It’s bad when your niece IMs you to remind you of your own sister’s birthday.
Especially when the niece in question is just past tweening* and is therefore old enough to bait you with circular discussions (giving you ample opportunity to redeem yourself) before giving up and just telling you what you’ve clearly forgotten.
This is what happened to me the other day. At the time, I double-clicked on the little clock thing at the bottom right of my screen and when the little calendar app sluggishly rendered itself, I thought “Shoot. It really *is* my sister’s birthday. What have I done?! Is this little girl going to go away now thinking that I genuinely don’t give a crap about her Mommy? AGAIN? For like, the UMPTEENTH YEAR IN A ROW?”
It’s clear that would be a terrible outcome, particularly (and these things have a way of doing so) if it somehow impinged on her own sense of self worth, by proxy**.
But not so fast – an outcome like that would equate the remembering of someone’s birthday with caring about them, wouldn’t it? That would be a nonsensical equation indeed. Or is it? It depends on how you define ‘caring about someone’. A lot of people are under the impression that caring about them means wanting to know and remember every intimate detail of their lives, and wanting to be actively involved in everything that happens to them. And when active / direct involvement is not possible, caring shall best be demonstrated by following up immediately with phone calls and emails to demand details of life events (however small or big) that one might have otherwise missed. These are the actions that, we all seem to have agreed, will demonstrate caring.
By this socially-accepted definition of caring, I am a terrible monster.
Really don’t give a -.
Why I don’t “care” is a million dollar question with no satisfying answer. For some reason, when I receive information about your life events, something in my brain decides that the information has no bearing on anything, inspite of the fact that it may be very meaningful to you. I discard the information completely, at run-time. In one ear, out the other. I only listen for patterns or clues or warnings or omens or something with strategic significance. Normally this filtering activity doesn’t matter a jot, because I’m engaged, I’m listening, and – crucially – I empathise.
That is to say I can fully appreciate, and often can feel (vicariously) the pain, tumult, joy, sadness, excitement, suspense and the gamut of emotions your recounted events induce for you. The attendant meanings surrounding each of these parts of your life, as they appear to you, make perfect sense to me, on the occasions that I can witness them with you, or on the occasions that you choose to tell me about them.
The problem comes when I am supposed to *do* something with the information you have imparted; specifically, to demonstrate caring. This is like a personal Voigt-Kampff test that I fail every single time. If, after having disclosed things about yourself to me I am supposed to be able to (for example) know how to shop for you, perchance to actually do so, then we are headed for your disconsolation.
I have recently discovered that I am not alone.
There are whole swathes of people in the general population who have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that other humans are basically hassle-generators on autopilot. This causes them to structure their interactions with other people in such a way that the predominant function is now to reduce hassle, not to interact. The (sometimes) unintended side-effect of this is that these would-be grumps appear to be spectacularly un-caring.
So what is it that causes small groups of humanity to fail so spectacularly to demonstrate caring? Earlier I said that this was a million dollar question with no satisfying answer – satisfying being the operative word. But there’s an answer nevertheless: There are people who genuinely don’t care. This is the most basic reason for being unable to *demonstrate* caring. It’s unsatisfying, right? Yep… I hear ya.
Having observed myself (if that’s even possible to do – I like to think it is) and those who like me have this ‘broken’ faculty, it seems we *are*, on occasion, able to do things for others. But it is never driven by caring, sadly. It is usually driven by a realisation that someone else needs something and we can actually provide it. Moreover, we’d *better* provide it, because something (stability, balance, survival, dignity…) is at stake. What we don’t cope well with is the ad-hoc, expected rites of mutual fawning and self-validation. Another trait I’ve noticed that seems to correlate with this behaviour pattern is a staunch refusal to expect or take things from other people. In short, people like me don’t enjoy the
ties rites that bind people. We selfishly expect to be *around* people, but with all the reciprocal responsibility removed.
Let me tell you something: people DO NOT. LIKE. THAT CRAP. Uh-uh. No sirree bob. You must play the game of reciprocal responsibility in the domain of demonstrated caring. You must. You have to. Whaddaya mean you’re not playing? Who do you think you are?
Empathy is not sympathy
Now that you think I’m a monster, let’s get this straight:
As I said before, I empathise. I feel for you.
And as a direct result of that, I wish only good things for you.
I hope things happen for you that will abate your fears and increase your joy and boost your confidence.
I hope that the anxieties and terrors that can plague a human life don’t find their way into yours.
However this does not necessarily mean that I sympathise with your chosen responses to conditions in your life. Nor does it mean that I care about the details of how the joys are found and the fears are chased away and the memories are resurrected and marked in your life.
Verily, your life – as with all life – is rich and full with detail.
How can I, one human being, mired in the incessant detail of her own life, track, mark, engage and participate in the events of several lives, at a reasonable level of detail? I am in awe of people who can do this. I can’t.
I’m one of those people who fervently hopes you had a fantabulous vacation, when you come back from one. But I really, really don’t give a toss about the photo slideshow afterwords. If I ask you for it, know at once that I am being facetious: I will not store any of the pursuant imagery. It means nothing to me. I was not there. I do not care.
The birthday sis in question is my eldest sib – I was barely adult when she was already changing nappies on her own kiddies; such is the age gap. If you’re reading this G, happy belated berfday! But I know you’re not.
*I think. This is another thing I’m bad at remembering.
**Fear not. My niece is a bundle of happy intelligent awesomeness :o)
Image cred: One of the replicants (androids) from the Blade Runner movie.