Lost: [Insert noun here]

It seems that someone in the neighborhood has misplaced a cat.

I base this conclusion upon a number of signs that have been posted around the neighborhood on telephone poles, mailboxes, and storefronts. Lost, they read: One grey and black mackerel tabby cat (18 y/0), black collar, pink tag with name “Otis”.

(If the owner also owns a dog named Milo, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

According to the posters, Otis went missing on March 12—exactly two weeks ago. That’s a long time for someone to worry about a missing loved one, even if that loved one is only a cat.

Now, I’m personally of the belief that if we hadn’t been told that Adam and Eve had been approached by a serpent, we might be justified in concluding that Satan masquerades in the form of a cat. I mean, I look at a cat and don’t even need to ask: I know he’s up to no good.

My grandparents had a cat once. Her name was Julie, and she was very sweet; she would frequently leave small gifts for my grandmother on the front step. These were the organs of the small animals she had savagely killed in the backyard. It’s a picture of loveliness, really—just the feline friend you want to have on your side. “It’s what cats do,” Grandma said. “Yeah,” I thought. “Great. Rather than man’s best friend, I’m stuck with man’s best local butcher.”

I’m also desperately allergic to cats, which may largely explain my present animosity. One rub up against my legs and I’m all eyes—itchy, red, watery eyes and a stuffed-up nose. I learned this the hard way after an afternoon of too much playing with Julie as a child. Now, I stay far away.

Despite all of this, though, I certainly sympathize with Otis’ owner. To be perfectly frank, at 18 years of age, Otis has probably died in some remote corner of the house and his owner will discover him when the time is… ripe. But whether Otis is dead or gone or dead and gone, it’s always hard to lose a friend.

Isn’t it curious that we put up signs around the neighborhood when something is lost? You may not think so—it may seem like the very most logical thing to do—but I think that this practice says a few things about us as human beings. Allow me to explain.

First, it shows our tendency to enlist help. When we lose something, we’re absolutely willing to tramp through the streets to find it, but our minds quickly jump to rallying the assistance of the community. We want to get everyone’s eyes and ears involved. We want to spread the pertinent information among as many people as possible. We hope that by this passive networking, some hopeful information will return to our ears. In short, in times of loss, we strategize.

Second, and relatedly, it shows the trust we place in the community. We wouldn’t go to the trouble of posting signs and alerting the neighborhood if we didn’t think that the people living around us would render aid. Perhaps we imagine that we would do the same for someone else in our situation, but even if we don’t reason it out to that extent, we implicitly rely on the assumption that anyone who catches a glimpse of what’s missing will be eager to contact us with the information. We assume that other really want to help us, if only they have the information they need. In this sense, “lost” posters may be one of the few remaining signs of true community among us today.

Third, and conversely, such sign-posting shows how little we trust people after all. Pragmatically, we’re aware that most people will do nothing if they see a stray cat wandering down the street. Perhaps in some small neighborhoods in America, such a cat would be picked up, examined for identification, and returned. But where I live, if I see a domestic animal roaming the streets, I assume it lives nearby and has a reason to be there. I don’t concern myself. I don’t ask questions. For me to take the trouble to get involved, it would probably require some sort of incentive—which is precisely why so many “lost” posters contain a promise of a reward.

This reward, in turn, shows us two things about us and about our assumptions. First, we are sentimental. When the reward for a missing item represents its cash value, of course we could go out and get another one for the same price. But we don’t want another one; we want the one we lost. We want, in this case, Otis.

When the reward is nominal instead (for example, I once saw a $50 reward offered for a lost bracelet probably worth one hundred times that much), we assume that others are sentimental, too. Of course anyone returning a highly valuable item knows that he could be compensated much more than the owner has advertised, but it’s the principle of the thing that will make us want to effect the return—or so owners of lost things seem to assume.

Whether the reward is large or small, though, we assume (again in direct contrast to our trust in the community) that people are mercenary—that they need to be offered a reward in order to bring themselves to care. And, pragmatically speaking, this is sad but probably true. Particularly in the case of lost items that finders might wish to keep, a reward may be the only thing guaranteeing a return. In the case of some items (recall the expensive bracelet), any reward less than cash value may not do the trick.

With all of this in mind, I leave you with this question for your consideration: What would it be like if we all put up posters for everything we had lost? I’m not just talking about cats and dogs and bracelets and iPods and bicycles. I’m talking about…

LOST: Confidence. 22 y/o, formerly in reasonable condition. Last seen in a job interview three weeks ago. Please return to owner if found.

LOST: Innocence. 17 y/o, well preserved until recently. If found, please avoid mention of reality and human nature. Very fragile!

LOST: Trust. Maintained in marriage for 32 years, now disappeared. May be traveling with husband, also missing. Return is its own reward.

Just think of how different our neighborhoods would look if all of us advertised what we had really lost! The next time you see someone looking a little lost themselves, ask yourself what his or her “missing” poster might look like. Then ask yourself what yours says, too.

Until then, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Otis—and anything else I may have lost along the way.

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