A television camera opens on a downtown urban landscape. A cherry red convertible from the fifties pulls to a stop at the curb. A man with a matching red shirt steps out and grabs a black, nondescript guitar case from the back seat. The camera focuses on the case and tells us it must be something important.
The next shot brings us indoors to a diminutive woman in a grey t-shirt and jean shorts opening a door in her apartment. We see the man from the car. He commands attention with his tattooed arms, bald head, ear plugs, and beard. He’s Jackson Galaxy, musician by night and cat behaviorist by day. His appearance makes one think of Las Vegas and Hollywood and beatnik poets and fifties car culture. His spirit animal could be a pair of fuzzy dice. Instead, we find out, it’s a cat.
The episode of “My Cat from Hell” opens up and we discover that his guitar case is his version of Batman’s utility belt, full of cat gear in specialized compartments: pocket lasers, crinkly foil balls, and feather tipped wands. Mr. Galaxy is here on a mission to rehabilitate “Minibar,” a feral cat being fostered by a couple.
Minibar, a black cat with a white bib of fur around her neck and matching white tips on her paws, occupies a space that looks like a woodworker’s garage. Lumber, paint, egg crates and cardboard boxes jut out at unholy, nonparallel angles like broken bones. We see a montage of the cat hunched behind or under furniture, or tensed in a corner, her pale green eyes wide with enormous pupils over-dilated from fear. When she thinks nobody is looking, she enters the apartment and moves from one hiding spot to another – behind cabinets, under the exposed plumbing behind the tub, or behind boxes in the unfinished kitchen. The wife exclaims in frustration, “We have no emotional bond with her. She just lives in a corner in our house.” We find out Minibar regularly hisses at the owners. The deep gashes on the husband’s arms indicate even more.
Minibar has so many hiding spots that you would think she’d be comforted, but the reverse is true – these places do not provide any real comfort or enduring feelings of safety. Rather, they foster more fear. Jackson diagnoses the problem immediately: “Allowing a cat to burrow into small spaces underneath things low to the ground is allowing them to manifest a small personality…. She grew up knowing that by hiding and waiting for a food source to come to her, she would get fed. She never had to go out and trust. She never was challenged to go out and live like another cat would.” Jackson recommends the owners close off the cat’s hiding spots.
A few weeks later, we see Minibar exploring. After several weeks of behavioral intervention, some dramatic backsliding, and an amazing recovery, Minibar becomes a confident, loving, playful, and peaceful pet.
Manifesting a small personality
As I watch this episode, I really identify with this cat.
It’s just a little over a year after health, relational, and work events forced me out from my own hiding places and into a larger world.
Seeing this cat progress makes me think of all the hiding places in my own life that have long kept me from growth. In the midst of this physical quarantine during the pandemic, maybe there are more dangerous forms of quarantine – the ones we ourselves create to protect us from truly living.
You know how you hear the same piece of wisdom throughout your life but you don’t really absorb it or act on it until you are forced to? One thing I’ve re-learned this year is that fear is at the base of so much of our problems in life. Fear makes it hard to love the Lord thy God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and difficult to love thy neighbor. It makes our worlds small by making our lives bend inward, towards the shrunken version of ourselves, preventing us from seeing all we truly are as God’s image bearers in this world. And while it can be good to know how small we are without Christ, we are meant to grow, both in Him and towards Him.
We all have our own shelters that allow us to foster fear and insecurity. Like children’s tree houses and pillow forts, we find these places within us early on in life to hide from hurt, pain, and grief. We plant our flags, decorate them, make them comfortable, and return again and again there to escape.
Most often these sites start out healthy, providing at least temporary calm from the storms of life. They include ideas about ourselves and the world, psychological defenses, emotional patterns, cultural interests, and even creative pursuits. Many of them stay healthy. But at some point, others become self-quarantine zones that shelter us from dangers that are no longer present or that we should grow to fight.
Where do you hide from your fears in negative ways? What safe places do you regularly escape to that have kept you small? How do they prevent your growth?
Often our quarantine zones are of the mental variety. We might refuse to work at learning because something is difficult to grasp or because we have a haughty attitude. We might not see the sins of our minds, perhaps always assuming we are right or maybe demonizing others without trying to understand their views through the lens of grace. Like me, we may fall into pessimism and lose hope. We might engage in any number of activities and attitudes to escape growing mentally, such as anti-intellectualism, distrust of all expertise, arrogance in our own opinions, or disregard learning from those who might be more knowledgeable, experienced, or wiser.
I still am working through a strong fear of appearing stupid that has always driven me to try to understand more than the people around me. While this often has helped me in school and work, it has also kept me small because I’ve over-focused on seeking knowledge and have over-valued reason at the expense of emotion.
Many of our quarantine zones are emotional ones, psychological survival defenses that help us for a while but eventually harden and keep us small. If we aren’t able to work through our more difficult primary emotions (fear, shame, sadness, disgust, etc.), but instead find ways to avoid them, they often result in anger, hate, sadness, depression, and anxiety.
Sometimes we avoid emotional growth by overindulging in activities to escape our feelings. [Note: I’m not discussing the many types of addictions with physical components that I’m not able or qualified to address here]. Our modern, ever-present ability to access these escapes through the web and social media makes it very easy to turn our hobbies into quarantine zones that keep us away from emotional growth in Christ.
For years, I saw emotions as irrational and untrustworthy and tried not to show them. I’m not alone in this – the “toughen up, never show your fears or your tears, never be vulnerable” culture creates many emotionally stunted people, particularly men. Some people broadcast at full volume their unprocessed emotions, others let them fester and rot, and yet others simmer and then boil over or explode.
Me? I would analyze my emotions, rationalize them, and then “put them on a shelf” to examine later. In the meantime, I’d go read a book or play video games or watch movies or eat some good food and forget about them. The long-term result was anesthetizing myself. Not only did I ignore negative feelings, I unintentionally closed off positive emotions like hope and joy, resulting in depression.
A third type of quarantine removes us from spiritual growth. It’s harder to define, as many factors can inhibit our Christian journey.
Ask yourself – “what are my next steps in faith?” “What is preventing me from taking those steps?” “What am I hiding behind?” What am I avoiding?”
For some, it might be seeing the weekly Sunday morning church gathering as a spiritual checkbox while doing nothing else spiritually. Or it might be avoiding an examination of your faith and particular religious behaviors regarding that faith. It could be committing sins of legalism – being so worried about others following the laws and rules that your anger or sadness at society drown out forgiveness and grace. Maybe you’ve never taken the responsibility to further your understanding of the history and theology of Christianity. Perhaps your prayer life is stale or nonexistent. Or you’ve been resisting a call to become more involved with a group of fellow Christians in acts of service.
I’ve had particular troubles in this area. So often our thoughts and emotions affect our spiritual growth. I’ve been fearful throughout my life about fitting in with Christian culture – afraid I don’t know how to pray the right prayers in group prayer, or think the right thoughts, or believe the right beliefs. After living as a Christian for over 35 years and working in Christian ministry for 14 years, I still feel twinges of “imposter syndrome” anxiety when I’m in Christian circles and I’ve hid from taking on roles I might have been called towards.
Some ways forward
Both your path and your obstacles are as unique to you as mine are to me, but maybe it’s time to take those next steps to bear greater fruit for Christ.
The good news is that Christ heals. Whatever your emotional, mental, and spiritual self-quarantines may be, there is hope in Him!
As in many areas, the first step is identification. What is holding you back or distracting you from growth? What don’t you want to face about yourself? What fears drive you? What insecurities bite at your edges? What unhelpful or destructive thoughts do you have about yourself and the world around you? What emotions are difficult for you? What steps should you take spiritually? What has kept you from doing so?
In answering these questions, it’s crucial to think of yourself as small, but able to grow larger in Christ. It is also important to think in terms of gradual steps to take – most growth is accomplished in very small, intentional ways. Your fears, negative thoughts, and unhelpful responses to emotions are redeemable. They are not signs of your constant value, especially to God. They are weaknesses that can be strengthened and are not permanent. Examine yourself while also being open and vulnerable to the thoughts of trusted friends and family. Throughout, pray.
The second step is seeking help. We were created and designed as social creatures. Unfortunately, this means that often our current weaknesses are scars that others have helped to put there. But more importantly, the Holy Spirit works in many ways, one being through friendship. Trust God and love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself [Mark 12:30-31]. Allow others in to help you while you also help them.
All of us have imperfect minds and imperfect hearts. This is easy to agree with, but how many of us actually seek help? We believe counseling or therapy couldn’t be for us, yet we all have problems we can work on. While I hope the thoughts shared in this article are helpful, they are no substitute for the work of good friends, mentors, counselors, therapists, teachers, and clergy. Realize that every individual has their own set of skills and weaknesses and that you may need do a bit of searching to find those who can best help you grow. Frankly, while I always hope Christians are the best qualified and available to help other Christians, sometimes this isn’t the case. The Holy Spirit is powerful enough to develop you through people who aren’t of the faith. Pray, consult with trusted friends and family who know you, and be open to listening to them. We rarely grow alone and if so, in limited ways with limited impact.
There are many directions you can take, but in the end, be committed to the process. As Christians, we are on a journey and do not arrive until we are fully in the arms of Christ.
From Cringer to Battle Cat
Growing up, the heroes that I most loved were ones who struggled with both their weaknesses and their powers. Spider-Man, who felt an ongoing burden of responsibility, grief, and guilt. The X-Men, who had to learn how to control their powers from being too destructive in a world who envied and feared those powers.
Before I knew those heroes, though, I knew He-Man. Through his allegiance with the magical Good of his world, weak Prince Adam has power to transform into the strong He-Man to fight evil.
However, it was the transformation of his talking green and yellow pet tiger, Cringer, that was really amazing. True to his name, he is afraid of everything. Nevertheless, through He-Man’s power, Cringer changes into the mighty Battlecat, a fearless and fearsome armored tiger that He-Man rides into battle.
Cringer, even more than He-Man, represents humanity as we are – weak and fearful on our own, made stronger through Christ, and often a vehicle for His good in our world.
With Christ’s help, transform into the Battlecat you were meant to be and stride forward as a child of God in this wondrous world of His.
The featured image titled “Grand Tetons – Storm Over Mount Moran” is courtesy David Moum and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Steven is a lover of deep conversation, literature, film, comic books, video games, and travel. He is a father of a daughter more talented than he, husband to a wife more creative, and a leader of many people who are more skilled, but somehow he manages to get by. He has been part of a biweekly writing group since 2016 and writes memoir, poetry, and fiction, and as a side-gig, Steven formats manuscripts for writers for upload to Kindle Direct Publishing. Loving balance in all things, he makes this exception: he doesn’t believe there are such things as thinking too much, learning too much, or caring too much. He spends his non-hobby time as Vice-President at the C.S. Lewis Foundation, working with great joy planning and managing events with his merry band of volunteer superheroes.