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#5 - German Proverb: Don't Make A Mouse of Yourself, Or Else You'll Be Eaten By Cats.
Reflections on the dangers of shrinking to get in, get by, get ahead, or to just be.
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The Germans gifted us this timeless wisdom in their proverb: "Don't make a mouse of yourself, or else you will be eaten by cats.” We are familiar with cats and mice. We know what they look like and have seen or heard about their antics, even if it’s only through the popular cartoon, Tom and Jerry. Drawing from the popularity of how those two creatures interact in nature, the proverb belts out a stark warning about self-actualizing a dangerous demotion that has devastating consequences. There is no equivocation about the need to avoid taking a seemingly harmless first step so as to prevent the inevitable and disastrous end that will follow. The warning is pointed—make a mouse of yourself, get consumed by a cat.
Sounds simple, right?
There’s a lot to unpack in this proverb’s wisdom bomb. I’ll start with a refresher about our popular friends—the mouse and the cat. I found some fun facts about each of them that provide a good context for the central message of this proverb.
First, the mouse. I picked the fun facts about the mouse for this reflection from three sources— Pest World, OhFact!, and Wikipedia. Visit their pages for additional insights about the animal if you’d like to get more details.
The mouse is the most common mammal in the US. Their bodies are small, their stomachs are smaller, yet they eat about between 15-20 times a day. Mice are primarily herbivores but with such a big appetite, they’ll eat any food they see, including cheese, meat, or fish when they run out of vegetarian options. They have poor eyesight and see best in dim lights. Which is why you hear them scurrying around more at nighttime than in the day. They also have a keen sense of hearing and smell, which allow them to sense danger early enough. They are quite dramatic and will dodge or play dead till danger is past. However, they are high on the menu options of many predators and their best dodge and drama tactics do not guarantee a long life. On the average, they last for five months in the wild and live up to two years in human labs.
Female mice start reproducing as early as two months old and can get pregnant again within 48 hours of their last delivery. They jump, climb, and swim excellently. They are organized and those who have visited their underground homes report finding clean and tidy sections of pantry, toilet, and bedroom. Imagine that! Yet the little rascals have the nerve to leave behind mega messes for us to clean up when they sneak into our homes.
Several studies have shown similarities between the minds and bodies of mice and humans. For instance, mice are expressive and convey their emotions through a wide range of facial expressions. Similar to humans. They are also empathetic with the ability to sense and be affected by the experiences of other mice. In fact, a scientific study on the effects of trauma showed how fearful memories haunt mouse descendants up to two generations after.
Sadly, the mouse is not considered respectable by humans or other animals. Some of us are repulsed by them for their embodiment of up to 200 human pathogens. Some are infuriated by their aggressive rent-free infestations of homes and disrespectful nocturnal raids of pantries. They are so annoyingly many and proliferate so fast that they are a ready and cheap fixture for scientific experiments. Then, there are the animals that count them as a staple in their diet—slithering snakes and frothy frogs, beady-eyed birds and lounging lizards, as well as the crouching cats that usually share the same home or street address with them. But they don’t give up easily. As dishonored and hunted as they are, mice have contributed two of their very best—Mickey and Minnie—to delight us as two of the most iconic characters in the world:
Before getting carried away with the dynamic duo, remember that the real life of a mouse is not the glamorous fancy makeovers of Mickey and Minnie that Disney would have us believe. The real life of mice is filled with struggles, hiding, being hunted, getting preyed on, getting pricked and prodded for experiments, and getting eaten. Somewhere in the midst of all that, they live out their few days on earth eating, sleeping, and reproducing copiously. What other choice do they have in their short, struggle-filled lives?
So, stick with being human, the Germans cautioned in their proverb. Why? Remember the cat…. they warned.
What about the cat? I also got some fun facts about them from Wikipedia and OhFacts!. There’s more where the condensed tidbits in the next section came from, so click on the links if you’d like more cat details.
Cats are a social species of mammals that are popular worldwide and enjoy pride of place with humans. There are home cats, farm cats, and the feral cats that roam free in nature. These three are “the cat” and further distinguished as belonging to more than 70 cat breeds named in cat registries. Recent estimates suggest that there are about 220 million owned and 480 million feral cats in the world. A 2017 census found cats as the second most popular pets in US homes, with around 42 million households owing at least one of the 95.6 million domestic cats in the country.
The cat is the smallest of its carnivorous species. We are also familiar with their bigger cousins—lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, lynxes, jaguars, and more. All cats have strong and flexible bodies, sharp claws, and quick reflexes. The cat’s claws are retractable and adapted in proportion to its size to killing small prey. Their quick reflexes allow them to quickly right themselves to the point that they can survive falls from a 32-floor building!
The cat’s eyesight is amazing, especially at night. They see better than humans “at only one-sixth the light level required for human vision” and blink without it obscuring their vision. Their hearing is superb, at a range of 10.5 octaves, compared to the 9 octaves of humans and dogs. Even their sense of smell is acute, twice keener than that of humans. They are also identifiable by their nose prints, similar to fingerprints for humans. They’re comfortable with heat and sleep a lot. Forget that “cat nap” legend you’ve heard. Cats sleeeeeeep, for an average of 12-16 hours and up to 20 hours of the day as they get older. Also, their flexible bodies have lots of muscles in interesting places, some of which stiffen to allow idiosyncrasies such as sleeping while sitting up.
In addition, the cat is quite communicative. It meows, it purrs, it hisses, and growls, and grunts, and makes funny faces. I have seen cats scratch, slap, snarl, and spit out of anger. I have seen their eyes narrow, their bodies arch, and their coat glisten while purring in pleasurable contentment. A cat will not leave you in doubt when it is happy or angry with you. As social as cats are, they are also quite independent. There are rumors that domestic cats do not forgive, so don’t cross the line with them.
Cats like to hunt at dawn and dusk. Solo. They use their faculties to stalk actively or use stealth to lie in wait and ambush when a prey gets close enough. Cats do not like sweet food. Their palate is for fresh foods, especially birds, mice, and fish. Humans value them for pest control and they are rumored to kill an estimated 1.3 to 4.0 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually. Far beyond what is expected so they get checked a lot. They hunt using what humans lightly defined as the “cat and mouse behavior.” In reality, cats only appear to “play” with their prey by releasing and recapturing them. Their real goal is to weaken the prey enough to kill it without any likelihood of it fighting back and biting or scratching them.
Cats don’t hunt humans. They hunt and kill mice. Angry cats can easily be put in their place by a bigger, smarter human. Mice stand little to no chance of surviving an encounter with the cunning relentless carnivore that the cat is. And there’s nowhere marked “no cat” zone as a safe enclave for mice to escape being hunted by any of the millions of cats in the world. So, back to the proverb’s warning to not make a mouse of yourself or else ….
The million-dollar question is how can a human being transition to a mouse?
Physiologically, it is impossible for you to make a mouse of yourself. The most you can do is to get into a Mickey or Minnie Mouse costume and prance around like a mouse for a while. However, you can make a mouse of yourself psychologically, emotionally, financially, socially, and in many other ways. You can choose to willfully shrink to a smaller, feebler, and more vulnerable version of yourself, akin to a small mouse with the potential of becoming cat food. You would need to shrink in size to become one, squeak when you do, hide, scamper, or play dead to avoid an array of predators. Why would anyone do that intentionally? How easy is it to make a mouse of yourself? Any of these 6 scenarios offer a clue:
You’re a student and you can’t get new friends, keep old friends, be liked, become the favorite, or stop getting picked on. Many years of being in the same school and you’re still the target of bullies and mean girls. You’re tired of reporting. It’s no longer likely that anyone can help. You’re not even sure that anyone cares anymore. Why not shrink and slink out of the sight of the cats that lurk by keeping your head down and continuing to take the abuse?
You’re an adult and you need employment. You’ve applied to so many places, interviewed so many times, and been told repeatedly how overqualified you are. Why continue to brandish your accomplishments when you may be able to shrink to the acceptable qualifications and squeeze into the smaller spot that’s open? Or you’re the one who needs to stay employed but has been in a holding pattern for years of doing the most amount of work while receiving the least amount of credit or compensation. Why speak up and ruffle the powerful feathers of those that sign your check and must greenlight your promotion or raise? Why complain about the nepotism-hire slackers that ride on your coattails but are not pulling their weight? Why not shrink or stay shrunken in hopes that someday, somehow, someone will notice you and move you up?
You’re in a relationship and you want to keep the affection of your loved ones, avoid physical violence, stop the spigot of emotional and verbal abuse, maintain your allowance, keep your inheritance, or stay in your marriage. You can’t take it anymore and just want all the vitriol to stop. You want things to be perfect. Why not shrink to a mouse, shrink into your soul, clam up, close your eyes and ears to the painful torrent around you and sleep into a forgetful haze?
You’re part of a group and you’d like to avoid scrutiny or derision. You overhead people laughing at the way someone answered a question at the last meeting. You saw the boss snicker when your colleague raised her hand at your group huddle. You witnessed the dismissive hand wave that shot down what seemed a worthwhile idea to explore as a small group of the organization’s veterans exchanged cynical smiles. Why bother to raise your hand in such an environment? Why risk opening your mouth when a tight group of powerbrokers go with only decisions that they like? Why not become a mouse by keeping your head down and staying quiet at every meeting?
You’re intimidated by what others have that you don’t. The wealth or fame, achievements or pedigree, height or beauty of people trick your mind into believing that you’re “less than” or unworthy. You don’t even know how to be around them or talk to them. Why not make yourself a mouse when around them or bail out on opportunities to be around them?
You’ve heard all your life that you’re a mouse. If you hear long and loudly enough that you are a mouse, it will become easy to imagine yourself a mouse and start acting like one. A forceful person of authority—parent, boss, older or dominant partner—can easily do this. So your family members drilled it into you loud and long enough that your voice is too soft, your height and weight too small, your cognitive abilities are too low, your looks too plain, your ancestry is too unremarkable, your current achievements are too ordinary, and your future prospects are too dim to be anything but a mouse in the grand scheme of life. Boyfriends or girlfriends took over or aligned with your close family when you got old enough and reinforced the same message to you that you’re a mouse. Then, your bosses joined the party. How could they all be wrong? If right, how could there be any possible way to remedy their assessment? Why not hunker down into the collective assessment that you are a mouse and forget about rising above your station as the acclaimed mouse?
Sadly, there are many human mice scurrying through life. Timid by nature or shaky by nurture, they are those unable to fight against what life is throwing at them. Scarred by past afflictions or downed by current circumstances, they may be unwilling to keep fighting back. So, in the words of this proverb, they make a mouse of themselves. It’s easy. It’s common. It’s often logical. Nonetheless, it is destined for a disastrous end of getting consumed by predators.
No human becomes a mouse because it’s fun. Often, we shrink to a mouse to survive or stay sane. We do it to avoid pain, to toe the line, to avoid outshining another, and to keep difficult people comfortable and their emotions contained. If you have experienced any of the scenarios described in the previous section, you understand how easy it is to feel like shrinking or staying out of sight. Especially if having explored all your options, no one was willing or able to help and your situation did not magically change. So, it became easy to see no way out of your situation. It became tempting to shrink to buy time, to tolerate being called a mouse, being expected to act a mouse, to dress as a mouse, to sound like a mouse, to hide like a mouse, to stay quiet like a mouse, smile when called a mouse, nod when called a mouse, cringe when bellowed at to stay a mouse. Then, you completed the process by making yourself a mouse and embraced the qualities of a mouse. This proverb cautions that it’s not that simple. There is trouble ahead.
Human cats exist and have a keen sense of smell that helps them find human mice. By shrinking to make yourself a mouse with the intention of guaranteeing your survival or sanity, you give human cats power over you. They are bigger with better (physical, emotional, financial, political, age, wage, stage in life) eyesight, hearing, and smell. They will chase after you because it is what cats do. They will prey on you because you have made yourself their food. They will hunt you by stalking or waiting in ambush. When they find you, they will use the “cat and mouse behavior” to kill you in stages. You will think they are “playing” with you by releasing and recapturing you, but their goal will be to weaken you enough to finish you off without any likelihood of you fighting back and biting or scratching them. They are extortioners, grifters, cheats, bullies, vindictive, yelling, snarling, spitting, screaming, kicking, and demeaning oppressors of smaller and weaker people, like the mouse you have made yourself to be. Mice cannot outrun, outjump, outclimb, outsee, outhear, outhunt, or outlast cats. You will not be able to overpower human cats as a human mouse. Hide in the dark and they will smell you and lie in wait for you. Attempt to run and they will stalk you with faster speed till they grab you with their claws or mouth. It’s not a good thing to be a mouse. Nor a safe skin to retreat into.
In reality, the attack of human cats may not be physical but they will certainly prey on your will, your emotions, and your self-esteem. They will reduce you to a walking, talking, hollow human frame with the core of your being gone. What contributions can a devalued shell of a being seek or be able to make? What really is there to life with your will, emotions, and self-esteem dead? You deserve, and can do better.
THE ARC OF REVERSAL
Shrinking to make a mouse of yourself was a big and costly step. It can be reversed. It needs to be reversed. You can undo the process in three steps—assess your paths to becoming a mouse and the pains of staying one; reset your mind from choosing to stay a mouse; and change from being a mouse. Let’s explore the needed steps as your ARC of reversal from being a mouse to becoming yourself again.
Assess the people in your life and the environments that you’ve been or are still in. Those two shape us a lot more than we often acknowledge. Did you grow up with or are you in a close relationship with a difficult person—a parent, a spouse/partner, a boss at a job that you spend 40 hours a week or about 1,800 hours a year with? Do you have a friend, sibling, uncle, or aunt with a strong personality, a booming voice, a violent temper, is petty, or has a jealous streak? Were there or are there still people in your life who have vowed to destroy you rather than let you (continue to) outshine them? It is easy for difficult relationships to become destructive relationships. It is a gamble that challenging environments will make you, not break you. Assess your people and environment. They are often the paths to our growth or shrinkage. Check if you’ve made yourself a mouse as a coping mechanism to avoid clashes with anyone in your life that operates with any of these traits.
Reset. Dig deep and reflect on who you were made to be. You’ll get clues from the things you enjoy doing and are good at. There’ll be pointers from what people frequently compliment you on and the things you could do even if you were not paid for it. Look at old photos of you before circumstances or people you think that making a mouse of yourself was the only way out or the only way on. Think about the things you long to do versus the things you’re able to or allowed to do. Compare your findings with how you’re living now and showing up. Think of yourself as having the right to be someone in the world, because you’re alive and your life matters. Give yourself permission to embrace being of value to the world, because you are. Imagine the things you can be and do and contribute to the world in your own skin, because your contributions matter. Make the time to sit in the tension between who you are now, what you contribute to the world, and what you long to be or know you can be. Your future could be as yourself even if your present is as a mouse or potential cat food. The transition will begin with you reseting your mind, unrestrained by what is, uninhibited about what can be.
Change. You can shed the mouse skin. However long you’ve been a mouse, you can shed your mouse skin. You were not fashioned or intended to be a mouse. You have no business being a mouse. It’s a colossal waste for the world that you became a mouse. It is unfathomable for you to choose to stay a mouse. Your voice may be soft and tremulous, derisively described as akin to that of a mouse, but you can learn to speak and stop squeaking. You can learn to speak with a strong tone and voice. You can strengthen your mental muscles—read more, dabble in writing, visit places, listen to quality audio content. Whatever will teach you new things and expand your mind with knowledge will grow your confidence. Nurture your mind, develop your voice. However comfortable you’ve become as a mouse, you can stop living in the recesses of dark places, scurrying around in hopes that every venture out of your dark hole won’t be cut short by a lurking predator. Crawling on all fours is beneath you. You can get strong enough to stand on your own two feet. You can put up the right boundaries to protect you from the people and environments that hastened your shrinkage into a mouse. You can transition back from being a mouse and shake off the mouse scent that attracts cats from miles away.
I wrap this up with a plea—the world needs you to get uncomfortable with being a mouse. To make up your mind to not continue to shrink or stay shrunken to get in, get along, get by, or get ahead. To start the process of ‘unmaking’ from being a mouse to being your full self. It may not be to your best self at the start, but you can gradually rebuild a better version of you. It may not be to your strongest self yet, but you can start the work of strengthening every weakened, disused, or misused parts to the strongest version you can be at this stage. The process may not be quick but taking the first step is a good start. Commit to your ARC. Complete your ARC. Human cats abound. They can be ruthless and relentless. For the sake of the bountiful gifts that are in you and can bless the world through you, I appeal to you in the words of this German proverb: “Don't make a mouse of yourself, or else you will be eaten by cats.”
Do you have an experience with becoming a mouse or transitioning back from being one? Or maybe a deeper insight about any part of this post? Please post your insights in the comments section below. We’d love to learn from you.
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