Why do we care about the things we care about? Why do some of us care passionately about climate change while others care deeply about the right to bear arms, for example? I wanted to write a blog on the topic. So I put “Write Blog” on my “To-Do List.”
My “To-Do” List is something I initiated years ago when I was overwhelmed by all the things I had to do. At that time I was beginning to appreciate that within the limits of each day I can only direct my attention to so many things, and that within this universe of things I had to be systematic about making priorities if I wasn’t going to go nuts.
The “Things I Have to Do” list may or my not include the things I care about. In fact, in earlier years, there wasn’t room on the list for many of the things I cared about. Now that I’m thinking about it, I could say that my life’s trajectory has been about trying to figure out how to get more of the things I care about on the “To Do” list,“ and more of the things I don’t care about off of it. Speaking mathematically, I’ve strived to attain a ratio of things I care about to “Things I Have to Do” as close as possible to 1. Let’s call this the “Personal Fullfillment Index”(PFI).
I’ve discovered along the way that there are many obstacles to achieving a high PFI. Obstacles can be external and internal. The external ones are obvious- all of life’s demands that seem thrust upon us. Fortunately, by the time I’d put “Things I Care About” on my To-Do list, I had gotten most of the externals under pretty good control. This, I believe, is one of the benefits of making it to the far side of age 65.
But the internal ones are important, too. One of the big internal obstacles to doing the things you care about is not knowing what you care about in the first place. So I decided to do some introspective research, by paying close attention to my own thoughts during a Friday night walk down the streets of my home town, Chicago, hoping this would give me some indication.
It’s with some hesitancy that I report that 90% of these thoughts (approximately) related to the fact that I seemed to be older than most of the people I encountered walking in the other direction. The aspect of “older” that commanded my attention was the difference between the way older people and younger people look due to the effects of time on their bodies. Our bodies. My body. Me.
Not a single thought about climate change, the right to bear arms, or world peace.
So, having arrived at this unexpected place, I found myself face to face with, the discovery that the thing I care about is something I don’t think I should care about. Vanity is for others. And yet- if someone offered me a free facelift or hair transplant, would I refuse? And, most important within the logic of this mini-essay, should I put “Get face-lift” on my “To-Do” List? That is not the me I want to be!
What to do? Do I reach into the bag of tricks that we psychoanalysts call “defense mechanisms” to protect me from this distressing dilemma? I could pretend I didn’t think the thought. I could blame others for coaxing it out of me, or accuse them of what I can’t abide in myself (so many vain and shallow people out there!). I could stop taking walks, Or I could try to distract myself from this close encounter with myself through various addictive behaviors, including searching for some more “Things I have To Do” to place on my list so I don’t have to think about the things I really care about.
And then came the wistful recognition that a facelift and hair transplant won’t make me any younger. Because nothing will. That’s life, and that’s a little bit sad. Ok, more than a little.
This morning, as I stared at my To-Do List,” it seemed to stare right back at me, challenging me to delete or complete item #1, “Write Blog on Things We Care About.” My aspiration to write something grand and universal had led me, unsuspecting into the realm of the small, , mundane, and highly personal aspects of life as a human being . I felt diminished by the realization that the thing I cared most passionately about wasn’t a “thing” at all- it was myself. How embarrassing. And how could I ever finish the blog that was occupying prime real estate on my To-Do List?
And then, like a good deus ex machina, I saw that I had it backwards. None of us are “things”. The small aspects of our lives are large, for all of us, because we are built to care passionately about ourselves and the others we depend upon for our own survival. By framing the question in terms of “things,” I had become an unwitting participant in an act of psychological neglect, the kind that is endemic in our culture and leads so many to feel so neglected, and so passionate (all too often dangerously so) about the experience of being neglected, without any words to tell their story outside of the language of issues, causes, principles....i.e; "things."
Then again- maybe the above paragraph is just a rationalization for the fact that I'm disturbed by how self-centered I am.
Probably it's a little of both.
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