There’s a stifling kind of caring to avoid for happiness and health.
The good kind of not caring
As much as I’m interested in big-picture topics, I’m just as interested in nuances that are impossible to measure. For example, I think that not caring about other people’s opinion is healthy. I’ll explain with a story:
I used to work with two guys. One was religious, conservative, outspoken, and as thin-skinned as a shallot. The other was the guy who sits in the back of the room to figure out what everyone’s buttons are. And, once he figures them out, he pushes them. Repeatedly. With pleasure. And the more red-faced you get, the more joy would rise in this little ass. I lasted about three days with these yahoos until I split them up. It was embarrassing to me that we were all fifty-year-old men and they needed this kind of babysitting.
I was one of the few people who got along with The Poker as I called him. I watched other people get irritated or angry at him every day. There was no question that he went out of his way to rub you hard in the wrong way. But he was also very smart and had traveled all over the world, mostly looking for wives, so he was full of good stories. One day we were eating lunch together and he asked me why I didn’t get irritated with him when he tried to make me mad. A bold question!
“Oh man,” I said. “That’s easy. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you say.”
He had that deer in the headlights look. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to him before.
“It’s like this,” I explained. “I got along fine before we met and, when this job is over, we probably won’t see each other again. I don’t intend to reassess my personhood because of something you say. So, like I say, I don’t give one rat’s booty about what you think about me or what you say about me.”
Now, I was a little surprised. “I can really respect that,” he said.
And after that, we got along great and I don’t ever remember him pestering me again.
The good kind of caring
So, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t care about the welfare of other people. In fact, one of the most consistent traits of older and happy people is how important their relationships are and how much they tend to them. And many people find deep meaning in charitable works and in helping those who cannot pay them back.
But, there is a tendency in many of us to measure ourselves by the words and opinions of others. If I do this, as I do from time to time, I clam up, get crabby with the people I care most about, avoid everyone else, and start thinking about how good it would feel to drown inside a cannoli. This is not the person I want to be.
There is lots of advice about how to deal with these feelings but none of it is easy or comes upon us overnight. The best advice is the first rule of stoicism: if you have no control over it, don’t worry about it. It is an empty waste of time. This is a good mantra for most of life’s downsides but is hard to swallow. And while most advice comes from the negative – don’t think about it, avoid these people, remember them for the dolts that they are – I like to build on the positive. Learn to hold views a little less tightly. Laugh at yourself. Think hard about what you really believe. Develop healthy views of other people that allow them to be themselves. Let them have their views. And if they tell the truth – okay – what’s so bad about agreeing with them? Learning to live comfortably within your own skin is the one single best things you can do for your greatest happiness.
I think there is a healthy distance from caring that comes naturally with age – see the Red Hat Society. After we’ve given up on our hair, then the belly, and when we’re sad that our last pair of stone washed jeans has a fatal tear, we start to realize that so much of what we thought was meaningful just isn’t. It’s not always a bad place to be.
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