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.

On having needs and making requests – Part 2

II

On Saturday night as the moon reflected a C-shape across an invisible Y-axis, I stood up from the rooftop and my arm stopped working. I tried to spread my right thumb and it would not move. I shook the arm and it shook listlessly. I went to brush my hand through my hair and the lever from elbow to hand was broken. It felt the way I imagine a person with MS to look: a sorely defeated claw, stressed mechanics, intense concentration, ineffectuality.

Perhaps it would not have been so bad had there not been such pregnant memories of a time before when fingers could touch skin with feeling and grace, when fingertip pushups were as smooth and seamless as a stretching cat, when thumb and forefinger softly squeezed a lip in mid-thought. But memory there was and the thing was bad, it was bad, it was bad, and it was then that the world seemed to fall apart in burdensome moments, to make a deep cut into existence, exposing a beautiful past to a mangled future.

*

The Angst was bad, to be sure, but the experience was good on the whole since it put my wasted arm into the guiding hands of others. The philosopher’s dream of self-sufficiency–my former dream of being beyond transience and the possibility of tragedy–is everywhere refuted by the existence of our bodies. I and my body have needs. How are these to be met?

By philosophical friends with loving hands. By massage, by phone calls, by assurances, by changed voices, by a medical friend’s counsel, by workable hypotheses, by rambling stories, by care and attentiveness and existence. My philosophical life is staked not on the ‘outsourcing’ of my cares but on the entwining of my loves, of one with the other, of each with all. My friends are indebted to me and I so often to them and so my incapacities become springs for their swift actions: for their compassion, courage, and judgment.

By telling the story of our mutual needs in this manner, we do not confront the puzzle of being alone languishing with our needs and inquiring with fear and projected disappointment about who will satisfy, or fail to satisfy, them. Nor do we face the moments of social breakdown when our needs go unsatisfied and our requests are never heard; when an economic transaction stands between rest (hotel) and nighttime, between care (nannying) and our children, between food (supermarket) and our mouths, between relocation (professional movers) and our new homes; when we are dependent on those who may do us harm not out of spite but out of unthinking and unrepentant carelessness.

The shortest possible explanation concerning why our needs have become so fraught is that we have no genuine friends and few loves and most people who have been in our lives have not led lives according to the virtues. Most people have sucked and suck still and doubtless will continue to suck. Most do not act or think on our behalf without any hesitation. Most are not evil but rather moral slobs untrained in the art of care.

But we can learn; we can do better; we needn’t surround ourselves with the bad or indifferent sort. Our pasts needn’t be our futures; the fulfillment of our needs needn’t depend on the whims of superiors or inferiors or indifferents; our lives, which will never transcend human frailty, can go otherwise.

*

My life has. I am writing this post with two good hands undoubtedly because of a small group of close philosophical friends. I am enjoying, more than usual, feeling my right thumb do all the wondrous things that thumbs can do. Like write notes of gratitude and hold the reddest cherries on fingertips and laugh.