What Care Demands
To truly care for something demands something great from us. Have we really grasped this?
Every once in a while, you stumble across written words which hit you like a ton of bricks, and if a ton of bricks hit you then one thing is for certain — you will be left fundamentally changed. An encounter like this, when words, and the ideas they represent, so powerfully impress themselves upon you, it can only leave you speechless — almost gasping for breath as the waves of change seem to overwhelm you. Something has happened deep inside you which means you will not see this topic, concept, entity, or whatever it is in the same way ever again. A new truth, idea, or understanding is indelibly impressed into your mind; you have been paradigmatically changed.
I recently had this kind of encounter. Deeply unsettling it was, I tell you. I was confronted with a word and concept I thought knew, but a dead author showed me I was a near total stranger to its true meaning. It was as if I knew nothing at all. On the one hand, it is a somewhat joyful experience to be confronted with a truth so compelling you can feel it working on you in the moment. Like your body being exposed to an ice-cold blast of air adapts and adjusts reflexively, so too does one’s mind to a new, powerful, and convincing truth, either by adapting and adjusting currently held understandings, or by reordering or replacing your current conceptions in their entirety. It is out with the old and in with the new.
On the other hand, an experience so radical as this is deeply unsettling. For you become well aware that you will be forced to act and think differently from now on — and perhaps radically so. Like I say, being hit with a proverbial ton of bricks is going to leave you changed and going to cause a certain degree of pain and discomfort — and all this for some time to come. So it is all the more unsettling and discomforting when the subject of the change concerns something so fundamental as what it man’s to care — as was my recent experience.
You never know when this paradigm-changing cognitive blast is going to hit you. As I sat down to read what seemed like an innocent promotional piece for an event fromtitled: “Take the Moments of Joy Where You Find Them” I wasn’t expecting anything revolutionary to happen…
Oh how wrong I was.
For what hit this recently graduated ‘agricultural-international development’ student who thought he cared about Africa square in the face was this:
(Take a breath before you dive in. The ton of bricks is coming)
In David Cayley’s first book of conversations with Ivan Illich, there’s a story that could sound outrageous. This must be sometime in the 1980s. A student comes to Illich, troubled by something he has said. ‘Don’t you care about the starving children in Africa?’ the student demands.
And Illich – well, he says no:
My immediate reaction is, I will do everything I can to eliminate from my heart any sense of care for them. I want to experience horror. I want to really taste this reality about which you report to me. I do not want to escape my sense of helplessness and fall into a pretence that I care and that I do or have done all that is possible of me.
His point is that we have fallen into a way of speaking in which care is a feeling. A feeling that gives us a sense of virtue. (And how much further down this hole have we fallen in the age of social media?)1
May you feel the weight of these words — especially that “no”. Properly grasped, they cannot but leave you changed. Permanently changed.
A like. A retweet (or restack). The signing of a petition. Walking in a demonstration. A few pounds here and there. Even a short, cursory prayer — these actions encompass what counts for the majority of our so-called “care”. ‘Concern’ these actions may well demonstrate — but no longer can I view them (in isolation) as care. They cost me nothing except a brief fraction of time or a few clinking coins. They involve no ongoing concern, or costly involvement. Nothing is really demanded of me by these actions — I leave them the same man as I entered them. In most cases, I can’t even be bothered to follow up on the situation a few months later:
Earthquake that happened in Afghanistan? “Oh, I vaguely remember.”
Severe drought in Kenya? “Oh yes, that was terrible — but which year are we talking about?”
Local old woman who lost everything in a house fire? “I think I gave the appeal a retweet.”
War in Ukraine? “Oh I can tell you all about it, including what is currently happening in Kharkiv (and how to pronounce it correctly). And I did donate to the appeal last winter…”
Have I really cared about any of the above? Have I let the agony of the situation change me — change me enough to act in a way that actually makes a tangible difference, or act in a manner which coheres with the gravity of the situation? Have I made the costly sacrifice that the situation demands of me if I am to care? No, I have not. And Illich says I must not kid myself that I have.
To any casually observing outsider, it may look as if I don’t care much at all for the situations above — swatting them away from my conscience with mere tokenism or brief gestures of concern as one would an annoying fly with a wave of the hand. With the mere touch of a button I can dispense my “sincere care and concern” like one would a painkiller — and thus personally dispense with the situation. My conscience has been salved — job done! and, “I do really care, but haven’t got the time for any further involvement…”
Granted, the sum of small actions can lead to significant results. Petitions do occasionally change minds. The pennies and pounds do add up. God hears brief as well as persistent prayers. But this does not get us off the hook on an individual basis. We can’t say that we care because we are part of the masses whose actions have all added up to something tangible. We can’t outsource or crowdfund our care. We can do so perhaps for our concern, but not for our care. No — care demands something serious and costly from us, and cannot leave us unchanged in our being. Mere tokenism or concern on the other hand, can be painless for us and quickly dispensed.
What I have been labouring to say is not meant to guilt trip. Concern is not wrong. These little actions likewise are not wrong. The sum total of them do make a difference. Without them, much good in the world would not be done, for finding enough people to really care about the plethora of needy situations in this broken world is hard — really hard — thus charity from the masses is necessary and good. But it is not true care.
In fact, perhaps it would have been better of us to not give to the next urgent sounding cause and instead commit to giving regularly, sacrificially, and long-term to one or two on-going and chronic issues, giving them not only our time and money but also our attention — becoming an expert in what we care for. And there always will be those life changing events that occur to us in close proximity, to our local area, family, friends, neighbours that do demand our immediate and sacrificial care — and for which it would be morally abhorrent for us not to show care. We need to safeguard our capacity to care for these situations — and that will entail saying “no” to other pressing global needs and events.
Perhaps we could as well ‘adopt a region’ (apart from our own localities) and whenever this region hits the news due to a natural disaster, political upheaval, or any other situation, we then give sacrificially to wise on-the-ground actors — and support them beyond financial means, with encouragement, persistent prayer, and other means of support. Such true, deep, and proper care will achieve far more for both the affected, the helpers, and ourselves than mere concern or token gifts spread out over a wide range of causes and needs could ever hope to. It establishes a relationship between the giver and the needy2, ongoing dependable support, and a sacrificial disposition on our part — which often leads to greater and more costly actions as one becomes invested and attached to the object of care. In short, love for what we care for is nurtured — and love knows no bounds.
Becoming an expert, or invested in what you care for, is necessary for another crucial but often overlooked reason. Situations that require care are inevitably complex — and good but uninformed intentions can have disastrous effects. Think of the relief aid streaming in to East Africa that has undercut local businesses and driven them into financial precariousness or even poverty. Or the long-term subsidising of imported and freely distributed food which lines the pockets of western producers whilst destroying the markets for local and financially-insecure developing world farmers. In these situations, our charity has undermined an entire local food system. So much for care.
Other complexities surround phenomenon such as elite capture and corruption. Here, well-intentioned aid and investment may never reach the intended recipients. Or, straying away from humanitarian care, think of the well-intentioned rewilders whose efforts to bring back forests outcompete and push out traditional farmers and damage rural communities. Or consider mass tree planters who neglect to ensure saplings are protected to maturity or who plant trees in ecologically-sensitive areas whose habitats support endangered species which rely on sunlight and heat to survive. What may seem like neglect or degradation to outsiders or the uninformed may in fact be natural and diverse. Rather than blundering in and immediately bringing about change, it would be wise to cultivate dispositions of restraint, patience, observation, and reflection.3
In these situations outlined above, uninformed outsiders with good intentions can wreck havoc on complex situations where beauty, goodness, and value is already present but perhaps hidden or obscured. Better leave these issues to those who have a deep, first-hand knowledge of the situation and acquiring this knowledge takes time — lots of it. Those who truly care will learn what is best for that which they purport to care for — even if that means their action is suspended for what seems like a painfully long time. Blundering in, imposing our solutions is mere pride and arrogance done to soothe our consciences or please our donors. It is not done with the health, happiness, and prosperity of the recipient in mind.
It should be obvious now that to truly care is a fundamentally limiting action. You can only care for so much. We are not God. We are not unlimited in energy, time, and attention (let alone wisdom — which is so crucial to true and proper care). If we are to care rightly, we will only be able to care for a few limited things, peoples and places. We must not feel guilty that we cannot care for everything — we were never made to.
In this age of social media, we are confronted everyday it seems, with a never-ending stream of appeals, expertly designed to pull at our heart strings. Breaking news stories saturate our media putting images of the latest disaster or activists screaming “do you even care about [fill in the blank]” to the forefront of our minds. This relentless barrage can lead to two outcomes. Either it makes us feel guilty and thus entices us spread our care to every cause and thus spread it so thin that it devolves into tokenism or mere concern, or it insidiously dulls our capacities to care (or to feel the horror as Illich describes). We can look at the picture of the starving child and shrug our shoulders and move on — having become, through repeat exposure, desensitised to tragedy. Avoiding both these pitfalls, of crippling and burdensome guilt or ambivalent desensitisation requires that we doggedly limit our care horizons and give our attention to what truly demands our care. We need to embrace our limitations and the freedom they give to leave some situations to the experts4 or to those already involved and invested — and then take up the responsibilities our capacities, contexts, and relationships demand that we care for.
The essays I normally write concern agriculture and ecology. It might strike as odd at first for this long reflection on what care demands of us. But the connection to farming and ecology should be clear:
If we truly care for our farmers and the land they steward, then it will cost us. When we look out over wrecked fields we are observing the visible representation of our desires for cheap food. The farmers have been forced into degrading their lands and abdicating their duties of care because of our lack of care for them — it’s what our desires for cheap food demands.
Let us not, then, say that we care for our farmers while demanding cheap food in the supermarket, or constantly passing by the farm shop or farmers market on the way to the supermarket. Let us not say we care for them if we never commit to buying direct from our local stewards where we can, or pressing for reform in our broken food systems which are designed to squeeze the farmer and his land.
And let not the farmer say he cares for his land if he never gets down from his tractor to study it, to build up its fertility, and to leave it in a better condition than when he inherited it. Let not the farmer say that she cares for her flock if she never endeavours to learn the names of her animals and their particular and individual needs. Care requires knowing and affection — you can’t care rightly for an unnamed, unknowable mass.
If we say we care for creation, we will subject ourselves to the limits it imposes on us and will endeavour to limit the harm we cause it through our lifestyle and actions. No more mere talk — endless committees, conferences, delegations with their lofty pronouncements but empty hands free from the stains of soil and mud. We’ve had enough of these and made little progress. It is time that we all individually started to care for creation in costly ways — firstly for our local lands, and then for our interconnected wider world.
Let us not then say that we care for creation if we wilfully pollute and leave the mess for another to clean or suffer. Let us not say that we care if we buy as cheaply as we can in our mass consumer culture and not spare a thought for the damage, pollution and degradation encapsulated in the production methods, mining, and transportation of what we buy. Let us not say that we care for creation if we live like there are no natural limits and no restraints. Let us not say that we care for creation if we will not take the time to learn the names of the creatures around us and their particular ecological needs.
In short, let us not say that we have cared until we truly have.
My immediate reaction is, I will do everything I can to eliminate from my heart any sense of care for them. I want to experience horror. I want to really taste this reality about which you report to me. I do not want to escape my sense of helplessness and fall into a pretence that I care and that I do or have done all that is possible of me. - Ivan Illich
“If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. - James 2:15-17 CSB.
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And it is important to stress this relationship is not only one way. Those in need have something to offer to us just as much as we have something to offer to them (and the aim should be for them eventually not to be in need any more). The creation of dependencies must be avoided. See the excellent book When Helping Hurts for more on this.
He said and did all this because he realised “Until I slow down and pay attention, I am more likely to do damage than anything else.”
In: Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Faber & Faber.
By experts, I don’t mean scientists, policy makers, think tanks alone. I also (and perhaps more so) think of sages, community leaders, thinkers, parents, hobbyists etc.