Hungry Monsters, Kill the Cat













From their wild and plentiful imagination, children create monsters that live comfortably in closets, under beds, and in the deep recesses of dark basements.  And no matter what parents say or how many nightlights litter the walls, every child knows that monsters are alive, THEY’RE ALIVE!

As adults though, we’re wise enough to know that monsters aren’t under the bed or in the closet - they’re in the streets, neighboring towns, and distant lands.  They’re in politics.  And sometimes, they’re in our families.  But in all of our maturity, our habits haven’t changed - we still hide from them, because they’re monsters.  And monsters are dangerous.

But they are also the product of our imagination.  Just like Frankenstein’s monster.

Frankenstein spent many long and grueling months creating the perfect specimen – his ultimate creation – and he couldn’t wait to bring it to life.  But once it opened its eyes, Frankenstein screamed in horror and fled, leaving the creature abandoned and alone, but not yet a monster (even though Frankenstein refers to him as such).  Initially, the creature tries to do good, tries to be helpful, and tries to assimilate.  Until it gets burned. Then, it starts to change.

The scene from chapter XI is most poignant to this point.  “One day,” it states, “when I [the creature] was oppressed by the cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wondering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy” he continues, “I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain.  How strange,” he considers, “that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!”   

In his excitement of curiosity, the creature is burned, and it is at this moment that it learns a misconstrued key truth to survival: fear the unknown.

Like the creature, we’re naturally curious, and because we are, we want to explore, to seize the day, and to thrust our hands into the live embers.  But when we get hurt, when our hands sizzle and blister, we pull our them back and become cautious.  Overtime, that caution becomes habit, until one day we realize we haven’t reached for anything new or surrounded ourselves with the unfamiliar in so long that we’ve forgotten what it feels like to explore, to discover, and to live outside of our daily routines.  Our daily habits. 

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.  Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often” (The Power of Habit – Duhigg). 

This “effort-saving instinct” allows us to “stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors” such as walking or eating or even brushing our teeth, but it is can also destroy our ability to discover, to grow, and to learn because, habitually, we avoid things that are difficult, things that are, or are perceived, as dangerous.

Especially when it comes to people. Like a hand to live embers, we’ve learned that our curiosity of people can be hurtful, that it can burn, and that it (curiosity) is the sole suspect for the murdering of the cat.

But according to Ben Johnson, curiosity didn’t kill the cat.  Care did.  And not care as we understand it today, but as Ben Johnson understood it in his day, as worry or sorrow.

In 1598, the British playwright wrote, Every Man in His Humour, a play that dramatizes the effects of false assumptions and how they can destroy relationships and even self.  It is within this play that the now infamously misread line is uttered, “. . . helter skelter, hang sarrow, care will kill the cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.”   

Worry and sorrow, fear even, of the unknown is what killed the cat, it’s what made Frankenstein’s creature a monster, and it’s what’s killing us today.  We just have a different name for it – stereotypes.

Stereotypes, according to Chimamanda Adichie, are not untrue, but they are incomplete.  And our lack of curiosity allows our stereotypes to grow, to be a people group’s definitive story, and to create monsters of childlike proportions. 

In a study conducted by Levine and Stark, they found that being curious about people of diverse backgrounds and cultures “improves the way people think.”  Published in the New York Times in December of 2015, their findings state that “by disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts” while participants who were grouped with people who looked and talked the same “seemingly put undue trust in other’s answers . . . mindlessly imitating them” and easily following “in the wrong direction.”

Diversity allows for “cognitive friction that enhances deliberation”, and when we deliberate, we grow in understanding, of each other and of the situation at hand.  We find commonality amidst the differences, and we grow closer together.

But only if we’re curious.  Only if we allow those who are different in colors, in ethnicity, and in politics to matter can we more accurately grow and learn about this world, ourselves, and one another. 

Cognitive friction is difficult.  It involves patience, selflessness, and personal sacrifice.

It involves dying to self, considering others more important than ourselves, and it demands curiosity – a strong desire to know, but more importantly, an insatiable longing to learn.

And in order to learn, we must admit that we don’t know, or more harshly, that we might be wrong, and that we’re willing to change. 

As my friend Jillian Marie said, “perhaps a phone call, a meal, a cup of coffee with someone who doesn't necessarily share our views can help us find common ground and, from there, help us work through these deeper questions about who we are and what we need on a human-to-human rather than a media-to-meme basis. That might be a start.?"

If we’re not careful, if we don’t make a conscious choice to turn on the light we’ll become that which we fear – monsters.

Monsters that love to feed on cats.