If You Love Someone, Set Them Free (Starting With Yourself)

by Jul 23, 2013Building Courage23 comments

P ETA thinks I’m cruel.

According to them, all cats should be indoor cats. They call on owners to protect their loved ones from the “not-so-great outdoors.”

Why? They might get kitty AIDS. There are bad people who will sell them to laboratories or light them on fire. There are even other cats, and make no mistake, those cats are mean.

It’s not that these things aren’t true, even if the selling them to laboratories sounds a bit like an urban myth. It’s a dangerous world out there and you will likely extend your cat’s life span by keeping them inside.

But it’s also a pretty one-sided story. Yes, it can be a big, bad world, but there are plenty of insidious dangers inside the house: boredom, aggression, depression.

Just because your pet can’t vocalize what they’re feeling doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. When a heat wave hit London and we were desperate to at least crack open some windows, one of our cats wouldn’t stop making escape attempts. No matter how clever we tried to be, she would find a way to wriggle out, forcing me to track her down and drag her back to her prison cell, I mean, loving home.

Until one day I looked in her eyes and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I love this animal like a part of my family and here I was denying her the one thing she wanted, and all I could think about was keeping her safe.

So I opened the window and let her go.

It struck me how many of us struggle with the same weighty decision–not just for our pets, but for ourselves.

People are all too willing to share with you the dangers of changing, of living your life differently. You might not get hired, you might not make enough to pay the bills, you might lose your home and worldly possessions.

What about the dangers of supposedly “playing it safe”?

What are the consequences of a life that bores you, that frustrates you, that daily saps your soul? In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes his experience working with students at Harvard

These best and brightest willingly sacrificed happiness for success because, like so many of us, they had been taught that if you work hard you will be successfulโ€” and only then, once you are successful, will you be happy. They had been taught that happiness is the reward you get only when you become partner of an investment firm, win the Nobel Prize, or get elected to Congress.

Of course many will say they aren’t shooting as high as the kids at Harvard, to which I might argue you’re making the same sacrifice only for a smaller reward. If it doesn’t make sense to put your happiness on hold for the chance of a Nobel Prize, what does it make sense for? Matching contributions to your 401K?

The quantity versus quality argument doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Too often the choice is presented something like “Would you rather live 100 years in prison or 50 years of freedom?”

As I’ve mentioned before, most people aren’t ready for total freedom.

Instead, try making small adjustments and see what happens. First, open the window of possibility. Take a look at other options by talking to people about what they do and what the trade-offs are. There are always trade-offs, and some will be more to your liking than others.

Then, when you have some options you’re interested in, look for ways to get real life experience. Try volunteering or starting a side business. Do a short internship or working holiday.

At the same time, start getting comfortable with small risks. I didn’t let my sweet indoor cat roam the great outdoors unescorted from day one. I leash trained her years ago. I’ve taken her on hundreds of walks and I know how she responds to danger.

But as soon as she’d finagled her way out of a couple windows, she wasn’t interested in taking walks with me anymore. I put her harness on and she looked at me as if to say, “Seriously? I’ll just wait for a window, thanks. And hey, you should really do something about that heat rash on your arms.”

The idea of security is a false one. Everything can be taken away in an instant: your savings, your family, even your life. We all know this is true, so you can stop hanging out with the fear mongers, even the well intentioned ones.

When I went to a party hosted by globe trotter Chris Guillebeau, I found myself surrounded by people who were far more comfortable with adventure than I was. Amongst colleagues from my old life, I was seen as a dare devil. Among these new friends, I looked pretty tame. It was a great reminder that living large is a spectrum, and you’re free to find your own place on it.

After a brief foray, our adventurous cat is back inside, contentedly licking herself. Our other cat, despite wide open windows for days, has never done more than sit at the edge and enjoy the wind in her fur.

As my cats will tell you, there’s a huge difference between survival and truly living. (Click to tweet)

They needed me to find the courage to open the window. But you? You can make that decision for yourself.

Life is a risk we’re incredibly fortunate to experience.

So go live it.