Against Caring


People who insist on backing their cars into parking spaces drive me nuts. On any given day, when I’m circling around the YMCA parking lot, I have to wait while some guy in a pickup the size of a Panzer tank backs into his spot. At that point, I remark to my wife something like, “Is he concerned about making a fast getaway when the Feds raid the Y?” Barbara’s response, usually a roll of the eyes or a sigh, signals that she’s puzzled why it should bug me so much.

She’s right to raise the question. With minimal effort I can list dozens of insignificant things that get under my skin: arrogant retail sales clerks; weightlifters with huge upper bodies and skinny legs; baristas who say “not a problem” when you thank them for your latte; dog walkers who don’t clean up their dog shit; irresponsible pet owners in general; out-of-date shoes; out-of-date hairdos; dramatically-bearded hipsters; young women who stare at their phones as they walk; Sanskrit tattoos on white women from Hoboken; trigger warnings; warning labels on mattresses. In fact, as I list these irritants, it occurs to me I can name more of them than I can things that delight me. Or, more specifically, it would take a lot of work to identify those things that give delight.

Cluttering Up the Brain-Attic

I’ll often preface one of my complaints to Barbara with the disclaimer, “I can tell you this because you’re my wife…” What that means, of course, is that I wouldn’t share those same sentiments with anyone else—that there’s something distinctly antisocial or, perhaps, politically incorrect about my views. In the context of a trusted confidante you can let it rip without fear of being judged. Of course, I’m guilty of the worst hypocrisy when my wife does the same kind of venting. With a smugness that must really annoy her, I’ll offer a bromide like “Why would you waste any mental energy on that? It’s so insignificant.” She shows her moral superiority by not remarking on my lengthy polemic about people walking in the jogging lane.

It’s odd what we choose to care about—what detritus we allow to clutter up our Sherlock Holmes brain-attics. Perhaps we don’t even choose to care about these things. Maybe they work their way into our subconscious by means we never intended nor can account for. And yet, once those cares have lodged in our minds like splinters in a finger, they demand our attention—they drain our attention. In this sense, my reply to Barbara shows a little wisdom: Why do we give a rat’s ass about such insignificant things? My hypocrisy, of course, arises from my own inability to extract or, at a minimum, disregard those mental splinters. 

The verb at the center of this whole matter, care, is of Germanic origin, coming to us through the Old English carian, “to be anxious or solicitous; grieve; feel concern or interest.” Carian, in turn, comes from the Proto-Germanic *karo- or “lament.” And while the primary dictionary definition of “care” is “to feel trouble or anxiety,” over the years, the verb has taken on a broader, and softer, meaning that includes attentiveness, nurturing, kindness. She’s been caring for her sick husband for ten years now, for example. I’m not preoccupied with that meaning; I’m fascinated by the idea that we allow ourselves to “be anxious or solicitous,” to “feel concern or interest” for stuff that shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

From Flypaper to Teflon

Why should I care whether the guy backs into his parking space? For that matter, why does a mother go on a Twitter tirade about childless millennials at Disney World? We’re all guilty of wasting emotional energy on this nonsense—how else can we account for the culture of divisiveness into which we’ve descended? If I ponder my complaints deeply enough, I can discern the roots of my irritation—and what I learn usually reveals more about me than about the objects of my contempt. I can’t stand hipster beards, I have decided, because they strike me as slavish devotion to a fashion trend masquerading as insouciance. People driving slowly in the passing lane signal an indifference to others, a deplorable obtuseness. I hold myself accountable for being self-aware and authentic, ethical and reasonable. When others don’t subscribe to my values system, I am offended, and the sensation lingers longer than it should. It’s worth adding, of course, that I frequently fail my own code of conduct, rushing to beat some poor woman to a parking space, or reclining my seat on a crowded airplane because I want a nap. In those moments, I become someone else’s Twitter fodder.

When we move through life projecting our values system on an incoherent universe, we act like sheets of flypaper in the Okefenokee swamp. How healthy can it be to let all those peccadillos get stuck on us, to burden our consciousness with cares we can’t control? That’s a rhetorical question: we all know the answer. The more interesting question is how to change from flypaper to Teflon—how to care about matters that warrant our grief, lament, or concern, but not to waste mental energy on the lady texting during the movie. Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer and the teachings of Buddhism come to mind. But even as I’ve grown older and, dare I say, wiser, I’ve made almost zero progress in my ability to deflect life’s little irritants, to heed Niebuhr’s advice to “accept the things I cannot change.” You’d think I’d have internalized more of that wisdom by now.

And that really bugs me.