When you think of “taking care of someone,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you might think of “love,” “warmth,” “devotion,” “attention,” or “concern.” You might also think of “hardship,” “sacrifice,” “burden,” and “burnout.” All these words speak to the complex reality of taking care of our loved ones.
I’m now in Year 3 of family caregiving, and currently dividing my time between Oregon and Florida. When I’m in Florida, I help my sister take care of our dear parents. On many days I go from feeling warm and fuzzy… to anxious and frustrated… to outright despair… and back to warm and fuzzy. Burnout is insidious; it creeps up on you when you least expect it. Yet, when my mom bursts into a huge smile and laughs because I just made her feel good and comfortable, my day has been made. Even though I’m still figuring out my equilibrium and working through my own needs, it’s worth it.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about where we experience a sense of “caring” and where we don’t. Lately, it seems to be scarce. We expect family to be caring, but sometimes they’re not. We don’t expect the plumber to be caring, or the store clerk, or the CEO of a large corporation. They’re supposed to get their jobs done, no more.
More than ever, I’m noticing how little value society places on caring. In the United States, few people in a “caring profession” are making any fortunes. Good luck to anyone who sacrifices a job or career to take care of a loved one – they drop out of the country’s GDP altogether. Economics aside, a caring person is usually seen as a “nice” person, but not always as a strong or important person in the workplace. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, it is not, in practice, a sought-after leadership quality. It’s not even an essential quality of a desirable employee. We hire candidates for their technical expertise, not because they care about other people.
Must it be so? What would the world look like if we saw caring in more settings? Since my profession is organization development, I think about the workplace all the time – specifically, how to humanize it. I view a great workplace as a kind of community. And for any community to function well and sustain itself over time, it must have members who care about the whole collective, members who take care of each other.
When people stop doing this and focus primarily on their individual goals or agendas, the community crumbles. We devolve towards a lonely, alienated, and atomized existence of competitors who live and work in close proximity but don’t connect in any meaningful way. Sound familiar?
Yet, in a healthy, vibrant workplace, caring is not optional – it’s indispensable and it shows up every day. This is especially obvious in a collectively-oriented culture. When I lived in Japan, I was surrounded by friends and colleagues who derived their sense of value and purpose not by what they achieved individually, but by how well they served others. Notions of self-esteem, personal value, and “one’s purpose in life” were puzzling and curious to them. I remember interrogating my roommate about not expecting more out of life and work. I thought his talents were being wasted in a clerical job. Didn’t he want to do more, be more? Bewildered, he said, “I am in a good team. My co-workers rely on me. We serve our customers well. When they’re happy, I’m happy.” What more was needed? Purpose was inherent in helping others – in taking care of others.
Even ambitious, individualistic achievers can relate to this when we recall our favorite jobs and favorite managers or co-workers. Chances are, they were close-knit workplaces where individuals counted on each other, where people felt respected, valued, appreciated…maybe even cared for. Those who named you as a favorite person probably said things like, “Thanks for having my back. Thanks for looking out for me, and making my day easier!”
It is in community, in being with other people, that we truly find ourselves. By no means am I the first or second person to say this. I think most people can feel this truth in their bones. For me, personal accomplishments are deeply gratifying, but I know that if I count on those alone, they will never be enough. I will always hungrily seek more. But when I help people, showing that I care – that’s enough.
Why should work be any different? We can all do small things to make the lives of our customers and colleagues a little easier. Make someone’s face light up, brighten their day. In a deeply shaken-up world, this is needed now more than ever. The bitter divisions in politics and culture and the breakdowns in services and systems make me feel as if the rug keeps getting pulled out from under me.
My grounding gets restored when I’m treated with attention and care. Yesterday a Costco service representative greeted me with a warm smile, listened intently to my spiel, and searched for a good long time for the item I requested. The item turned out to be missing, but it didn’t matter. I appreciated his courtesy, graciousness, and conscientiousness. The world was a good place inside that store.
Let’s all create some grounding through small acts of caring.
Photo above by Jackson David on Unsplash.