For years I laughed at people who insisted on having their emotional support animals with them on the plane. I’m not laughing any longer.
I have come to admit that I too have animal-related attachment issues. As a child, I had a teddy bear that kept me company; now, a couple of centuries later, I have two living beings, a red dog and a gray cat, that sustain my mental health.
I find it reassuring to have my steps dogged by Bisou and catted by Telemann as I move around the house. It feels disorienting to go for a walk without a leash in my left hand, a poop bag at the ready, and Bisou stopping at every sacred sniffing spot on the way. At night, watching cataclysms unfold on TV, I keep one hand on short gray fur and the other on long red fur, and life on this mournful planet seems more bearable.
In December, as we prepared to go on our Christmas travels, I lived in a state of anxiety. I had all the usual worries—packing, parking, getting on the right train. But most of my fretting was focused on the animals. Would there be a snow storm on the day when I was supposed to drive Bisou to her B&B in southern Vermont? (There wasn’t.) Would Telemann, alone except for twice-daily visits from a cat sitter, stop using the litter box in the quintessential mode of feline revenge? (He didn’t.) Would he tear up the house? (He tried.)
Day after day I told myself that, really, there was nothing for a rational person to worry about. Of course, this sort of thought never helps. It simply makes the worrier feel stupid, which gives her one more thing to worry about.
I tried to comfort myself by imagining the peace and contentment that would descend upon me once the trip was over and I could again take naps with Bisou against my right leg and Telemann on my stomach. Surely the happiness of having them with me again would match in strength and duration the anxiety that now had me so cruelly by the throat.
But for me, and I suspect for many others, our joys never feel commensurate with our sorrows. I knew from experience that the anxiety that had haunted me for weeks would not be replaced by an equivalent period of happiness after the trip. We somehow manage to sustain negative emotional states much longer than positive ones.
And that’s how it happened. After the ecstatic reunion (I spent the first night sleeping on the love seat, so Telemann could knead and purr to his heart’s content) things became, if not exactly humdrum, less than constantly joyous. Tiny worries—about laundry, groceries, the meaning of life–began to cloud my emotional skies.
But this time, with my former anxieties well fixed in my memory, I am attempting to hang onto a proportional level of happiness. As I go about my routines I occasionally stop and say to myself, wow, what gorgeous long ears Bisou has. Or I watch Telemann watching the winter-drab (but still adorable) finches at the feeder, and give thanks that his litter box habits have remained intact.
I was mistaken when I hoped that my happiness at being back would go on and on of its own accord. Spontaneous joy is something that we humans evolved to experience only in short bursts, lest we become complacent and stop scanning the horizon for lions on the prowl. Maybe happiness has to be cultivated, in the full botanical sense. The seed needs the right soil, water, and light. Above all, it needs attention.
And then it may, with luck, take root and flourish.