When We Stop Caring

June 25th, 2018

Shortly after our dog Gracie adopted us, I learned that a friend of mine refuses to have a dog. He loves dogs, and there lies the problem. Caring can be painful.

For over a decade, my friend and his Labrador Retriever had been inseparable. Then his constant companion died. My friend was devastated. His wife told me, “He just can’t go through that kind of pain again.”

I get it. When we care, our hearts are braided into the life of another being.

Gracie and I speak the same language and share daily routines. She tells me when it’s time to go for a ride or to play fetch or to take a walk.

We eat breakfast together and watch Animal Planet together.

In my blue moments, she rests her head on my lap. During thunderstorms I hold her tight.

We care about each other. If she dies—when she dies—it will shatter me.

Somebody once said something like this: you will lose the things you care about the most; you can only be grateful that you had them at all. When we care deeply—and we are built to care deeply—we become frightfully vulnerable.

My friend hasn’t given up on caring. On the contrary, his sorrow points to how deeply he still cares. 

Since he continues to care for others, the grief he bears is being woven into a larger fabric. That pain will never go away. But in time, he will feel his sense of loss less sharply. And he will care even more tenderly.

My friend senses a crucial truth: caring makes us human. When we stop caring, we stop being human.

That may sound odd. How could a human stop being human? A frog will be a frog. Elms don’t become pines or armadillos. Each being in this world has some essential trait that makes it what it is. Right? 

Aristotle, for instance, said that humans are the rational animal. Or, less grandly, the featherless biped. We have something no other creature possesses. Right?

Well, actually, it is more helpful to think of our humanity as a vocation. We will lean into what we can become or we won’t.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said that care makes us human. Care is about letting this world—human and non-human—really matter to us. Care is about being woven spiritually into the world around us. That’s why he was fond of using the phrase “Being-in-the-World” instead of “human being.”

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We can resist caring. With our lips and with our lives we can say, “I don’t care.” When we do, we say that some people don’t matter. Their suffering and misery don’t affect me. There’s nothing in it for me, so I’m indifferent.

Recently, we’ve heard political and media figures express indifference toward children who have been ripped from their immigrant parents’ arms at our borders.

Some have blamed the parents for their children’s terror. Others insist that the children are just actors. They’re using strategies to dodge care and to justify indifference. It’s an indirect way to say, “I don’t care.”

Now that the policy of separating children from parents has been suspended, hundreds of children remain lost to their parents. Our political leaders seem to be shrugging their shoulders, refusing to do what’s necessary to reunite these families. Their inaction says, “I don’t care.”

Indifference degrades the soul. 

Kindness becomes selective, conditional, and insincere. Compassion gives way to manipulation and exploitation.

When it’s habitual, indifference descends into contempt. Contempt leads us to dehumanizing others. We deny others the rights that we claim for ourselves, put them in concentration camps, exterminate them.

When we stop caring, others pay a terrible price. And so do we — we surrender our humanity.

We might ascend to positions of great political power, accumulate enormous wealth, and enjoy privileges unimaginable to 99% of the world’s population. We might get away with murder and laugh all the way to the bank.

But you see, we will have amassed all of this clout and stuff and status to prove to ourselves that we really matter, that our lives count for something. But at some point, we’ll have the dreadful realization that we can’t take any of this with us and that if we lost it all today, we’d be eating lunch alone tomorrow.

That is when we will cry out like the disciples once did to Jesus. Their tiny boat is battered by a storm. They seem to be going under. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:35-41) In other words, “Don’t we matter?” 

Let’s face it, we all want to matter. But we can be tragically wrong about what makes any of us matter.

The truth is that we will know that we matter when somebody else cares about us just because they do. Not because of what we’ve achieved or we’ve accumulated. And paradoxically, our ability to feel that kind of care increases when we give that kind of care ourselves. 

Sadly, by saying “I don’t care,” we set ourselves up to feel, “I don’t matter.”

The life of Jesus conveys the message that each of us matters to God. Infinitely. Eternally. No exceptions, no conditions. We discover this truth when we say, “I care.”

"When We Stop Caring" originally appeared on Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission. 

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