One of the three cats I'm housesitting is pathologically skittish. I've stayed in this house four times over this past year and she's never let me touch her. In fact, she doesn't even come up from Kittyland in the basement where, I presume, she feels safe from dogs and humans. I know dedicated cat lovers who would camp in the basement until this freaky kitty fell in love with them, but I am not one of them.
My days of wooing the wounded are over.
This cat's early history is unknown, but she sure acts like someone was mean to her when she was young. Unkindnesses have enormous staying power. I have sympathy with creatures who suffer from memories of meanness; but I'm wary of them too. Thirty-some years of sitting in the basement with my frightened mother kinda used up my energy for rescue missions.
So, what to do?
What I did with the basement cat was not much:
Every time I went to feed her, I said something nice to her and I moved slowly. She ran away every time, but I kept doing it because it's what I could do. I didn't expect anything to change, I didn't even think about it.
A few days ago, she didn't run away. A couple days ago, she let me pet her and immediately started purring. I was amazed. I don't expect her to join me on the couch, like the other two cats, but I enjoy her freaky friendliness just as much. (I don't need more cat hair on my clothes anyway.)
I came up with a name for this exchange: sustainable kindness.
Generally speaking, I feel compassion in life. But the trick for me has been and is to find a level of kindness that I can maintain. (I mean "kindness" as an action, here, not a feeling.)
Everybody can sustain different levels of kindness. I know some people who are like rain forests, constantly pumping out the oxygen of kindness. You just want to stand next to these people and breathe.
Other people show up for the dramatic stuff. They're like the plants that lie dormant in the Sahara and bloom once every ten years when it rains.
I see myself more like what you get if you don't mow your lawn for a few years--an ecosystem of scruffy plants that can sustain themselves on the basics. What they offer is not dramatic jungle rescue stuff (bark that cures cancer!), and they don't transform the desert into a carpet of purple.
I'm not out to save anyone--pretty cynical about that, actually--but I'll do to hold the soil in place. Pretty important, that.