Needlessly Offensive?

I got called on the carpet—very politely and graciously—but called on the carpet nonetheless. The challenge came from a viewer of our Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV show. I’m not sure when the particular episode aired so I haven’t found it yet, but I must have spoken critically about substituting pets for people. I imagine that I might have mentioned a pet food ad that irks me which shows a cat saying, “Mom, please get me….”

In her letter, our viewer said, “Susan, my animals are my family. They’re all I have. I think the old “walk a mile in my shoes” before you are so critical. My pets are there when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning. I know I’m not their Mother but they are probably the closest living thing to me.” She is making a perfectly valid point and I imagine that my words cut her, for which I am sorry. Yet, I don’t think I can leave it with just an apology.

One of the dilemmas for society is how to deal with unique individuals and their specific circumstances while at the same time maintaining public policies and social norms. At one and the same time, we want to be accepting and helpful to all, but in doing so we run the risk of normalizing things that we don’t want to encourage.

Let’s look at the example of teen pregnancy. I think we can all agree that if a fifteen-year-old girl gets pregnant and opts to keep the baby, she, her baby and society will be better off if she finishes high school. However, when the school sets up a nursery on-site and provides extra support for this mom, it sends a message to other girls that this is a viable and perhaps even a positive scenario. There is a mismatch between caring for the individual and protecting the larger entity. 

Even when there is no element of mistaken behavior, there can be a conflict between a person and the group. When I was a youngster, my friends and I spent most of our summer afternoons riding bikes, splashing in backyard plastic pools and, if enough of us were around, playing punch ball in the street.  For some reason, we didn’t get together in the morning. Instead, I would park myself in front of the TV and watch I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons and the rest of the morning line-up. Some of the episodes stick in my mind through today, including one from the show Family Affair. Unlike what the title brings to mind in today’s environment, Family Affair was an innocent depiction of a bachelor who unexpectedly found himself, with the help of his British valet, raising his orphaned nieces and nephew.

An episode that I distinctly remember concerned the teenage niece, Cissy, suffering as her school prepared for its annual mother-daughter evening. Understandably, the evening loomed as a painful one for the motherless girl. Granted, the school administration could have been more proactive and discussed the evening with her uncle, but it was completely unimaginable that an annual get-together would be canceled because of an orphan in the class.

I think that if the show was taped today, current sensitivities might have her school friends thoughtfully scrap the event. That did not happen in 1966. What we have seen happen in real life in the ensuing years is schools erasing Mother’s Day and Father’s Day from their calendars in order not to make children from broken homes feel bad. That became a step on the road towards insisting that all family compositions are equally positive. By not wanting to make anyone feel bad (an impossible goal – one can be sure that the fictional Cissy deeply missed her parents and that the pain would more strongly surface at major life events) we inadvertently sent a message that led to more heartache for more people.

Our society continues to send mistaken messages, among them that career is more important than marriage and family. As part of that message, we are told that animals are interchangeable with children. I have a daughter and you have a cat so we are both mothers. In parts of Europe today one can barely find a baby aisle with diapers and bottles, but one can find shelves filled with delicacies for dogs. Don’t worry about missing out on children—your pets will love you.

Naturally, there are those who are alone, sometimes even housebound, and who derive comfort, affection and a loving relationship from their pets. That is wonderful. I’m sure that I could have made it clearer that I wasn’t directing my words at those individuals. But I do think it important, as a society, that we not send a false message that at the point when people are making decisions about their future, they come to believe that a pet and a child are equivalent. So, I cringe at the idea that words of mine might have hurt someone, but I also cringe at the idea of going along with a trend towards replacing people with animals that will lead to heartache and sorrow down the road. I thank our viewer for writing and hope she understands.

41 thoughts on “Needlessly Offensive?”

  1. Alot of people with pets probably long for a family. Not everyone is as lucky as you. It’s easy to judge people when you have everything you think other people should have. This article is just…

    1. Judith, I wasn’t planning to judge anyone, only to judge the messages that society gives. Just yesterday I read where someone (young and presumably healthy) wrote that she and her boyfriend had a ‘dog daughter’ before getting married. That way of thinking is what I was writing about.

  2. Excellent post Susan! One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if people get offended by something said, sometimes (not all the time) it’s because they are being convicted in some area of their life and instead of addressing their behavior or mindset, they choose to take offense. Maybe this reader was emotional about being lonely, so instead of addressing the loneliness in her life, she wrote a letter about how your words offended her. It’s easier to be defensive and offended, rather than accepting a painful revelation about yourself that something in your life needs to change. When I hear something that makes me upset, I often have to step back and ask myself WHY. Am I upset because it was something that didn’t need to be said, or am I upset because it is shedding light on something I need to change in my life?

    1. That’s a very astute observation, Sarah. An immediate response to pain is to strike back rather than to ask what the source of the pain is.

  3. I cannot agree more with your musing and the comments of those who have responded. To my chagrin it seems that in
    today’s PC climate you can hardly talk about the weather without offending some one. Even the most inoculous comment will beget the ire of some one.

    Respectfully, BT

    1. As I said, Brian, the complaint was eminently polite; ire would be the wrong word. And I haven’t seen the show so it is possible I didn’t speak properly. I do think that, certainly in the young generation, we are breeding very thin-skinned people which means going through life perpetually offended. That also means that when something is worthy of reaction it will be lost in the mounds of things that should have been ignored.

  4. I was raised on a farm. Had pets all my life. Was taught to care fr and be kind to all our critters, even those destined for the table. They’re still animals. We are humans. God gave us dominion over animals. Thank you Susan. Your musings are always enlightening,as are Rabbi Lapins. God Bless you both.

    1. Thank you. I think being around farm animals is a healthy way to learn to relate to animals.

  5. The lady is correct, when she suggests that the person criticizing her “should walk a mile in my shoes.” I read a suggestion recently about this very thing. “If you must criticize someone, first walk a mile in their shoes, then go ahead and criticize, for you will now be a mile away and have their shoes.”

  6. Very good article. I love my cats as if they were children but that is not something to be compared with having real children.

    1. Elora, I’m willing to bet that you love your cats a great deal but I’m pretty sure it is not as if they were children. Language influences culture. If we use the same words for pets and children we are saying that they are the same. I think you understand that which is why you wrote, but we have to be careful not to be sucked into the culture’s way of putting things. Thanks for commenting.

  7. What a wonderful commentary on this issue, it really comes up often in various ways.. , the Chesterton quote someone sent along is the cherry on top. Thank you for your writings , I look forward to them . Karen

    1. Great quote, right Karen? I think this contradiction between kindness to an individual but not overturning society for it (which ends up being cruel to more people) lies at the root of much in our culture wars.

  8. Susan, thoughtful insight stated with sensitivity, clarity and bible based truth.
    Thank you.

  9. Thank you for your wise comment on this trend. I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    I’m noticing the same thing in my home country of South Africa – people humanising their pets. On residential area Facebook groups, people post when they lost or found a pet – saying things like “I found this boy/baby girl/twin babies alone in a road/field/whatever”, etc. I am immediately shocked, then see the photo of a dog or cat…
    It gets worse – on one such group a young mother desperately asked for help re-homing her two cats – her 6 week old baby was severely allergic to the animals and she really had no choice but to let the cats go. She begged for help – she had tried for weeks, but had exhausted all other options, saying that the animals would otherwise have to be put down. Instead of offering to take the cats, people just very harshly judged her, some going as far as saying she should rather have the baby adopted or put down, because the cats were there first!!
    Apparently the Christian theologian G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Wherever there is animal worship, there is human sacrifice.” How true that seems to be in our time…

    1. Wow, Alta! I immediately looked up the Chesterton quote. As we move away from God we humans still have a need to worship something. The first steps are so small that it takes great wisdom to see down the road to where it will lead.

      1. Not everyone honors God, yet everyman has a god. For Homo sapiens has enough roof brain to program him to recognize something more powerful than himself. Emerson said, “The agnostic has a secret god, and its name is proof.” Otherwise he devotes himself to something which monopolizes his life and consumes him. Whenever I meet an ‘atheist,’ I am inclined to ask: ‘The secret keystone of your life is your god. So what is your keystone? Sex? Alcohol? Nicotine? Government?’ But the worship of false gods and lesser gods exacts a price. In Het Uitersten (‘Extremes’), Dutch cardiologist A.J. Dunning has an essay ‘False Paradises’ in which he discusses the fate of those who worship lesser gods. For example, worshippers of Bacchus and Venus do not reach age sixty.

  10. The public has been so conditioned to take umbrage at anything and everything they take personally. Frankly I think your correspondent owes you an apology for refusing to acknowledge your larger point and not personalizing the comment. Your clear-headed and biblically-based commentary is desparately needed, Susan. God speed!

    1. Isn’t it true, Kristin, that most of us respond to certain things emotionally first? I’m afraid that with the concept of trigger words we are training your people on campuses to do this more and more whereas maturity used to mean doing it less and less. Nonetheless, something in the way I spoke came across as harsh to this woman and I am glad that she wrote. Otherwise hurt tends to fester.

  11. Dear Susan, you bring a much needed dose of compassionate common sense to an issue that for many is a difficult issue because the loneliness is real. Unfortunately, the situation is the norm for a lot more people already than you may realize.

    I don’t think for most people the problem is a failure to understand the need for real, human relationships. It is more a narrowing of opportunities. Relationship just is not encouraged in our societies anymore. Even when relatives are present, often they really aren’t, because they are wrapped up in TV, iPhones, iPads, etc. Added to that, for older people there is the issue of loss of a spouse through death or divorce. So the main source of relationship outside the workplace is often gone at or within a few years of retirement.

    Once upon a time, church or synagogue would have helped fill the void. Today, that is not as true, at least in churches. There are no ‘ladies’ aid societies’, and fewer social groups for men or women to participate in as they move from working into retirement and maybe move from their accustomed homes sometimes halfway across country to take up residence in retirement communities or move closer to extended family.

    I do not know the answers. I only have the questions, particularly as I find my own circumstances narrowing because of increasing issues with mobility and physical health. For me, my two cats givxe me endless hours of joy, comfort, and amusement. Yet, I still crave time with people. I think if you made it past the reticence of most people who depend on pets to fill emotional needs for companionship,they would tell you the same thing.

    Finally, I would make a plea to anyone with older, single relatives, or even older neighbors—do a mitzvot! Include them in your lives where you can. Make it a point to call once or twice a week to find out how they are doing, remember their birthdays with a card and maybe lunch or dinner. Find out if they need help with groceries -maybe ask about that one kind of frequently, because older folks usually don’t want to impose and so are shy about asking for help. Maybe spend an afternoon or an evening playing cards or board games or putting together puzzles. Little things here and there, now and then, mean a lot to us as we grow older. They also strengthen the relationships that should mean most.

    1. Joyce, you are spot on and I thank you for making so many important points. Your letter is worth re-reading and thinking about.

  12. Lisa Fulkerson

    We must acknowledge that the bond between some of us and our pets, is a very strong one. Of course, my children are my children, but if there were an emergency, our dog, Brenna, would remain a top concern of all of us.

    1. Absolutely, Lisa. Animals are a wonderful gift. I’m sure, though, that in an emergency you would reach for a child before you would reach for a pet. Dennis Prager has often said that too many young people he talks to would reach for their pet before reaching for a human he or she doesn’t know. That is a failure of transmitting a moral code which puts animals and people in different categories.

  13. Truer words could not be spoken, but I would say them more forcefully. Take off the kids gloves. Teenage pregnancy is horrible and should be denounced; animals should never be thought of equal to humans; and traditional families are the building blocks of healthy societies. Why sugar coat these messages?

    1. That is the dilemma, Lynne, because behind a specific teen pregnancy is a frightened young girl, and the specific animal owner may, like my sister was, be housebound and alone. Somehow we used to be able to care for individuals through family, church and neighborhood. The more that moves into a job for impersonal government the less we are able to separate the individual’s predicament from the societal needs.

  14. Susan, just the other day I found myself defending an answer I gave concerning children and pets being “equal” in the eyes of their “parents”. The person who I apparently upset has seven children, three grandkids, a couple of dogs, and the cutest pig ever! However, I simply stated that they are indeed NOT equal in my opinion. Pets can enrich our lives greatly. Our family has two cats and we love them very much. However, my husband and I have ten children along with those two cats. With our limited income we are forced to choose the children’s needs above those that the cats may present from time to time. This thought process seems to infuriate some people. But, our children will hopefully grow into responsible adults that will contribute to society in a positive way. So, in my way of thinking we must prioritize our investments into the children’s lives first. The cats will never be able to make the same measure of contribution that a fully functioning adult can. As far as my two cats go, they would just be a burden on our society if I sent them out into it alone. They can’t even stop fighting over who is going to use the litter box first!
    Thank you for addressing this issue. I’ve been feeling like a “meanie” ever since I made that comment to her.

    1. Jen, I think like to many other issues in our society, the idea of nuance is lost. If you don’t think pets are equal to children you are evil and cruel. PETA’s slogan that a boy equals a rat is the goal because it is the opposite of the Biblical explanation that people are unique.

  15. Tonight I am compelled, even driven to support your statement that in certain parts of Europe one can find that gourmet delicacies for pets in stores can vastly outnumber baby supplies. YES. Three years ago we attended the local consular function of a certain European nation. The Consul announced to his guests that the inhabitants of his nation were not reproducing at a rate sufficient to produce revenue to stoke the engines of socialism. Therefore their Exhalted Head Honcho has issued an edict that up to EIGHT MILLION new inhabitants are to be imported from the disintegrating Middle East in order to replenish and revitalize the sagging local population. In this I am reminded of Mark Steyn’s frightening prophecy of EURABIA, a dying Europe re-engineered into a new bastion of Global Islam. Princes Eugen and Ludwig and all the knights who drove back the marauding Ottomans at Vienna’s gates are surely spinning in their graves over the folly of modern Europe.

    But your point is supported above in that pleasure and convenience, indeed the wholesale avoidance of parental responsibility have begun to outweigh the essential procreation of children. With widespread contraception and abortion, the locals will indeed die out, replacing children with animal surrogates. Such people will not get what they deserve, but their descendents will bitterly suffer for the choices of their ancestors. Love your pets as you will (I do indeed), but forget not thy children!

    1. James, it drives me up a wall, as I’m sure it does you, when I read about the need for huge numbers of immigrants because of citizens not having children. Not having children is partially a result of not feeling a responsibility for civilization and in that same spirit each immigrant is viewed as a body rather than a potential spiritual asset to a nation.

  16. Very interesting article – last year I moved to a city in which people frequently boast about their decision not to have children but which at the same time is extremely pet-centered (dogs allowed in almost every store, people talking about their dogs’ personalities, social happenings, and illnesses as if they were children), and I immediately noticed the contradiction.

    1. Clare, we have seen that happening as well. In Vancouver, BC, we pass a pet cafe where you can bring your pet in for a snack with other animals. That is precisely what I was decrying because it is as a substitute for family and children, not as a reaction to circumstances where one finds oneself alone.

      1. Oh, wow. I’m in the Pacific Northwest myself, so hopefully this is just a regional issue (though I doubt it).

    1. My correspondent also knew that she wasn’t her pets’ mother and I imagine I might have sounded harsh. But society is trying to insist on pets equalling children. I understand that there is a movement to grant “pawternity leave.”

      1. Susan Gilliland

        Susan, totally agree with you! Skip and I have often remarked on people with pets and zero children, because they say their pets are their kids. We feel it is a cultural world view today.

  17. Excellent, excellent explanation, Susan. And it is VERY relevant to today. This topic has been on my mind for the last many years. My opinion has been exactly yours, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it. Thank you, Susan, for making the argument that I have wanted to make but wasn’t sure how to.

    I find that many of my thoughts and opinions that I have due to having a basic conscience and a basic sense of morality, I have not been able to express why other than a basic intuition. I find that these intuitive thoughts and opinions are entirely consistent with your teachings, Susan, and that of Rabbi Lapin’s. You two have helped me express them better in words and to convince others of their moral and biblical foundation. I thank you two.

    1. Thank you, David. I do think that the motivation of caring about people is a good one but we get confused when we start changing society in an attempt to make everyone happy – obviously an impossible task and the attempt often causes more harm than good.

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