Give A Damn
“What do the words ‘I care’ mean to you?” our professor asked us, then added, “And what does ‘I need care, mean?” These weren’t rhetorical questions, even though she continued with her lecture. They are deep and meaningful and meant for us to reflect upon.
Of course, being the flippant smart ass that I am, my immediate thought was “To give a damn.” When I say “I care,” I mean that “I give a damn.” But what does that mean? Normally, I might start with a meaningless cognitive exercise into the definitions of the various words, the cultural root of the phrase, or the necessity of humor and pragmatism in any caring relationship. For whatever reason, this time I paused to ask myself “How do I feel about that?” instead of “What do I think about it?” And what I feel is something deep and also a little scaring.
Think about it for a minute. When do we curse most? When things get rough, when life sucks, when this is gonna hurt. And that’s what I feel about caring. This is gonna hurt, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Why? Because I give a damn. Because I have to give a damn. Because not giving a damn is gonna hurt a helluva lot more in the long run.
In Buddhism, we talk about compassion, a word which literally means “to suffer with.” We suffer with others because we are connected to them. Doesn’t matter if you want to call it interdependence or codependent origination or any other such technical jargon. For now, let’s just call it connection. Your suffering is my suffering because we are connected. When I tell myself I don’t give a damn, I’m trying to cut that connection. But you might as well try to catch Niagara Falls in a teacup. I can avoid and deny, but the connection continues on despite my best efforts. Your suffering continues to reach me and my suffering is magnified because avoidance and denial themselves create more suffering. This suffering is caused by desire – the desire that the world should be other than the way it is: connected.
When I give a damn, when I brace myself for the flood and stand with you, I am acknowledging the world as it is, not merely connected, but also full of suffering. It’s only then that we can begin to work with that suffering, our own and that of others. Although, sometimes “work” is too active a word. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about the suffering other than to be with it. Being with it without adding to it is the hardest thing of all.
Our professor went on. Care is about more than our motivation, she told us. We can have the best intentions in all the world. The only successful care, is that which is perceived as care by the person in need. There need not only be a motivation of goodwill on our part, but also a perception of genuine goodwill on theirs.
What do I mean when I say “I need care?” That’s a tough one, because often I require care in the form of solitude. When I need care, I need you to go away because your very presence saps my energy even when you don’t mean it to. So I understand that care involves a relationship between two people. Care is not something we do to another person. Care is something another person receives from us – and defines for us. Sometimes even I need presence though, someone to talk to, who will listen and try to understand, who’ll be with me. I need you to give a damn. And I’m sorry if that hurts you. My misery doesn’t love company, but sometimes it needs it if its going to get any less miserable.
We all have that connection. Sometimes, we just need to see it work, tangibly, when times are at their worst. To give a damn is to turn towards that connection, to honor and value it and the person who makes it with you, even when its gonna hurt. Because as much as it hurts, it is only through that connection that we have the capacity to heal.