BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

What Does It Mean to Care?

Delivered by the Rev. Daniel S. Schatz, February 2, 2003

Jews in the middle ages used to tell the story of a rabbi who asked God about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,” said God, who took the rabbi to a room with a huge and delicious smelling cauldron of soup. Surrounding the cauldron were people weak and famished. They held spoons long enough to reach the soup, but too long to get it into their mouths. “Now,” said God, “I will show you Heaven,” and the rabbi was brought to another, identical room where the people held identical spoons and were joyously feasting on soup. “It’s simple,” said God, “You see, they have learned to feed one another.”

I always loved this Jewish story, seeing it as a sign of a caring religious community. We feed one another spiritually, and with our caring committee, we sometimes feed one another physically as well. But as I have grown in ministry and spent more time with people who care and people in need of care, I have come to realize that feeding one another can be complicated. It is not always easy to determine what another person needs, and when we can, it is not always possible to answer that need adequately. So with the reflection of a little experience I find myself turning from the simple and obviously answered question, “Should we care for one another,” and perhaps even beyond the more complicated “how should we care for one another” into the basic realm of meaning. What does it mean to care? If we can answer this question, I think, we will find ourselves with at the very least some direction for the other two.

What does it mean to care?

It seems an ordinary enough word – here we even have a committee for it, though somehow I think we all mean more by care than “casserole,” although a meal or a ride could go far. We come to ministers or to Pastoral Associates for “pastoral care.” Hospitals have levels of care – intensive care, critical care – expressions with a sense of urgency. We care about problems in the world, whether it is the plight of the homeless or the struggle for equal rights that tugs at our hearts. If we aren’t interested in something, “we don’t care,” and if we make a silly mistake we may describe ourselves as “careless.” So care, at the very least, demands attention. There are different kinds of attention we might give. Some things and people we care about – and those are important to us. Others we care for, which sometimes implies a responsibility beyond caring about. I care about my friends’ new babies; their mothers and fathers care for them, whatever wee hour of the night it may happen to be.

In either case, care, again, demands our attention. But does care demand solution?

Any true expression of care, I think, offers presence of some kind, though it may be no more than a greeting card. There are more demands on our attention than we can ever deal with. We cannot, as much as we would wish, meet every need, nor should we. There are times when we must measure the attention we give – not our care, but our expression of that care – not by another’s need, but by our ability to give. To do otherwise would be to hold another up at the expense of our own selves. It may also be to hold another in a place or emotional state that is unsustainable.

The songwriter David Wilcox writes of a relationship with someone whose cup that holds love has a hole in it – there is nothing that will ever fill it completely. “As soon as I fill you with all I’ve got that little break will let it run right out. I cannot make you happy.” He acknowledges that all of us have that experience sometimes, “there’s a break in the cup that holds love inside us all.” We cannot make each other happy. Wilcox says that we sometimes need to go to the waterfall– to God, perhaps, if you believe in God, or to whatever it is that reconnects us with the sacred. If in our expressions of care for other people we begin to become burned out, it may be time to set limits, let go, and to seek ways to give care to ourselves.

Henri Nouwen observes that the word “care” grew out of the Gothic “kara” or “lament.” “To grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with.” “I am very struck by the background of the word care,” he wrote, “because we tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward the powerless, of the haves toward the have-nots. And, in fact, we feel quite uncomfortable with an invitation to enter into someone’s pain before doing something about it.”

What do you do with a problem? Well, you solve it! It’s natural; it’s a human response – if we see suffering, we want to end that suffering. Sometimes that’s exactly the right way to express care – someone is starving? Give them food! Someone is cold? Find them housing! These are good expressions of care, but they should not be mistaken for care itself. They are the expressions of something deeper.

I think of Dom Helder Camara, the Catholic bishop who saw the tremendous poverty in his native Brazil and acted to alleviate the people’s suffering. After years of giving food to the hungry, he realized that these efforts, while important, were not enough. They relieved burdens of conscience for the rich, and met the need of people who cared about the poor, but they did little to change the system that kept people in poverty. As he began increasingly to care for the poor, he started questioning openly those governmental policies that favored the wealthy at the expense of the destitute. Years later, he commented, “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

When the expression of care – a solution to a problem, perhaps – becomes confused with care itself, the waters become muddy. A well-meaning and well to do philanthropist sees a person on the street who is hungry and cold, brings this person home, and gives food and a bed. But then what? A check? Maybe that won’t solve the deeper problems. A job? Perhaps the job offered is not what the homeless person needed. After awhile, the care may become more oppressive than helpful; it may become controlling, and the question may honestly be asked – who is this for? Is this for the benefit of the sufferer or for the benefit of the benefactor? When does an adult have the right to make their own decisions, even if they aren’t always good decisions? Make no mistake – there are times when solving a problem is exactly the right thing to do – but even then a cure is not by itself care.

Nouwen continues: “Cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators, and prevents a real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden.”

The root of genuine care is not in power and control, but in lamentation and grief. The root of care is not in eliminating tears but in joining them. Our care for another person is based only partially in the needs of that person – care is our own need answering the cry of someone hurting or in need of companionship. Again, Nouwen: “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment 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.”

The truest gift is not to fix anything but to acknowledge the depth and reality of human experience.

When we recognize that our care is our own feeling, our own need, we may then become better able to express that care in ways that touch other people. Ironically, it is when we acknowledge our own powerlessness that we become empowered.

I recall a pastoral visit I once made with a man who had committed a terrible crime. Because of the nature of this visit I will change the details. I was the chaplain intern on his unit in the hospital, and I was called to his bedside, because he was convinced he was going to Hell. He had good reason to believe it; he had killed his brother.

His crime wasn’t as cut and dry as it may seem; he was severely mentally ill, and after many years in jail, the evidence finally showed that he had been quite insane; he could not be held responsible for obeying the voices that had told him to commit murder. His was one of the extremely rare cases of mental illness turned horribly violent.

And now he was obsessed with Hell. “God’s gonna punish me,” he told me, with the surety that comes from the vivid descriptions of Hell we have all heard too often. It was no use to speak with him about his mental illness, or lack of responsibility for his crime. He knew what he had done, and there was no way around that anguish. It didn’t do any good to talk with him about the other parts of Christianity, the good news, God’s grace and forgiveness. It did no good whatsoever to talk with him about love. He had never known love. The word “love” for him meant prison rape. I spoke with him for forty minutes – nothing.

Finally I gave up – and when I dropped my guard and my knowledge and all my training I became real for the first time. I looked at him and I said, “You’ve had a rotten life.”

“Yeah.” he said.

“And it stinks.”

“Yeah, it does,” he said, and that was when I reached him. Nothing was changed; he still believed he was going to Hell; there was nothing I could do to change that – but he had been listened to and heard. I could tell, because as I became real, so did he – our eyes met, and he knew on some level, through some accident of persistence, that someone had heard his story and cared enough to admit the truth he lived with in every moment. The grace of genuine human presence made a difference for him that no profession of divine love could equal.

That was enough. When we reach with our care to walk alongside somebody else, we have expressed that care in the deepest way I know. The relationships of power melt away and we are not taking care, we are giving it. Simone Weil writes of the coexistence of “compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted.”

Any true expression of care respects that dignity – the dignity both of the afflicted and the affliction. And in that giving of respect in our care, we also give hope.

“And I’ll bring you hope,” we sang today, “when hope is hard to find, and I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

When Caroline McDade made that song, she wasn’t very happy with it. “I never liked this song,” she said. “I felt there was no sense of justice to it, nothing that could change the world.” But then she volunteered her services to give a concert for prisoners in the state jail, and of all the songs she sang that day, that was the song with the powerful effect. Its simple invitation to sing, to walk, to dream, to share brought tears to the eyes of the roughest human beings she had ever encountered. “I never again forgot the importance,” she said, “of bringing somebody hope when hope is hard to find.”

That’s what care is. It’s presence, respect, an invitation to openness. Often it’s resisting that temptation to tell people what they should do, even when we are sure we know the right answers, or to take over the life of someone who has made a mistake or who has suffered from the mistakes of others. To care means to cry out with, whether in anguish or in joy, to put ourselves right beside another human being, hold their hand, and tell them, “I am here with you. I believe in you. I will walk with you through this valley.” It is an inconstant kind of presence, I admit, but one no less meaningful because of it. When our care is genuine, it will allow space, even as a part of our spirit remains with another.

Communities care. We care for each other, we care at least about and hopefully for the world beyond our borders, and we care for our community. That means journeying with one another, being open to problems that are not always solved, listening to one another and acknowledging the reality of experience from which we voice our expectations, concerns, sorrows, celebrations, stories. It means respecting the dignity of affliction and the dignity of humanity. It means bringing hope when hope is hard to find.

I think back to the soup of Heaven and Hell. The rabbi saw that when the people learned to feed one another, they were lifted to heaven, but the parable never tells us what was in that cauldron, what kind of soup it was that could make such a difference. It wasn’t the soup that did it; they didn’t need that soup. What made the difference was the humanity expressed in the tender act of two people reaching into a cauldron and lifting their spoons to one another’s mouths. “You see. They have learned to feed one another.”

It really doesn’t take that much. A gentle word here, a smile there, a conversation, a visit, a kindness. We may never see how much of a difference we are making, but I tell you, it is that care that is the difference between Heaven and Hell. It is that care which lifts us from isolation to hope. It is that care which brings us once again into the communion of the divine.

We live and move in a covenant of care.
Now I am yours and you also are mine.
Go in peace.


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