Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Envisioning That Better Future -- Three: Caring for One Another
Americans have long been conditioned to be selfish, self-obsessed, self-worshippers. We are trained to think of ourselves as individuals, unique and important, filled with potential. It is our duty as human beings to realize our individual glory...
But often that conditioning goes against our nature -- which is to be nurturing and caring, cooperative and helpful, generous and kind and loving (well, pretty much). Human beings, for example, are hard wired toward family and clan, quite tribal in fact, and while often disparaged or denounced, it's not ordinarily a bad thing to be "tribal" at all. People need one another for survival. We are sometimes pack animals, too. Again, it's human nature.
One cannot easily be selfish or self-obsessed and care fully for another human being. Yet an innate sense of self-worth is necessary in order to give fully of oneself to another. If one's self-worth is lacking, on the other hand, one is forever working to build it up or to find some validation from someone or some thing outside oneself, rather than giving to another or caring for another -- or caring for others in a more global sense. But self-worth (ie: "diginty") is not the same as self-obsession or self-absorption.
There are always predatory characters among any population, and sometimes they are necessary sorts to have around. But the trick in any civil society is to curb and control the predators among the people, to channel their instinct need to exploit others toward useful and productive ends.
Yet we live in a nation that is largely built on predation and exploitation. Curbing predators or channeling their instincts has never been a high social priority, except in the case of limiting who among us may freely predate on nature or others.
Others are naturally -- or are conditioned to be -- individualists, independent to a certain extent from the society of the "tribe." Individualists aren't necessarily predators, however, and they should not be conflated with them. Individualists can easily care for others, whereas predators feed on others -- both literally and figuratively.
We've become a nation that leaves "caring" largely up to professionals. This has had a contradictory effect on society. The skill-level of "caring professionals" is highly developed, but their ability to actually care for or about any individual or their extended circle is limited and in some cases, nonexistent. They can apply outstanding skills to the problem of "care" but they may not truly care at all about those in their care.
Depersonalization is part of professionalization in just about any field. In the caring professions, depersonalization is considered necessary in order to survive the enormous emotional stresses encountered, as well as to be able to serve as many clients as possible and thus ensure substantial income (to pay off all those debts incurred in order to become a professional.)
The outcomes in the aggregate seem to be better under a professionalized caring regime -- in that, within certain boundaries, people live longer for example. Well, some people do. Life expectancy is declining in some segments of the population for reasons that are not entirely clear -- except that if you cannot afford to pay for professional care, too bad so sad for you.
People can surprisingly easily relearn to care for one another simply by being in situations that require it. For example, if professional care is withdrawn or unavailable, many people will instinctively take up the slack and do what they can on behalf of others. In most family relationships, often especially in extended families, caring for one another is automatic. Of course there are plenty of dysfunctional families where that doesn't happen and some kind of intervention may be needed, but on the whole people seem quite able to lend a hand to another when necessary or called upon to do so, and for the most part, they want to.
Providing opportunity and support for caring for one another must be part of whatever we envision for a better future. We must be fearless about it, and be unwilling to hand over all responsibility for care to a specialist class of professionals. Professional care givers may be desirable in a modern society, but their role should be one of support and advocacy rather than principal organizers and providers of care. In other words, a subsidiary role rather than primary.
This also means ratcheting down individualism and controlling predation and building rather than destroying family and social interactions and strength.
Building family and social strength is one thing Mormons do remarkably well all in all, and it's one reason for their success over time and space. Mormons are socialized to look out for one another and to care for one another in their own families and well beyond them, and they are provided plenty of support to do so, some of it skilled professional support. They do not by any means suppress individualism, but they don't rely on it as a basis for their society, and they are very careful to channel predation and predatory instincts and to protect one another from predation from outside the faith.
Some other religious communities or denominations follow somewhat the same pattern of social organization and it is one worth studying, respecting and perhaps emulating. It is quite different from the atomization and winner-take-all competition so characteristic of the society we have become.
Moving into the future, we need to recapture a sense of mutual interest and caring that is natural to the human species without necessarily attributing it to religious motives or spiritual beliefs. It is human nature -- which for the most part should be celebrated for its own sake.