Why we aren’t designed to care about so many things.
In a similar vein to there are only so many hours in the day, there is only so much capacity (and ability) that we have to care for the people and things in our life.
Sounds obvious, right?
It is only too easy, however, to become overwhelmed and exhausted with life and fail to realise how the people and things you normally care about have fallen by the wayside. Not only this, but you are being constantly bombarded from all angles about people and things you should care about – past, present and future. You might be sitting there going, well I want to care about this and this and that, but I just don’t have the time or energy to do so…or what usually happens is that we try to do it all and then end up burning ourselves out to the point where we just snap or deplete any capability of kindness. Then, you punish yourself for not having anything more to give. Double-whammy.
“But Martyn, isn’t the more we care about the better? A caring person is a good person, no? Not only for themselves, but for family and friends and the wider community?”
The majority of us want to be good people. Caring for others is a demanding proposition, but one that I find to be ultimately rewarding. This is main reason why I’ve had no problems running myself into the ground for some people. It’s what propels fathers to wake up at 5am to do a 12hr day at work. It’s what satisfies mothers who never really switch off from familial concerns. It’s what makes true friends not think twice consoling you at 2am. Generally, anything worthwhile is going to require a lot of effort/energy, resources and time.
Note, that the examples I used above were all immediate to you – family and friends. This is because – well, firstly, most of the time this is enough for most people to worry about, but – I find that most problems start when we try to extend ourselves out too far and/or too much. It’s not like its always easy determining what we can and cannot handle – that’s why we strive, isn’t it? – and we have both individual problems and societal level concerns which interest us and we want to do something about. I’m not asking you to denigrate your own problems, but larger issues can help to provide perspective on life. Having said that, your fridge/freezer breaking is more immediately and significantly impacting your day-to-day life than say the current Russian-Ukraine war. Tending to your autistic brother takes precedence over your concern of deforestation in the Amazon or plastics in the ocean.
It's a difficult balancing act, especially now with the expectations to be onboard with more and more causes these days and we leave ourselves potentially vulnerable to opportunists, as we can’t be expected to be knowledgeable on every current issue (or non-issue), and people are happy to use that against us and/or push their agenda. This is generally why we have democratically elected representatives called politicians who are there to take care of local, state, national and international issues while the rest of us focus on our families and friends and keeping the economy, uh, the society going. Teamed together with experts in specified fields and industries, we entrust them to take action in the population’s best interest. This doesn’t mean we should outsource our responsibility (as informed citizens) entirely to these people. Much like a healthy human being, a healthy society is only achieved when its citizens tend to its growth and wellbeing, or as Plato put it, “the city is like the man.”
“Ideally, we want to clean up our room, keep our house in order AND care for the world. A noble aim even if we don’t reach such lofty ideals.”
Humanity has always been in a state of change – that’s how it prevents itself from becoming stagnant and dying, by continually updating itself. The rate of change is where the problem lies and what needs to be decided and controlled. Change can be overwhelming and exhausting – we all know this, for example, when we try to implement alterations in diet or exercise or our thought patterns.
The rate of change is what can derange us and make it difficult to understand and remember what it is to be human beings. Modernity wonders over productivity, comfort and connection. It's not that progress is inherently bad – the benefit of progress is often tremendous, but it almost always comes with important unintended consequences. Hyper-novelty is the out of control process by which acceleration of change outstrips the capacity to adapt.
I’ll bring it all back to you – there’s only so much care that you have to share around (and not everyone nor everything is deserving of it). Now, your level and capabilities of care can be improved upon, but we all have varying capacities and abilities to do so thanks to a multitude of biological and social factors. However, even the most giving and caring person has a point where self-preservation kicks in (although this is not always the case due to things like self-destructive behaviours, but that’s not the topic of discussion). At some point most people will stop and put their hand up or as the great philosopher Shannon Noll would say, “What about me? It isn’t fair. I’ve had enough now I want my share.”
When we are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted we need to tend to ourselves and then work outwards from there when we’re ready…and remember, caring is not a competition.