but if you can take anything at all from a murderous cat, a line from Interstellar and my dad’s inner youth, maybe it is that in every sphere of life you’ll be able to consider how the people you interact with might be feeling and then treat them like decent human beings, with a bit of respect.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 November 2014. Reproduced with permission.