The Blog

Learning To Care Differently

As we move closer together on this contracting globe, as we encounter difference more and more, and open our eyes, ears, taste buds and hearts to other cultures, I feel that the way we care about others truly deserves some attention.

As we move closer together on this contracting globe, as we encounter difference more and more, and open our eyes, ears, taste buds and hearts to other cultures, I feel that the way we care about others truly deserves some attention. Acts of targeted violence unfold before our eyes in a disturbingly rhythmic, predictable pattern; and the reaction is similar. Shock, outrage, sadness and despair are voiced alike by the media and our friends. And then? Mostly, everybody forgets. So is this model of engaging with the state of our world actually very helpful?

Showing solidarity, for example, can be an almost entirely virtual experience these days - and often more of a statement about ourselves than the cause in question. We can discharge some measure of indignation when we make public statements, and feel that we have somehow personally identified with the situation. Some of that 'useful' anger that comes to all of us - the kind that is fanned by injustice and oppression - is released through hot conversations and symbols of solidarity, but after this it seems a dangerous quality can creep in: apathy. Be it because we feel disempowered to help, depressed in thinking about it, or too busy to focus for long on something else, we simply stop caring.

It's true that we cannot hold all these atrocities in our conscious mind forever - but maybe the pattern we are in, as a society, of reacting and forgetting without any longterm action, is preventing us from developing what's really needed: true and sincere care for one another. Such care wouldn't be short-lived, and nor would it be confined to a few cases. It would emanate from the belief that we are all part of one human family, all connected. True, sincere empathy would also find expression in action - in a desire to practically improve conditions and prevent further atrocity.

I think it helps to see that 'caring' is a capacity that has various degrees, not an on/off switch. Currently, our collective capacity to care seems quite limited. While it's natural for the human mind to connect emotionally with a story or personality over abstract facts and numbers, I feel that this approach to a world view is dominating all others. The fact that, in the West, only certain crises, countries or campaigns receive attention (mainly in places similar to our own) while others don't (mainly in places dissimilar to our own) naturally leads us to care more about people who are 'like us'. Not only this, but our society generally promotes 'difference' as strange rather than attractive.

Back in 1911, Abdu'l-Baha - the son of Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith - spoke in Paris of this absurdity in man's nature:

'I have just been told that there has been a terrible accident in this country. A train has fallen into the river and at least twenty people have been killed...I am filled with wonder and surprise to notice what interest and excitement has been aroused throughout the whole country on account of the death of twenty people, while they remain cold and indifferent to the fact that thousands of Italians, Turks, and Arabs are killed in Tripoli!...They are all men, they all belong to the family of mankind, but they are of other lands and races...How unjust, how cruel is this, how utterly devoid of any good and true feeling!'

So, how do we cultivate this 'good and true feeling?' As with all change, it has to take place gradually and at many levels - there's no quick formula. At an individual level, we can start by learning to care about a broader circle of people. In other words, we can grow in our ability to connect with others and to avoid discrimination as we encounter tragedy. As the capacity to care is consciously built, it will become steady and permanent. Our world is full of short-lived jolts and flashes of news, products, and pleasures; very little is intended to endure. But just as a mother tends for her baby in a sustained way, so we can begin to develop this with others.

Instead of only outcry, we can start to have more constructive conversations about change - about what we can do and how we can be. Bit by bit, we will find that we are no longer spectators, caring for select segments of humanity in abstract bursts, but participants in how society evolves. We will see the connection between our small, individual efforts and the improvement of the world at large. This change is inside us more than we dare to realise - we just need to start caring differently.

First appeared on A Searching Eye