Careful Caring: We can’t always care, so why feel guilty when called uncaring?

Careful Caring: We can’t always care, so why feel guilty when called uncaring?

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“Don’t say I don’t care. I do care.”

Like many words, care means different kinds of things. It has its descriptive meaning–its denotation: Caring is a certain kind of behavior. But it also has its prescriptive meaning–its connotation: Caring is good. You should care. Being uncaring is bad.

Combining denotation and connotation you get a rule: if caring , then good ; if uncaring , then bad . Someone who calls you uncaring speaks with the authority of simple description–but smuggled into the description is an accusation that can make you feel guilty.

When you stop to think about the implied rule that caring is always good, it’s obviously absurd. If caring is always good, you should never stop caring about anything and anyone. You should always care about everything and everyone.

Since that’s impossible, we bend either the word’s denotation or its connotation. That is, we redefine caring behavior (“I do care; I just don’t feel like being with or helping you”), or we challenge the assumption that caring is always good (“It’s true, I don’t care anymore; I’ve chosen to move on”). The former is kinder, the latter more honest.

It would be nice if the rule for caring were as simple as always just do it . Realistically, what to care about is about the most important question in your life. And not just your life, but all of life. From evolution to the serenity prayer, it’s all about investing attention and effort in those things that pay off and not in things that don’t. For us humans, that includes caring for people who will care back. Perhaps it also means being careful how we define care, neither accepting nor imposing the absurd rule that caring is always good.