Who cares?

A few years ago, I was coordinating community recreation groups for adults with an Acquired Brain Injury. One of the participants, I’ll call him Bill (not his real name), had a wonderful way of shrugging his shoulders whenever something went wrong (which was quite frequently) and saying with a philosophical smile, ‘Who cares?’

I told myself that I could really learn from Bill. Because most of the time, he was quite right – who cared if something hadn’t quite worked out? You simply did your best to fix it and moved on. While it’s good to be conscientious, it’s certainly easy to over-exaggerate the importance of getting stressed over every minor hiccup. It might make us look and feel caring, but what is the right balance between being a caring person, and bringing a sense of equanimity into our lives?

In the helping professions, it’s well known that those who are most caring are also most likely to burn out. Yet for the people they’re working with, the simple sense of feeling ‘cared about’ (’I’m not just a number to this person.’) can be enormously healing. Most of us are helpers – whether we work in a helping profession, coach our son’s basketball team, take our elderly parents to the doctor, or volunteer for a good cause. It can give us a real buzz to feel we’re making a positive difference, but it’s also easy to exhaust ourselves in the process. And while there are certainly people who seem completely self-centered and don’t care much at all, many of us have the opposite problem of caring too much, and often feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world we want to heal.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about for work, I might have lunch in a café. I’m entitled to a lunch break, so it’s a perfectly legitimate break, and yet I’ve noticed that I feel I should be slightly anxious during lunch, as if I’m about to rush back to work, being a busy little worker bee. Of course this makes no sense. One day I suddenly realised – who cares what my state of mind is while I have lunch? The reality is, no one cares at all. The whole world is completely indifferent to whether I eat my lunch quickly, with a serious look on my face, or whether I enjoy the break and the different surroundings and make the most of the experience. And of course I’m more likely to be effective at work in the afternoon if I’ve allowed myself a relaxing lunch break.

So, who cares? Perhaps those of us who tend to be at the over-caring end of the spectrum can all learn from Bill. I still picture him from time to time, with his philosophical shrug, and the way he reminded us,

‘Who cares?’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one day where you will pause from time to time and ask yourself, ‘who cares’? Where are you, in that moment, on the spectrum of over-caring vs indifference? What would a happy, balanced amount of caring look like in this situation?

Anja Tanhane

Catching the news

It’s evening, I’m sitting on the couch, and my cat is fast asleep on my lap. While I’ve been rushing about all over the place, she has spent most of the day dozing on the chair. Not that her life is completely free of stress – a new cat called Boots has moved into the house behind us, and Tashi is not happy. She’s often perched at the back gate, anxiously glaring underneath for signs of Boots. Still, she is relaxed now, and she has no idea of what’s been happening in the houses further down the street, let alone the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, I also want to relax, but it’s not easy to let go of the of the images and stories happening around the world. I don’t want to live in a Pollyanna bubble of willful ignorance, but so many of the stories currently making the news are truly upsetting. Tashi has no idea what’s happening in the Middle East, Nigeria and so on, and her life does seem better for it.

Mindfulness is about awareness, noticing the effects of something on our lives. It is also about making choices. For many of us, it’s finding the balance between being over-invested in every tragedy we hear about, and being apathetic and uncaring.

In the helping professions, it’s well known that the people who are most empathic and caring are the most vulnerable to burn-out and compassion fatigue. Workers can also suffer from vicarious trauma, where they start to experience some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety of the clients they’re working with. The key is finding a way of maintaining the positive qualities of caring and empathy, while also looking after ourselves. And looking after ourselves might mean set times away from thinking about other people’s problems – the problems of the people we’re working with, or of people in other parts of the world.

I find it helpful to make conscious choices about how and when I consume the news. This is not always easy, as the novelty-seeking part of the brain loves to quickly click onto the online news or listen to the radio, just to see what’s happening. And what if there’s some really important story developing that I should know about? Perhaps there’s a gunman loose in my neighbourhood, and I need to stay inside and lock the doors and pull down the blinds – which could happen, though it’s unlikely…

Staying informed is important, but there is a cost. We are so used to being bombarded with news, it’s easy to forget that every terrible story we hear has an impact on us, especially if we’re someone who feels for other people. Making conscious choices about our exposure to this might help us reduce some of our anxiety and worry.

Weekly practice idea:

Look at your pattern of consuming the news. How much conscious awareness do you bring to this process? Could you experiment with changing some of your patterns and noticing if this makes a difference for you?

Anja Tanhane