In my own write: The art, or the imperative, of caring

My concern about the plants' future – which I know lies largely in my hands – prompted me to consider some of the ways we go about “looking after.”

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January 11, 2011 23:36
pet rocks

pet rocks 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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 flourish.

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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 empathy.

And die it did, much before its time, most likely from my ministrations.

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 “looking after.”

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 best.

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, for instance.

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 one pause.

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.

But we 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.

YOU 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 morbidly obese.

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.

In 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.

He 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 die.”

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 life.

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 family.

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 understanding.

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 Tamagochi.

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 care.

Maybe it has a chapter on “benign neglect.”

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