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Be Brave Enough to Care

November 20, 2013

I am convinced that if people just took care of one another, the world would be a better place. I am convinced that we don’t take very good care of each other because we are afraid. I am convinced that only by taking care and being taken care of can we find our way free from fear. And I am convinced that only freedom from fear will allow us to take care of each other the best way we can, the way that will empower everyone to make the world better. The world can’t be better for any of us unless it’s better for all of us, because when one person has reason to fear, he or she will instill fear in others. Nevertheless, making the world better by taking care of just one person makes it better for everyone, because then he or she will have less reason to do harm and more reason to care for others.

Take Care. Photo by galinh via Flickr.com

Take Care. Photo by galinh via Flickr.com

About Care

Care comes from an intention of goodwill. In Buddhism this is called metta, which is often translated as loving-kindness. However, it is not care if it remains merely an intention. It must be active in our relationships with the world, active through compassion (karuna, sharing suffering) and sympathetic joy (mudita, sharing happiness). Care is a twofold relationship. One person gives care through her words or deeds. Another person receives care through his recognition of the caring act.

Of course, we can also give care to ourselves. We must give care to ourselves not merely as a means of making ourselves able to care for others, but because we too are intrinsically worthy of care. All beings, ourselves included, experience suffering (dukkha), seek freedom from suffering (nibbana), and possess buddhanature. We must recognize our worthiness and, further, our basic need for care and then find ways to take care of ourselves and allow others to take care of us.

Whether it involves one person, two, or a thousand, there must be the intention to give care (metta), the act of caring, and the recognition of the caring act to be truly effective. This is skillful (upaya, or kusala meaning wholesome) care built upon wisdom (panna). Sometimes care may take a harsh form, such as cutting an addict off from his drug or putting a person in prison to prevent her from harming others, and the receiver will not recognize the act as care. It is no less care, but it is less effective than it could have been. When we learn to recognize care given to us, then we can learn to care for others.

When we take care of others we must do what is in their best interest and we must do it in a way that they can recognize as care. Of course, we will fail at both the first and the second task. This is why it is important to have equanimity (upekkha), so survive the ups and downs of our struggle, when all the goodwill in the world isn’t quite enough. But if we do not try, then we can never take care of anyone and no one (maybe not even ourselves) will ever take care of us.

About Fear

That is what we fear: that no one will take care of us. We fear the failure and we fear that it will make us incapable of being in true relationship with others. We fear a loss of or lack of connection.

People respond to threat in different ways – some with anger, some with hatred, some with avoidance (all forms of dosa) – but all reactions to threat are based in fear (also dosa, aversion). We feel threatened when we are not able, or feel we may not be as able, to take care of ourselves and the people we love. Sometimes this threat is real. Billions of people face threats of starvation, personal violence, and repression each day, even in so-called developed nations. However, even where these threats have largely been eliminated, we still perceive threats and respond with fear. Our brain is wired this way for our survival. It is not something we can turn off just with wishing. No matter how safe our lives become, we are still bound by our evolutionary karma.

If we cannot turn off the fear, we can be curious about it and put that same brain to work on it. We can make it an object of mindfulness (sati). Where does it come from? How does it work? What does it do? Fear loses some of its power in the face of questions. Eventually, through the cultivation in insight (panna), we can relinquish fear, as well as greed (lobha) and delusion (moha). I believe that fear, most of all, interferes with our ability to care.

When we are curious, I think that we will most often find that we fear a loss of connection, which can also be a loss of self. We wish to remain connected to the people, places, and things we love for our entire lives. We wish to remain connected to a self we can easily identify and constantly reify. Of course, this cannot happen. We will be separated from the people, places, and things we love by change or death (anicca, impermanence) and we ourselves are a constantly changing constellation of aggregates with no fixed identity (anatta, non-self).

We want to spend our time and energy caring for these connections, for this self. They have to be continuously maintained and shored up in the face of inexorable change (anicca). We are afraid of what will happen if they are lost (anatta), so anything that threatens our ability to care for them – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or socially – is cause for extreme reaction – anger, hate, fear, aversion (dosa). These are all words for the outward variations of the same deep response. I name that thing fear, because that is my strongest manifestation and it is a response to threat, but I am comfortable if some name it otherwise.

A Better World

When we can start to be brave in the face of our fear, to step out of our worries of how we will care for ourselves and our connections (without actually ceasing to take care), then we can start to build better lives and better relationships. Fear actually hinders connection. It builds walls and barriers for defense, but also for disconnection. Freedom from fear is the freedom to find unlimited connection. More connections help us make a better world.

Better means a world with less suffering (dukkha), a world with more peace, happiness, contentment, wisdom, and equanimity. A better world is one where fewer people are paralyzed into inaction or provoked into harmful actions by fear. A better world is one where more people can be brave enough to take care of one another, to make new connections without the fear of losing old ones. When we take care of one another, we mitigate fear and amplify bravery.

Eventually, when everyone takes care of each other as easily as breathing, then I think we will be able to live in a world that no longer needs bravery because it will no longer have fear. I believe it is possible to live in that world even now (nibbana), though I’m not yet sure quite how to get there. I am convinced I can get there, though, and so can you.

I am convinced of these things. I have watched and tested and waited for a long time to say so because for so long I was not sure and for longer than that I did not have the words. Now I am sure and I have the words.

Take care of each other. Do good and be good. Be brave in the face of fear so that others can be brave. This will make the world a better place. It will make all of us better people, too.

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