Jessica Williamson, a receptionist at a gym in Los Angeles, gets bored, makes a poster and ends up with her story on public radio’s This American Life. She writes “CAT FOUND!!!” above two pictures of possums that she prints off the internet. One of the possums is snarling.
She writes underneath: “Male, no collar, not very friendly, I think he might be scared. Not housebroken either. Found on Sunset Blvd. If he is yours please call,” and then her phone number. She makes a few copies and puts them up around her neighborhood. She thinks it’s hilarious. The idea that some well-meaning person would put up a flyer like this, thinking she has a cat, is obviously a joke.
She does not expect any calls, but Jessica ends up getting hundreds of calls from all over the country because someone posted her “CAT FOUND!!!” sign on the internet.
When Jessica starts listening to the voicemails, it feels like a social experiment. She divides the calls into three categories. The largest group is calling to tell her that isn’t a cat but is a possum. They warn her she should call animal control because it could have rabies. Jessica is touched by their genuine concern for her and the animal. Fully 70% are calling out of the kindness of their hearts.
Another 20% are calling like they are in on the joke, calling to say the “cat” is theirs: “You have my cat. His name is Giorgio.” The callers make up stories about their cat or pretend to cry because they miss their cat.
One caller says: “He’s a really, really, really gentle spirit, but his behavior is erratic. He loves to sleep in the same bed with people, but he can get a little aggressive. You got to thump him in the nose. Just thump him with your knuckle.”
(For the record: “Thump him with your knuckle” is bad advice when dealing with a possum.)
The third category is 10%, she reports: “They’re the ones who are mean and not in on the joke. They’re calling to call you an idiot.”
“Yeah, that cat? It’s a possum you fricking (BLEEP).”
She hears lots of swear words.
Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He has a point. So many seem angry, entitled, self-centered.
But Jessica says her possum experience changed her. She is amazed that most people want to help and warn her it is a possum, and that only 10% of the callers go out of their way to be mean. She used to think people as a whole are not so great. She wasn’t somebody who had much faith in humanity: “So, I was a cynical person, but then when the calls started coming in and the majority of them were so nice, it was very surprising to me. … People are surprisingly nice.”
“If we focus on the 10%, we may feel put down or become mean ourselves.”
Think about those numbers — unscientific though they are — 70% kind, 20% understanding, 10% mean. Much of who we are comes down to those to whom we choose to pay attention. If we focus on the 10%, we may feel put down or become mean ourselves. If 20% of our people “get” us, we should be grateful. If we see the 70%, we are more likely to be kind ourselves.
For most of us, our list of problems keeps getting longer and our need for hope keeps getting bigger. One of the surprising places to look for hope is in each other.
Henri Nouwen writes: “Those who help us most are not always those who give us new ideas, but who radiate the presence of God — who in their person teach us.”
Most of the time, most people try to do the right thing. We have richer lives when we live with appreciation for those who are kind and gratitude for those who are understanding. We can redefine strangers as good people we have yet to meet — and we may be right 90% of the time. We can smile at other drivers and let the ones who are in a hurry go ahead of us. We can learn names and make new people feel welcome. We can spend our days appreciating the goodness of those around us.
“Those who share their lives are usually happy about it, because they have not fallen for the lie that joy comes from isolation and individual success.”
Those who share their lives are usually happy about it, because they have not fallen for the lie that joy comes from isolation and individual success. The most joyful people live with appreciation and kindness.
Jean Paul Sartre had a point when he said, “Hell is other people,” but heaven is other people, too.
Brett Younger serves as senior minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.