When my neighbor presented me recently with a beautiful, exotic plant that
looked like a miniature tree, my feelings were mixed.
Gazing at its
extraordinary bifurcated trunk and elegant green-and-pink leaves, I told her – a
touch ruefully – that I hoped I’d be able to look after it, help it
Forget flourish, how about just survive? I recalled a friend’s
words several years ago when we met on the street as I was enthusiastically
taking home a large potted plant I’d just bought.
“You’ll enjoy watching
it die,” she remarked with cheerful irony, though not without
And die it did, much before its time, most likely from my
Thankfully, my latest acquisition seems to be sending no
signals of imminent demise. But my concern about its future – which I know lies
largely in my hands – prompted me to consider some of the ways we go about
FIRST off, are we equipped to look after the things we
are responsible for? The tendency is to gloss blithely over this question; but
the answer may be instructive.
My horticultural history, for example,
makes the healthy continuation of my new plant an iffy proposition, at
While such ignorance may not matter in the wider scheme of things,
far more important is the question of how we look after people – our families,
When I told my brother in England about some cases of
tragic abuse of children at the hands of their parents that made headlines here
last year, he commented: “Funny, isn’t it, how you need a license to own a dog;
but anyone can go ahead and have children.”
Thinking about that does give
But let’s put aside the mentally disturbed, or evil – who, one
can only hope, will in as many cases as possible be isolated before they can
harm the innocent. How are the rest of us looking after our children? We do our
best to provide food, shelter, clothing, education, and so on.
need occasionally to check: Are we maybe not looking after our children well
enough on account of being too wrapped up in our own day-to-day concerns,
thereby starving our kids of the attention crucial to their development, and to
the parent-child relationship? It’s a lot easier said than done, but
communication has to begin from day one, painstakingly building a channel of
love and trust – otherwise, parents can find themselves saying, years later: “I
don’t know why, but my kid never really talks to me.”
Then again, some of
us might be looking after our children “too well,” smothering their emerging
personalities with the force of our own (the “I know best what’s good for you”
syndrome). We need to give our kids space to be themselves, while preparing
ourselves for the time when they will separate from us to lead lives that will
not be carbon copies of ours.
AGAIN, there are parents who might smother
their children physically, so afraid of something bad happening that they don’t
let them take any risks at all.
A friend recalled: “I remember how when I
was small and went out with my mother, she would grip my hand so tightly when we
crossed the road that it really hurt. It made me very cross. Only later did I
understand how fearful she was for my safety.”
Another friend told me
about the time he decided, at the age of nine, to take a solo bus and
Underground train trip around London, very inadequately dressed for the purpose,
and the season.
Many years later, his mother confided: “I saw you leave
the house, grabbed my purse and followed you the whole time, but staying a long
way behind, so you never saw me.”
That kind of “looking after” a young
child – from a distance – takes parental courage.
AN element of the
parent-child relationship exists between couples who are happy together: she
sometimes acting like the nurturing mother, he like a protective father-figure.
Successful couples of all kinds look after each other in complementary ways
stemming from these basic roles – even though the feminist movement has altered
and widened their scope in ways that were unimaginable 50 years ago.
can trust the human pysche to astonish in its variety of manifestations. And one
of the most astonishing is the distortion – to grotesque proportions – of the
archetypal Jewish mother’s “Ess, ess, mein kind” as she forever urges her
children to eat.
Psychologists have identified a subset of men called
“feeders” who “look after” their female partners – and gain a sense of sexual
power and control – by feeding them fattening foods until they are sometimes
I saw an unforgettable TV documentary some time ago in
which a couple talked quite openly about this syndrome, and about the part each
played in perpetuating it.
She was massive, and almost bed-bound. She was
filmed naked, but she might as well have been fully clothed because huge folds
of flesh covered every part of her body. The couple showed the interviewer how
they slept: she sitting propped up by several pillows, he looking, in
comparison, like a midget leaning against the foot of a mountain.
order for her to get up and move around, he had to hold both her hands and
slowly pull her along, like a toddler taking her first steps.
professed himself very comfortable and happy in the relationship. I don’t
remember her sentiments, but I do recall her saying that if she didn’t stop
acquiescing in what amounted to a regime of force-feeding, “I know I will
IT seems to me that the highest level of “looking after” is one
that respects the dignity of the other person as an individual equal to oneself,
with everything that implies. The best doctors, nurses and carers embody this
attitude, as do the best teachers and advisers.
But if we are the ones
who are going to be looked after, it is incumbent on us to be as discerning as
possible in assessing the people we assign to the task.
Many of those who
were “looked after” by Bernard Madoff, for example, were happy to enjoy an
unrealistically high rate of interest on their investment, over an
unrealistically long period – and quite unquestioning about how this was
managed. Madoff’s brand of looking after his clients ended up scarring them for
IN contrast, I can’t think of a purer example of selfless “looking
after” than a man I never met, who is regarded as a hero in my own
My Uncle Bernard, first husband of my father’s sister Elsa, was
deported to Auschwitz during the Shoah, along with his father-in-law, Leopold.
There, witnesses reported after the war, he was invited to join a group of
inmates planning their escape. He refused, electing instead to stay in the
extermination camp and look after Leopold as best he could in the prevailing
conditions. Both men perished.
Which, of course, begs the huge question
of the extent to which God looks after the righteous – to which there is no
clear answer, except the recognition that there are things beyond our
ARE human beings born with a fundamental need to look
after something, or someone? Doctors have confirmed that elderly people,
especially those who live alone, get along much better when they keep a dog or
cat. So do children, including those with special needs.
And back in
1975, a Californian called Gary Dahl conceived the notion of a “pet rock” that
would not need to be fed, walked, bathed or groomed; that would not be
disobedient, become sick or die. These were ordinary grey stones bought at a
builder’s supply store, which Dahl marketed like live pets, in custom cardboard
boxes, complete with straw and breathing holes.
The idea started as a
enormous joke – and ended by making Dahl a millionaire.
Then, in 1996,
came the Japanese Tamagochi, a handheld digital pet housed in a small egg-shaped
computer. An egg would appear on the screen and hatch, after which the owner
would be told its gender, and take on the onerous task of raising the “pet”
digitally and keeping it healthy throughout its “life” in a variety of
time consuming ways. Eventually, it could even “mate” with another
It’s hard to know how to take such phenomena: as authentic
cries for something beyond the self to look after; or as examples of the
looniness to which human beings can descend.
Be that as it may, I think
tomorrow I’ll go downstairs and borrow my neighbor’s book on plant
Maybe it has a chapter on “benign neglect.”