It’s possible I have simply spent too much time in New England, but it seems, perhaps, there is only a certain amount of care one ought to express for others – that anything more would be unseemly.
This statement, of course, is at once complicated by the vast array of different types of relationships one has with others.
A simplified model considers these relationships as a series of concentric circles with descending levels of intimacy: you at the center, your closest family next, good friends, followed by acquaintances and circumscribed by a band of strangers. There may be other levels in there or the whole thing could be considered as a spectrum, but the basic idea is the same: there are a few people we are very close to, a whole mess of people we have no closeness to, and a lot of people at various levels in between.
There’s a lot of value in this model. It can be used, for example, to help develop healthy relationships with a mutually-agreed upon level of intimacy. If you’re wondering whether you should make an inappropriate joke to someone, for example, it’s probably wise to stick to those inner circles.
But this model is often assumed to double as a guide for compassion – with a person showing more concern for their inner circles and decreasing concern moving outward.
And in some ways that approach makes sense. After all, it seems antithetical to human nature – and arguably somewhat abhorrent – to love a stranger as much as you love your child.
But concentric circles of concern quickly break down as moral guide: Should you be more moved by the tragedy of “someone like you” than by the tragedy of someone completely foreign? Feeling that way is arguably natural, but it’s repugnant to think that a white person should indeed care more for a European than an African.
And while this, of course, raises important and critical points regarding international aid and human dignity, I find myself particularly interested in another level of this mystery.
Perhaps it’s a less pressing moral question, but I find it more relevant to every day life – what amount of care, I wonder, ought a person to show to all the random people who come in and out of their life?
I imagine there’s a certain baseline of compassion or concern most people would agree they ought to express – perhaps most simply that they shouldn’t do violence to others.
But that’s different from having and showing real care and compassion for those you meet. At some level, this sounds like an obvious thing every good person ought to do, but in practice…it’s not that easy and mostly it feels awkward.
I’ve written before about debating whether an action is “crazy or thoughtful” – too often doing something “nice” feels dangerously close to doing something “crazy.” As if one ought not too care too much about anyone beyond their most inner circle.
And while I’ve been using words like care, concern, and compassion – I’m not sure those words are quite what I mean. Love is, perhaps, too strong in English, but it may be somewhat closer. I imagine the Greeks had the perfect word for it – a sort of permeating love for humanity.
However it is, I sometimes think Queen put it best –
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves