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Caring is complicated. Which means parenting is complicated. And friendship is complicated. And working in care-giving jobs is complicated. What should my care look like? How much do I care? Is there such a thing as caring too much? What if I don’t care enough? What’s the difference between caring for someone and caring about them? Is self-care selfish?
In his book, Out of Solitude, Henri Nouwen has a chapter titled, “Care,” where he points out the origin of the word in the Gothic word, Kara. Kara means to grieve or experience sorrow. Nouwen invites us to think about caring as being with someone in their pain and bearing witness to their sorrow or need.
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares. (p. 34)
Nouwen concedes that this definition of caring runs counter to how we normally think of it: “as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward the powerless, of the have’s toward the have-not’s.”
I admit that I often think of the call to care as this kind of call… to give what I Have to those who Do Not Have, to care tangibly with acts of service for those who are “less fortunate.” If someone is thirsty and I have water… to give them something to drink. If someone is hungry and I have food… to give them something to eat. If someone is naked and I have clothes… to give them something to wear. If someone has a problem and I have a solution… to fix it.
Most of us prefer to be the ones who Have caring for those who Have-Not. Working in long term care, I observe time and again how difficult it is for new residents to shift into the posture of receiving care when they have spent their lives giving it.
Now certainly there is nothing wrong with giving to those who need what we have, but in order to do this (and any kind of caring) well, we need to cultivate an attitude of humility. Susan Cain, in her book Bittersweet, explores the work of several social scientists who are teaching us about the relationship between compassion, ethics, power, and money.
We know from various studies that attitudes of superiority prevent us from reacting to others’ sadness—and even to our own… Amazingly, high-ranking people (including those artificially given high status, in a lab setting) are more likely to ignore pedestrians and to cut off other drivers, and are less helpful to their colleagues and to others in need. They’re less likely to experience physical and emotional pain when holding their own hands under scalding water, when excluded from a game, or when witnessing the suffering of others. They’re even more likely to take more than their fair share of candy handed out by the lab staff! (p. 21)
An attitude of superiority (which I think only gets fed by thinking of ‘care’ primarily as giving to ‘those less fortunate’) disconnects us from others and their true need—their true pain. Thinking of oneself too highly disables us from caring at all, or (and perhaps this is worse) convince us that we’re caring well as we dispense the advice and the cures and the help we assume that the Less Fortunate need.
An attitude of humility, on the other hand, has the potential to connect us to the pain of others and to our own pain in ways that are healing and life-giving. As Father Gregory Boyle reminds us, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to others but in our willingness to see ourselves connected to them.”
I was a stranger and you invited me in.
I was sick and you looked after me.
I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Spending time with another, looking after them, visiting them (with a humble attitude of solidarity)—this is the caring that shares pain and touches wounds with a gentle and tender hand. This is the caring that holds space in the face of difficult realities, despair and confusion.
I have been trying to remember this in my caregiving roles.
A university student tells me the story of her father’s sudden death a couple of weeks ago. Heidi, you cannot fix this. Sit with her.
A long term care resident is rushed to the hospital and has hours to live. The family asks if I can come. Heidi, you are entering the holiest of spaces. Bear witness.
My daughter is attending a brand new school and is trying to navigate her place in the complex hierarchy of junior high girls. Heidi, you cannot navigate this for her. Hug her.
Isn’t this all just an outworking of the truth of Philippians 2:1-11? We are to be one with each other in spirit, having tender compassion for one another and valuing the interests of others. After all, Jesus himself came to be with us – to take on our nature – even to the place of death. He was there with us. He is there with us. He cares for us.
I just learned that the German word for “Good Friday” is Karfreitag.
Care Friday. Kara Friday: the day when Jesus shared our pain and touched our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. Jesus shared our pain to the point of taking it upon himself. And by his wounds, we are healed in the most important and eternal ways.
May we care for others with that Care that we have received from Jesus.