It’s not at all hard to be misanthropic today because it’s plain to see that most human beings don’t care about each other or about other sentient beings all that much, let alone about what Daoists beautifully call the “ten thousand things.” Industrial civilization has ravaged the planet in only 250 years, causing global temperatures to rise, oceans to acidify, fields to be poisoned and salinated, soils to erode, waterways (via careless mining practices) to be polluted, coral reefs to collapse, animal populations to contract, global human populations to explode… One may wonder whether human beings really are homo sapiens or whether they might more truly be regarded as the messy species: the species that makes a mess of things, of their, as well as each other’s, lives, and of the places they dwell and pass through.
It is not at this global, historical level, though, that I wish to discuss our predicament (though what I have to say is very much related to our global fate); it is at the local, everyday level. What I shall term “particularist” or “particular cares” refers to my caring for this person and for this being. It’s here that misanthropy may come to mind because the lack of particularist care is painful to observe.
The bulk of ordinary evidence suggests that most human beings living today aren’t actually embracing particular cares nor are they developing or cultivating such close attachments and intimate bonds. They don’t seem to actually care in some emphatic sense about specific, fleshly other beings.
Make no mistake: to be able to care in this way requires much of each of us. To begin with, it requires right effort: it takes an extraordinarily focused mind, one capable of being diligent, to care for another being. Diligence is not to be confused with enthusiasm or bouts of excitement. No, enthusiasms, excitements, and “fevers” all wear off over time, the other–whether an animal or person or plant–can be no fun to be around on certain occasions, and then the excitable person seems to be left with no reason to persevere in attending to this being. Notice how many people are around after their initial excitement has worn off.
Secondly, particularist forms of caring require paying very, very close attention to another being. It’s not just the case, as it’s commonly said, that many people are distracted today; it’s even truer to say that a whole lot of people are checked out, zoned out, tuned out, are–that is to say–so far from being “awake” that even talk of being present is nowhere close to what it actually means to be present. Paying very close attention to this person or that animal, being very observant of how she moves, what words she uses to express herself, how she carries herself, what ticks she has, how this animal feels about itself, how this plant responds to nurturance involves mindfulness of a tall order as well as right diligence. What is noticeable instead is a profound zoning out, a checking out of life just at a time when we need people to be bright, vivid, and bound to one another. Leaning in is just a start.
Thirdly, the sort of caring I have in mind requires imagination plus deduction-drawing. One needs to image what this being’s life is like as well as tease out things, moving from the said to the unsaid. Based on what I’ve seen, how does this ant actually live? Is this slug, which I just found curled up on a dandelion leaf, suffering? Can that be gleaned from its movements? What is actually going on in the life of my friend whose absence I can feel strongly? Much of it is a sort of cobbling-together guesswork–hence the deduction-drawing. We need to piece the unvocalized, unenunciated, and unsaid together with what has been said and done.
Fourthly, we need to be curious in order to engage in particularist cares. We should want to deeply ask, “By golly, what makes this person tick?” And we should put aside all pet theories and simple explanations. To be curious is to believe that this person or this creature, in this way like all the other ten thousand things, is a mystery, plainly. Boy is she a mystery; I can’t immediately make her out; just when I thought I had put my finger on something and pinned something down, she went and did something unexpected. Huh, what to make of that?
These are only four of the conditions–right diligence, attention, imagination and deduction-drawing, and curiosity–that make possible particularistic forms of caring. I would bet that there are more, and I would place a second bet on all these being intimately intertwined.
You have to ask yourself, “How many people are really putting in the effort with others in their lives? How many are genuinely paying close attention? How many are imaginative and curious?” What I observe is–to put all these together–a kind of thoughtlessness that entails particularist carelessness. One can feel the pain of David Foster Wallace, especially the kind voiced, however humorously, in his Kenyon College graduation speech.
Let’s conclude by sketching a picture of the caring person. Well, it’s easier to tell when one is in the presence of someone who actually cares about actual persons than it is to say exactly what that is, but let me try anyway. Caring is (a) genuinely a way of perceiving the whole of that person or as much of that person as one can perceived (it is, after all, an ongoing process) and (b) speaking or acting in such a way as to manifest that whole perception. The caring person has a knack for seeing about or in another person what he or she cares about and quite possibly has never spoken about; for recognizing, again in ways that often go unsaid, what her vulnerabilities are, vulnerabilities she herself may not be aware of; for going one, two, three steps further in seeing into how another being actually lives; for, of course, being there when the chips are down or when that being most needs another–namely, you. The caring person is not looking around to find someone else to fill in for him. Rather, he wants unselfishly to be the one other beings can count on just because they need it.
It doesn’t take any great education to care for another person except, beautifully, the sort of broader education of the heart. Deeply sadly, it’s hard to find many people who fit this description today, who act from the heart, but the heart may in the end be just what saves us from misanthropy. The caring person, being rare and refreshing, may be what redeems humankind from its messy thoughtless carelessness. May it be so.