The Absence of Care

care

I have had lots of time to think about what’s happening out there in the world as I am pretty much housebound for a few more weeks until my new knee tells me it’s OK to get behind the wheel. The political campaigns have captured much of the news, along with extreme weather and extremist terror events. Both the Republican and the Democratic races are full of negative name-calling and widely diverse policies. The Republicans, in general, are being characterized as appealing to an angry and disenchanted with government electorate. I see a very different dichotomy between the two parties that seems to capture their central philosophies more clearly. One party cares about caring; the other does not. I do not have to tell you which is which.

I am quite stunned by how comprehensively this feature encompasses the main arguments being made. One talks about a wall and the exclusion of many people already living within our borders and contributing to our general welfare from the economy and the ballot box. The needs of many that have been left out by the exclusionary policies of the past are generally being ignored. Access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill people, the antithesis of caring, is a central feature.

On the other side, we hear about inclusionary policies that would make it easier for workers to care for themselves. The point of this blog post is not to do a point-by-point comparison of the two opposing party’s rhetoric and promises. I want to focus on the theme of care. I, as I so often do, will draw heavily from a couple of oped pieces in the 1/10/2016 “New York Times Sunday Review.” While not appearing to have much to do with one another, I will argue that they are intimately linked. The first is a piece, “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” about how we Americans think more free time will bring more happiness, by Christobal Young. Young argues that this sense is incorrect.

AMERICANS work some of the longest hours in the Western world, and many struggle to achieve a healthy balance between work and life. As a result, there is an understandable tendency to assume that the problem we face is one of quantity: We simply do not have enough free time. “If I could just get a few more hours off work each week,” you might think, “I would be happier.”

This may be true. But the situation, I believe, is more complicated than that. As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination (emphasis in the original). Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.

I’ll return to this in a few minutes, but, first, the second article, another oped piece. This one was by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Heritage Foundation, titled, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.” Brooks argues that thinking about one’s mortality leads to a better life.

WANT a better 2016? Try thinking more about your impending demise.

Years ago on a visit to Thailand, I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks often contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself recommended corpse meditation. “This body, too,” students were taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”

Paradoxically, this meditation on death is intended as a key to better living. It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and existential goals. In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”

I will excuse you if you do not immediately see a connection between these two articles, but will try to convince you that there is an important link. That link is care. Brooks tells us that we should live as if this year was going to be our last, spending more time on activities that are meaningful to us. Just saying no to time wasting activities is not enough. He writes, “The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.” In my own words, I interpret Brooks as saying, when you face the inevitability of your ultimate death, you will start doing more of the things you care about. He quotes work by Daniel Kahneman showing people misallocate their time, spending less on activities that deem truly satisfying than on things like watching television.

While Brooks got his inspiration from Buddhist monks, there are sources right here in our Western tradition that make the same argument. Using the philosophical language of Heidegger and others, Brooks is pointing to authentic behavior, as opposed to inauthentic. Heidegger argues that one, upon facing the finiteness of life, can begin to exist in an authentic, caring mode, making choices coming from inside. Otherwise, inauthentic behavior conforms to social norms, doing whatever, “They say is the right thing to do,” like watching the tube. Caring comprises those activities that provide existential meaning to life, that is, that make you aware of your humanness.

The connection to the other article comes through the word, coordination. The key is in this phrase, “[I]t’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones.” Again, what is being discussed is authentic, caring activities. Caring is always aligned between what we sense is needed over there and what we, then, intend to do about it. I think this article is too dismissive of work as unsatisfying, seeking satisfaction only in free time. These categories are arbitrary. An alien, looking at a society could not say what was work and what was free time.

If there is a solution to the lack of coordination that Young writes about, it is not, as he says, in simply expanding the non-working hours. New caring institutions must be established where people can enter in authentic activities interacting with themselves, others, and with the world. I have presented such a categorization of care in my books and on this blog. The metrics being used by the sources for these articles tend to focus on satisfaction as an instantaneous sense of well-being, as in “I felt good just after I did X.” One does X because one feels good doing it, but existential well-being, or flourishing, as I call it, is not some such fleeting activity or assessment. Authenticity and caring leave a rooted sense of satisfaction in place, along with a sense that this feeling must be sustained by continuing to enter into caring actions.

Young implies that today’s workplace does not offer much, if any, possibility for authentic action. Work for almost everybody means conforming to a set of rules and norms, designed to produce whatever the organization is supposed to produce. But there is one way to find authentic satisfaction in work. If you see work as a means to provide the wherewithal to take care of whatever is meaningful in your life, its rule-bound nature can be better accepted. Also the workplace can be seen as a source of caring toward other workers and even the work itself, if viewed as enabling the customers to care/

I recognize that this is not the picture of the typical company anywhere in the world. Workers are generally highly dissatisfied all over the globe. Marx observed this in his studies of capitalism, but there is no fundamental barriers to creating a workspace based on care. That is one of the central messages of the book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, written by a team, including me, at The Weatherhead School of Management. Existential satisfaction shows up as flourishing. It is an expression of human Being, acting out of care. It can occur anyplace, but only if the institutional setting has been created to enable it. Care is always intentional, coming after a connection to someone or something has been established. Care is empathic, focused on the immediate situation of the other.

Writers, like Young and Brooks, have begun to observe what is missing from life in today’s transactional economies, but are too quick to base their analyses on psychological or sociological models. It takes some deeper, more reflective work to discover that the malaise is existential, representing the gap between the diminished, scientistic model of the human species and the real essence of human Being.

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