When I was a kid, I would save my allowance to buy toys; my little brother would spend his allowance on candy. I would rather have toys later than candy now, because candy is temporary and toys last forever.
The rabbit that lives with me, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies and Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama, has no concept of progress. She lives in a cage and eats salad and poops it out into her litter box. She will die someday. She doesn't seem to believe in God or heaven. She can't write literature or invent technologies. She will be completely forgotten eventually. She passes her time playing with her favorite toy, a ball that has another ball in it, with a bell in the smaller ball. She picks up the big ball with her mouth and throws it across her cage and the little bell rings. I can't imagine anyone being so callous as to call her life meaningless or hollow.
During the troubles last summer, when I had a hypomanic episode, I couldn't feel my normal feelings about what matters. I was obsessed with ideas about efficiency and rationality, and I was both terrified of and hoping for a future in which robots took over the earth.
During this time, on a particularly painful day, a friend let me hold a rabbit. I felt a little better. I thought it might be nice to get a pet. A couple of weeks later, this friend decided that she had too many mammals and gave me the rabbit that I had held, and that's how Regina came to live with me.
My feelings were contorted during the troubles, I had trouble figuring out which of my old values were still important. I wanted to make a better world, but I had trouble imagining what a good world for me would be like. It was easier for me to imagine a better world for Regina. I make salad for her every day, I let her out to play, I give her toys, I keep her safe. Maybe that doesn't mean much, but it's easy to tell how much taking care of Regina matters: one rabbit's worth. Taking care of Regina matters more than that: by practicing taking care of her, I think I'm a little more compassionate and gentle, in general.
(Now, Regina does not live in natural circumstances, with other rabbits, in a warren, underground. She only gets to really run around when I let her out of her cage, and I don't think she'll ever really get used to wood floors—she slides on them. She isn't about to be eaten or to starve. I don't know whether it's better to be a wild rabbit or a house rabbit, but Regina lives in a house now and I don't think she would do well in the wild anymore, and so I take care of her.)
When on the manic end of the mood scale, people with bipolar disorder are more prone to form mental connections between ideas. I was thinking a lot about how I'm a mammal and how I'm connected to other mammals and how mammals are interesting because their reproductive strategy is, rather than to have a lot of babies, like turtles and fish and flies, we have a few and we nurture them carefully. I thought a lot about how Regina and I are connected by being living beings. Everything that limits meaning for her, being small and mortal and forgettable, applies to me, too.
Siddhattha Gotama was a prince, who had grown up in three palaces, one for each season. His father, the king, kept him from pain all his life, hoping that the prince would be an apt successor. When he was 29, he secretly left the palaces, and went out into the world. On different trips, he saw an old man, a sick man, and then a corpse; on each trip his chariot driver explained to him what he saw: aging, sickness, and death had been alien to Siddhattha. I wonder if Siddhattha felt despair, as he lost belief in a perfect world. If I were in his place, I suppose I would be distraught and confused. I wonder if he felt that he'd lost a world free of pain; can you feel loss about something that was never real? There is suffering in this world; is there any full and lasting relief from it?
When I stopped thinking that God exists, and, with that, any sort of belief in heaven or hell or any place we can go to that isn't in this universe, I felt confined. This universe has an age and a size and a lifetime; the matter might last forever, but, eventually, everything will wind down. Is there any meaning to be had, or is everything vapor?
I think that Regina lives a meaningful life. Who would say that Regina's life is void or meaningless? Who would say that about humans? The main differences between Regina and I are that I live in a bigger cage and that I have thumbs.
It's tough to say whether Regina is happy or sad, overall. I see her relax a lot, but, being a prey animal, she gets frightened easily. Actually, rabbits are unusual because they play. Other animals play, but few animals that play are herbivorous; play is practice for hunting, for most animals. Sometimes, when Regina is out of her cage, she jumps and dances, it seems, for no other reason than fun. It's difficult to compare the emotions of humans and other animals, so saying whether Regina is happy or sad the way you and I feel happy and sad is not straightforward. What is certain is that she is not suicidal or lackadaisical, so maybe she finds her life meaningful to the extent that a rabbit can think about meaning; she always finds something to do that matters to her.
Lessons I learned from Regina:
- Eat lots of fiber.
- If you're scared, you can hide under the futon. You can relax under the futon, too, if you feel like it.
- If you're not in danger of being eaten, playing with toys is your top priority.
- Exercise is important, and most fun on a red rug.
- Most things are bigger than you, and that's scary.
- It's okay if humans make you nervous.
- Always pay attention to how things smell, because, why not?