Why do those who care about others so rarely care for themselves?

Here is the puzzle: I have philosophical conversations with those who work in the caring professions, with social entrepreneurs, with lawyers concerned with social justice, and with those who devote their lives to noble causes. These people care quite a lot for others, and many of them are universalists who believe that everyone should be cared for. Yet they are not very good at taking care of themselves. The contradiction is clear: everyone ought to be cared for except that I do not take care of myself. Worse, when they do take care of themselves, then they feel guilty about it. So, either they care for others all of the time and are exhausted, or they care for themselves some of the time and feel guilty.

There are many reasons why this could be the case (such as fear, self-loathing, existential loneliness, a sense of penitence, etc.), but one I would like to underscore in this post is a mistake having to do with the springs of motivation. The implicit premise is that caring for myself is identical with solipsism. And solipsism is something one ought to feel guilty about when it is the case that one succumbs to it. But this view can’t be right. And what also can’t be right is the other implicit claim that caring for others is identical, of necessity, with altruism.

There is not enough space in this post to analyze our various conceptions of selfhood. Let one thought suffice for the time being: if I take time to eat simply, to think clearly, to exercise deliberately, to inquire of myself, to see to my material needs, to rest gently, and so forth, then I am involved in the philosophical project of self-cultivation. But self-cultivation is not identical with solipsism, which is concerned (variously) with vanity, pride, greed, status, the acquisition of wealth, power, and so on.

So, it is possible to care for others in the ways that my conversation partners and philosophical friends do and, in many cases, do well while also taking time to care for their souls in but some of the ways outlined above.

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