If my conversations of late are any indication, many feel the world has grown colder and meaner in recent years. From customer service to political discourse, the tone has changed from concern to contempt. Online conversations frequently resemble the modern-day equivalent of bar-room brawls in which people fling capitalized insults at one another. Even dinner table conversations are so fraught with potential conflict that often people no longer care how they communicate if they care to communicate at all.
Welcome to the world of "haters gonna' hate," "I don't give a fuck," and "I have so few fucks left to give." Ditto free time and discretionary funds.
Of course, we can and do care about all sorts of things. We, human beings in our glorious diversity, seem capable of caring for all matters mundane and sublime. We care about how we look, how we feel, what we think, what we do, what we have, who we're with, where we live, what’s for dinner, what’s on TV. We, depending on our conditions and conditioning, care about gender, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicities, nationalities, race, politics, income, and religion.
The list goes on and on and on. You name it, there’s somebody somewhere who cares about it.
In many cases, it doesn't matter whether or not we care. If we don't care about the latest fall fashion trends, who won the football game, or which way the toilet paper roll hangs, well, we will all survive.
But when we don't care about how we treat each other as human beings, it matters. When we decide that some human beings are unworthy of care, it matters. When we act as if some of us deserve human rights or civil rights more than others, it matters. When we don't care that we're harming other living creatures or the health of the planet we share, it matters.
That's when we all need to give a fuck...or however many we have left to give. That's when we need to stop dosing ourselves with unbalanced positivity, willful ignorance, and plausible deniability. That's when we need to care about the truth, regardless of how painful, unpalatable, or inconvenient. That's when we need to set aside the toxic cocktail of self-righteous certainty and blame that exaggerates emotional upset and impairs good judgment. That's when we need to care about people we don't necessarily like or understand. Otherwise, we are all in for a world of suffering even greater than the world of suffering within, between, and all around us that we often refuse to acknowledge.
Believe me, I get it. Anyone who has ever cared about anything knows that there are times when it seems easier not to care. Genuine caring entails both affection and concern that makes it tricky. The moment we care about something or someone, we open ourselves not only to joy, but to suffering. We open ourselves to the full range of human experience in all of its glory and misery.
We open ourselves to hurt. Because we are wired for empathy, when you suffer, I suffer. When you hurt, I hurt. When hurt is overwhelming, we shut down our capacity to feel the love within and between us. We stop empathizing because it hurts too much. When we stop empathizing, we start othering, and when we start othering, we become the world of hurt we’re trying to avoid. We lash out at others because the hurt—mine, yours, ours, theirs—is unbearable.
Indeed, the caring that makes us human is the caring that makes it hard to be human. Most of us have a difficult enough time just trying to care for ourselves and those within our immediate circle of concern. The idea of extending our care to include unfamiliar others, especially those who offend or hurt us, often seems overwhelming and unattainable, a task better left to spiritual masters or otherwise more evolved human beings. Even those of us inclined to do so may be hampered by the legacy of childhoods lacking effective role modeling of emotional self-regulation, conflict resolution, or interpersonal fluency.
As children, we depend on others for our care. From an early age, whatever our genetic predispositions, we learn the critical link between paying attention and getting attention. We learn that we are rewarded for paying attention to certain aspects of experience, and punished for paying attention to others. We learn that some thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are deemed worthy or unworthy of our attention. We become conditioned to pay attention to specific things in specific ways in specific contexts.
We learn to pay attention as our caregivers think, feel, and do, unconsciously and consciously adapting our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to those of our caregivers to get the care we need. These early conditions for giving and receiving attention form the basis for why and how we care about what and whom we care about later in life. As we grow into adulthood, we develop new ways of being, building upon these deeply-rooted habits of caring within shifting habitats of care.
Ideally, we learn how to excel at caring for ourselves, each other, and our world, but as is readily apparent to anyone attending to the state of our humanity and our planet, not all of us do. If we're lucky, we meet people who care enough to show us how along the way--friends, lovers, teachers, therapists, authors. Those of us less fortunate tend to learn how to care through trial and error, often breaking a lot of hearts including our own.
However we learn, caring is not an option, but a necessary condition of human existence, as essential to human beings as breathing. Human beings from the moment we are born until the moment we die require not only nutritional sustenance, but emotional sustenance, to live. Like all other mammals, we need care to survive and thrive. As natural born caregivers and caretakers, the quality and quantity of the care we receive is as fundamental to our survival as fresh air, potable water, nutritious food, and clean shelter. Without care, we die.
Babies born into conditions of poverty often die from the lack of vital care. People in the medical profession refer to this as a “failure to thrive,” but babies don’t die from a failure to thrive. They die from inadequate care or a “failure to care.” Even babies properly fed, watered, changed and clothed, but denied caring touch and emotional interactions, grow weak and die.
Babies are not the only ones afflicted with this condition, although they along with our elders seem to be more at risk. Our young and our old throughout the world suffer from a vital lack of caring, as does every marginalized group on earth, frequently resulting in death. Even those who manage to survive a failure to care, suffer from our neglect, however unintended.
Simple neglect, studies find, can be more damaging than outright abuse. A survey of maltreated children found the neglected youngsters doing the worst of all: they were the most anxious, inattentive, and apathetic, alternatively aggressive and withdrawn. The rate for having to repeat first grade among them was 65 percent. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p. 195
Caring for ourselves, each other, and the world is not only worthy of our experience, but essential to our existence. Our lack of caring sustains all that is inhumane in our world, ultimately ensuring our extinction, as well as the potential demise of countless other living creatures and the entire planet. To be blithely “without a care in the world” is perhaps the suicide of the ignorant and the genocide of the ignored.
When a failure to thrive threatens one of us, it threatens all of us. When each of us fails to care for all of us, we contribute to the demise of our humanity. This is the root of all crimes against humanity. No matter how we try to compartmentalize, minimize, or rationalize this, the fact remains that our failure to care is so damaging that it threatens our personal and planetary survival.
We who care may count our blessings and pray for those poor others. If we have the means, we may sign petitions, and send charitable donations, cards, or care packages. Yet, prayers, petitions, and gifts unaccompanied by an examination of how our lifestyles contribute to the suffering we seek to ease is incomplete, however sincere. Caring that discriminates against the whole truth, thus apparently absolving us of our responsibility to change is too self-serving to be significant.
A deeper caring accepts responsibility, acknowledging our culpability every time we neglect to care for the essential needs of our fellow living beings. A deeper caring asks us to become part of the solution by ceasing to enact or enable our part of the problem. It demands that we become the compassionate, loving creatures we are meant to be. It demands that we embrace the hate and suffering of who we are at our worst with the love and compassion of who we are at our best while holding us accountable for making the necessary changes. It compels us to develop the personal and interpersonal fluency necessary for engaging our whole humanity. It requires each of us do whatever we can however wherever whenever we can to relieve suffering within, between, and all around us.
In times of strife, deep beneath the surface of the instinct to fight, is not a call to battle, but a call to serve. The call to serve is what keeps a fight honorable, protecting and guiding the warriors within us to serve the best interests of the whole (all living creatures and the planet).
When we respond to this call to serve, we ground ourselves in love and become instruments of peace willing to fight and sacrifice ourselves for the common good. We become an integrative force for good, serving ourselves, each other, and the world around us as one people, one planet, one love.
It is only when we are willing to suffer together that we overcome our suffering together. So please take care, and give care. May we all find the courage to expand our circle of concern. Even when it hurts.
If you want company, I am here.
Meanwhile, this is a good place to start:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit, or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion • to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred, or disdain is illegitimate • to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions, and cultures • to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity • to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological, and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.