Of all the words in the English language that’s been flogged to death the last decade or so, the little word “care” stands out. It has gotten so bad that in some circles the thought that somebody would care is considered an insult.
Sure, you've got all sorts of strange New Age folk and talk-show hosts who have given the word a bad name. I'm just as ready as the next person with a cynical comment about upper middle class people crying over starving people in Africa while living in gated communities that proudly boast less than 1% black occupancy as a selling point.
But does that mean we have to give up on an idea or a concept just because some people have given it a bad name? That's one of the worst instances of cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We have to learn how to reclaim the concepts and words that were transformed into the empty gestures of selfish people. And, demonstrate that not everyone who uses the word care is trying to justify their housing costs that could just as easily feed the average refugee camp for a year.
It's hard though, not to feel cynical when you see the conspicuousness of consumption and waste in our society. Being on the lower end of the earning scale might make it sound like I'm spewing sour grapes and envy. I live in a poor neighbourhood and a rundown apartment. But maybe that's the point, too.
If a disabled person like me enjoying so many of the benefits of this society- like free medical care and inexpensive prescription drugs – finds himself cynical about the motivations of wealthier individuals in North America, what must be the reaction of those living in refugee camps?
How many people make comments about the ungratefulness of those who we send foreign aid to? Does this phrase sound familiar: "We send them food and medical supplies only to have them come back and kill our boys overseas.”
Let me ask you this; how would you feel if somebody sitting down to a seven course banquet saw you standing hungry on the sidewalk and offered you a crust of bread? They then go back into a comfy home where their cook has prepared an elaborate dinner while you stand outside broiling in the heat or freezing in the cold.
You'll chew that crust of bread down and it will choke you because of the shame you feel for wanting more, and the anger you feel towards that person who made you feel so ashamed of who you are and your situation. How can they care about you, really, if they can so easily dismiss you from their conscience by handing out a crust of bread?
As rich as we claim?
Of course, our affluence isn't as great as parts of the rest of the world perceive it to be. It's a case of being hoisted on our petard; having claimed to be the best society in the world, less fortunate global citizens believe it – and can easily be swayed into making us the focal point of resentment and anger.
We have so much and they have so little is how they see it: no matter that large portions of our population are in actual fact not much better off than they are. Our refugee camps just happen to be housing projects in inner cities or reservations in the northern woods or the badlands of the Dakotas.
Perhaps if we spent more energy telling the truth about our own big system failure as a society, we wouldn't be as universally despised by poor people around the globe. They might be more willing to believe we are sharing as much as we can, and not feel they are being bought off with token afterthoughts.
Caring is a relative thing. The less you have and still are willing to share, the more it is appreciated. How often do we read about the kid who has raised money from events she's organized for victims of something or other? What makes the story remarkable is that it was a kid without any resources who managed to do that, not just another movie star with a smile and grafted-on sincerity donating a tax write-off.
George Bush and Caring
Care seems to be as much about who is doing the caring as the cause that is being cared about. When George Bush says he cares, there are many people who question his motivations and what he cares about – no matter what the cause is and no matter how much money he's prepared to ask Congress to throw at it.
But if a Inuit tribe from up North sells off a collection of sculptures to raise money for those hit by famine – as during the first Ethiopian crises in the 1980s – everyone rushes to be the first to say how amazing it is. Why?
Both George and the Inuit have used whatever resources they have to help out, to express their caring for someone else, but one is looked upon as heroic and the other with cynicism. Mainly it's Bush's track record: no one can believe that he will do anything without there being something in it for him in return. On the other hand, the Inuit give the impression of doing what they did with no expectation of anything in return.
Unlike George, they also have very little to begin with, so anything that they do is even more appreciated. But when you swagger into town and throw dollar bills at the natives, there’s bound to be a measure of cynicism about your “caring”.
Care should not be about motives or reciprocity. It's about caring. If you look closely enough at care, you can see how easily it could become a caress; an act of love. Did I just make you uncomfortable? But there it is. When you care, you do so with love for another, and not for love of yourself, your reputation, or tax deductions at the end of the year.
For far too long, some personalities have been claiming or acting like they “care” in their appearances on talk shows – either as guests or emotional audiences. Or by throwing money at something. But how can you be considered caring when your life is selfish by definition?
Let's say a couple buys a five-bedroom house for themselves. Aside from depriving a family that might actually need the space, they are also having to needlessly heat or cool hundreds if not thousands of square feet, selfishly consuming energy. In the course of one year, who knows how much they'll have wasted heating and cooling an empty space just because they "own" it.
It's hard to believe that anybody who lives like that – and there are plenty of them still out there – care about anything at all beyond their own personal comfort and pleasure. Yet these are the very same people who do care in another way: sending donations, watching the telethons and getting all weepy over the images of starving babies in Africa, on their 52-inch Surround Sound home theatre system.
If we truly cared about each other, nobody would be living like that, nobody would be driving an SUV, and nobody would be planting trees in a desert or building artificial environments anywhere. If we truly cared about each other, oil companies like Exxon Mobil wouldn't be allowed to earn a penny in profit while their mess is still being cleaned up in Alaska. If we truly cared. (If I keep going like this, I'll just get depressed.)
Let's face it: none of us really care – except for aid workers on the spot, spoon-feeding broth into a starving child's mouth. If we did that, too, would the world be in the shape it’s in now? I really don’t think so, do you?