Caught up in the rushed busyness of our countless everyday concerns — a cloudy stir of the truly pressing and deeply trivial — we often tend to forget and thus to neglect what we most care about. In doing so, we also overlook the more basic fact that we care at all, that we are at our core creatures of care (given to it, given by it). Less often, but no less importantly, we can be reminded of our deepest cares, and we can be reawakened to the crucial fact that our lives are driven and defined fundamentally by the orientations of our care, when we are threatened — or already beset — with loss. Grave illness or injustice strikes a dear friend or fellow; a pandemic shuts down our familiar world and way of life; a duly elected president works without shame or even understanding to undermine the democratic norms and institutions of our republic; or (as it sometimes happens) all of these at once.
Such reminders can teach us that care is in its essence directed toward that which can suffer harm and pass irrevocably away. They show us that care at its heart is something that mortals do for other mortals and for the essential but breakable things—the tools, institutions, ideals, traditions, ecosystems — that weave our world. That which can be readily replaced (like an iPhone or other consumer “good" whose obsolescence is, obscenely, intended) or that which remains so secure that it stands beyond possible harm (like an immortal god), neither calls for care nor even allows it. Whoever or whatever enjoys absolute security — a foundational fantasy for much of our techno-utopian and consumerist culture — is capable neither of giving nor of receiving care. This is an existential truth spoken in the word's etymology: to be secure means to be beyond or without (se-) care (cura).
If care grows in the measure of our gratitude, it finds a nourishing ground in humility
What can we learn in these critical moments of reminding and reawakening? These dangerous times of possibility? We can learn the recurrently forgotten, never fully grasped, and therefore endlessly learnable fact that our lives and the world sustaining them are precious and irreplaceable gifts. What prevents us from such learning? Commonly we are preoccupied and distracted, anxious, depressed or in despair, overwhelmed and exhausted. But perhaps more frequently what prevents such learning is the arrogance wherein we take things for granted, assuming or claiming as our own what we have in fact received — and which we ourselves could never initiate, earn, possess, or control. (As Emerson notes, the benefit outran the merit from our very first day.) It is true that we need to feel a certain measure of safety in order to learn and to grow and to thrive. But when we enjoy an excessive sense of comfort and control, or too much security, arrogance takes root, care withers, and we grow negligent.
In its defining amnesia and ingratitude, arrogance feeds negligence because it impedes us from acknowledging the vital generosities that precede and exceed us. It blinds us, by extension, to the hard but also beautiful fact that we are finite and mortal, radically dependent on those generosities and in that dependence inescapably vulnerable. Thus, if care grows in the measure of our gratitude, it finds a nourishing ground in humility. I need humility (and gain in it) to see and affirm that I am not a self-possessed or self-sufficient being but relationally constituted, a participant within, and reliant on, the immeasurably greater whole of a world whose members are likewise relational, interdependent, impermanent, and therefore in need of care. In humble gratitude for this one mortal life, we acknowledge that we are bound inescapably not only to other humans — to society, culture, history, tradition — but also to the natural world and earth that sustain and shape these. This too is a truth already etymological: in their definitive humility, mortal humans are bound essentially to the humus on which we stand and without which we cannot live.
Love can also make the burden lighter, feeding our care by increasing its joys
If we care about our fellow humanity and its health, then, if we care to be humane, we must attend also (as we currently do not) to the earth and its wellbeing. The two — humanity and the earth, our social and natural being — remain inseparable, according to a truth that modern thought and culture have tended massively to neglect. For several hundred years we have proceeded as if our social contracts — our politics, economies, and their laws — did not radically presuppose our ties of embodied dependence on nature. We have acted as if we could have a healthy society and culture whose political economy is founded on the exploitation, degradation, and destruction of topsoil and forest, wetland and groundwater, the air that envelops us, the climate that contains us. The growing abstraction and disembodiment of our lives by means of the digital and the virtual only intensify this modern disconnection from the material and living ground of our human being; they aggravate our negligence while offering illusions of security and wellbeing.
The real wellbeing of our world and of those with whom we share it, however, demands that we counter longstanding negligence with diligence — an old name for the attentive care that looks after things with the singular intention of their wellbeing. Another old word that names such an intention, and that translates diligence, is love. Tradition has long taken the lack or misdirection of our love to define sin. And sin such may well be. But the language and logic of sin can seem too often moralistic and hypocritical, and those most eager to deploy them seem too often driven by the desire to find others guilty, to engender self-hatred within them, and to punish them. Our failures to love enough or aright surely can be (and sometimes surely should be) gnawing dark and heavy, but we can — and we should — also appeal, from the beginning, to the pleasures that are equally at stake. For it is not only the case that we love and care for that which we enjoy in its beauty, goodness, and truth (such happens often enough, and naturally); it is also the case that the world and its people can appear more vividly in their true beauty and goodness according to the measure of our love. Those who love life and health and justice must surely suffer today thanks to that love and its inevitable heartbreak, and we can thus understand why so many seek to flee (as through shopping or drugs or social media) the real burdens of deep care. But love can also make the burden lighter, feeding our care by increasing its joys — which in love are always, by definition, shared with others. If we care to make time for them, we will understand that those others include not only all the people living present with us now, both locally and globally, but also those generations past, from whom we come, and those generations future, toward whom our care turns already today.
Tom Carlson is the Founding Director of the Humanities and Social Change Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.