When should you stop caring?
Have you ever been made to feel like you care too much? Have you whittled down your caring over time so that it amounts to less? Have you allowed it to erode in the face of business, routine, habit, contentment? Does the caring cancel out the ease and joy?
In medicine, ‘futile care’ refers to procedures and treatments provided that have no realistic chance of success. Recently a study was performed for the first time on the prevalence of futile care in the veterinary field. More interesting: they also studied the psychological impact of futile care on providers: the techs who perform those procedures on dying animals over and over. Interestingly, in addition to high levels of emotional burnout, they found more than three quarters of vet techs surveyed sympathized with pet owners and felt the futile care was beneficial.
If you define art as a sustained practice of caring, then art may be the most futile care of all. Despite the claims of blurbs and jacket copy and marketing spew, art very rarely saves actual lives, and instead is much more easily tracked as the cause of persecution, exile, and violence from the state. But as with most things, the issue is separating out art from life in the first place. The notion that care and life, art and life, are distinct entities, that one can be directed at the other and not vice versa, is suspect.
There is an acknowledgment among world leaders that people have care fatigue. Recently, Joe Biden met with the three other leaders of “the Quad”: prime minister of Japan Fumio Kishida; Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese; and Narendra Modi, prime minister of India. Ostensibly the reason for the summit was Russia’s war with Ukraine, although almost no mention was made of Russia to allow Modi to save face with Putin. Instead, Biden talked about the “importance of defending international order”.
If international order is ramping up a war machine to further exploit and make sick the workers of the world in the few decades left before climate collapse; if it’s more Black Summers and government-backed violence against Muslims throughout the world and removing de facto citizenship from thousands of Indian Muslims; then international order is thriving in the Quad.
(Biden also said that the recent meeting was about "democracies versus autocracies, and we have to make sure that we deliver". Sometimes you don’t need to look very hard to find the real meaning of what politicians are saying.)
International politics are intentionally made to seem confusing on the world stage, encouraged as we are to parse out the good guys and the bad guys into warring camps. Stagnant wages, skyrocketing costs of food and housing, more frequent natural disasters, creeping authoritarianism that has suddenly seemed to start sprinting. In these terms, caring can seem futile. It could be compared to faith, I suppose, in that it requires another motive beyond empirical results—but I don’t know much about faith. It is a blind spot for me. My life revolves around tracking down bits if information, trying to learn more things, maybe writing them down in my notebooks so that they might show up somewhere else. This in itself is a kind of futile care.
There is a difference between not caring and subduing it. Caring can be subdued, smothered under a layer of distraction, busyness and hostility, but it cannot be turned off. For some, the fact of our constant care is a threat of vulnerability, and the reaction is swift, violent. For others, it’s seen as a wound to be nursed—less ‘I care therefore I am’, and more ‘I care, therefore I hurt’—and is used as an excuse for inaction, throwing one’s hands up.
I’ve been writing this over the course of several weeks. This morning I was early to pick up someone at the airport, and I stopped off at the Airport Cafe, not inside PDX but a mile or so down the road in an unassuming strip mall. The owners were an older Korean couple, and while I ate my french toast and bacon the large TV played an uncut video from Seoul Walker’s YouTube channel. Being an obscure YouTube enthusiast, I’ve watched similar videos before in which the walker strolls through picturesque neighborhoods and parks for an hour or more, modulating their pace and pausing to stare up at unique architectural features, likely looking out of place pacing the streets with a GoPro strapped to their chest. Sometimes they walk at night, or in the rain and snow, and a layer of sound and ambiance further adds to the hypnotic feeling of being unable to look away from the mundane. But this video in the cafe was from a trendy strip with lots of young people and couples getting coffee, holding hands and shopping bags; in the course of a few blocks, dozens if not hundreds of people streamed by, and not a single mouth was seen. Everyone wore a mask, and everyone looked very chic wearing a mask; South Korea has had, in total, 24,000 covid deaths, in a country of 50 million people.
What I’m Reading
Ensō (Entre Rios Books) by artist and poet Shin Yu Pai. This is a delightfully oversized hardcover collection of poems, essays, and a pamphlet of haiku included, much of which revolve around the artist’s projects with language, beauty, and temporality over the years. At times she reflects on visiting the same museum gallery over 20 odd years; other times she documents her attempts to tattoo an entire apple orchard with poetry. Most compelling to me is her urge “to return to the origin, a time before poetry emerged in me, to recover a deeper calling to beauty”. A book replete with meaning and humor and materiality.
Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, is open to submissions in many different genres until September 15.
The Hudson Review is accepting submissions of fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews, and criticism until June 30. Maximum 10,000 words. No submission fee. (If you’re new here, I do not include any opportunities/publications that charge submission fees unless I think there’s a good reason you should still consider it. I’ll always include the amount as well.)