The pain of care

This might be a bit theoretical, but it’s not too long.

An essential part of any plan to help the planet must involve the notion of care.

A few years ago I worked through thoughts about what it takes to get someone to care for nature – I felt that it was a combination of experiencing awe or reverence for the natural world and also having some understanding of it. And third element, which was a qualitative leap from those two, was to sense care for the natural world.

I was talking to a chum the other day and he said to me: I don’t really care any more.

This was not a comment born of cynicism – it was a reflection of his emotional state. He does not attach strong emotions to future outcomes: he accepts outcomes broadly whatever they might be.

This helped shed light on what it is to care.

The future of any situation might result in several different possible outcomes. If you care for the things or people involved in the situation, then the particular outcomes matter to you. There are some which you want, some which you do not want. Some which you would resist.

If you do not care, then you accept any outcomes and you do not need to plan battle against the possible “adverse” outcomes.

A care is a burden on you, it weighs on you. That is, you yourself feel the actual or potential pain of thing you care about. In this sense, you can only care if you can empathise. To care is close to empathising – but it is more. To care implies more than just feeling the putative pain of other things, it implies some action in response to that pain – to do something about it.

To take on that burden and to bear it – almost to pick it up, to shoulder some of the burden, thereby in some way at the same time relieving the burden on the thing you care about.

To care is to battle against uncertainty. If you accept any of multiple outcomes, then the uncertainty as to which outcome prevails does not affect you, since your response to all outcomes is the same –acceptance. But if one outcome matters in particular, then uncertainty will cause you stress and pain. It is one of the things which prompts you to take action.

Inevitably a caring person will suffer more stress than an uncaring person.

Caring is close to taking responsibility. If I care, then I am ready to take my responsibility for the thing I care for. Responsibility is to answer to someone in regard of a duty. Caring creates the sense of duty – to help relieve the cared-for thing of its suffering. And taking responsibility is to answer to that call and do something about it.

When you care for things you cannot really do much to help, your sense of responsibility is frustrated. This leads to more than stress, but to a kind of frustration and grief, an agonising powerlessness. The obvious case is Bolsonaro’s wilful destruction of the Amazon rainforest. We care but we can do virtually nothing about it. Our care is impotent. As a consequence of care being made impotent, many will cease to care. Some will rage and only do themselves harm.

It is an inherent problem for an environmentalist – someone who sees the bigger picture and does not draw shutters down around them to ignore the complicated and perilous situations around them. Anyone who thinks about these things sees that things are so interconnected that everything matters, and, yes the death of the Amazon, the death of Lake Victoria, the extinction of right whales, the slaughter of sharks or pangolins, the choking of turtles on plastic bags … all that and everything more … all that is interconnected so we have to care for all of it … and yet we cannot take responsibility.

When you care and responsibility is frustrated – that is when you feel the greatest pain as an environmentalist. You cannot shut out the cries of agony, even if they are happening thousands of miles away.

Not to care – the heart and mind are desensitised to all this. You see but you do not feel. You hear but don’t flinch. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are strong. It means there is something missing. Some connection between the external sensing and the internal response. Wires have been severed. It no longer reaches your heart.

We need people to care; otherwise they will pull down the shutters around their little lives, and be fashion designers and chefs and businessmen and programmers and painters and musicians and live those jolly lives that might even make it to television as if everything is ok, and meanwhile just make it all worse. We need everyone to care, so they are distracted from trivia and forced to stare at that suffering and

Apart from cases of neurological disorder, care can be grown. It comes from proximity to the thing to be cared for or to its derivatives or similar things during the development of empathy in the young child – perhaps between the ages of three and ten… something like that. Ask nature lovers why they love nature – it can invariably be traced to childhood experience.

If you want people to care – and there is no safe alternative for humanity – then it is down to the first ten years of life. That is where all the work is needed. University and high school are, relatively, a waste of time. Everything is in the first ten years.

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