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2. Care is not the same as caring

In the spring of the coronavirus, people are yearning to help. I see this urgency as rooted in care’s identity as an action, rather than an emotion. ‘Care’ is something you do, but ‘caring’ is something you feel. It might be helpful to know that it is perfectly fine to experience one without the other, and indeed, sympathy may actually inhibit actions, since it tends to inculcate passive, leisurely specularity, while someone in the thick of the action may not have much time to commune with their inner self.

If you are too overwhelmed with dismay to feel you can do anything, that is sympathy. If you are feeling an urge to volunteer, donate, support, that is care. These are distinct, they run on different tracks, although they may come into the same station in the end. Caregiving can of course come from love, but quite often care does not begin in feeling at all, as in the case of professional nurses, who have to learn to sideline their personal feelings in order to do the job properly. However, repeated acts of care can eventually generate that feeling, for care is performative: reiteration makes caring happen. Those hired to take care of strangers, as a babysitter, nurse, nanny, teacher, home health aide tend to experience growing affection for their charges over time – an effect produced by enacting care over and over again. Repetition can intensify affection, an effect we experience when we engross ourselves in the same novels, shows, or songs multiple times.

It is also reassuring to remember that caregiving is a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and even inadequate care is better than no care at all. In coronavirus spring, we yearn for fresh air. A basic satisfaction of physical need would be to facilitate someone opening a window. But better care would also meet the other’s aesthetic and emotional needs. Opening a window is basic care, but taking someone to a place with a view of a garden is better care. Whatever you are doing, is good. If you want to make it better, think not of how many different actions you can undertake so much as how to enrich your current actions by layering physical, sensory, emotional, aesthetic, meaningful qualities onto the basic need-meeting.

If you want to make caregiving better, remember that you are always enmeshed in care, that all your interactions with others dart and dance among everyone’s needs. You give care when you reassure someone, when you offer a gift, when you reach out to a friend. If you are frustrated at being unable to help exhausted medical personnel, it might be useful to make yourself stop and notice the small acts of care you are doing for those in your personal or online communities. It’s still care, and its very modesty and omnipresence may end up making it all the more helpful than a showier act of singular heroism. You are fostering grasses that grow everywhere, not planting a single tree.

If – to keep up the metaphor – you are thinking about how to grow that grass better – here’s some advice to keep in mind. It’s important to listen closely to what the other is expressing, rather than assume you know this type of thing and you can solve the problem. Rather, as Joan Tronto has stressed, be as attentive, open, and responsive as you can. Care ethicist Nel Noddings argues that good caregiving requires “engrossment” in the other’s mindset, and “motivational displacement,” in which one shelve one’s own intentions to enact another’s.  Genuinely try to see things from the other’s point of view rather than projecting your own wishes onto the other. After all, as George Eliot notes, others have “an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference” (198).

This is a profoundly difficult act. “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck as troublesome as self” (Eliot 392). To imagine the self and its needs as a mere speck of dirt, blotting out what we ought to see, is a very advanced ethical practice indeed. We probably cannot maintain it for long, unless we have special training in holding our selves aside, as psychoanalysts do. But luckily for us, care is constantly ebbing and flowing, and the momentary suppression of our selves for another’s sake will be answered by the other doing the same for us, reaching out to ask about our elderly parents, our sick friends, our time, our work. And sometimes you can best give care to another by allowing them to reach out with care to you. Perhaps the tiny speck, the blot of dirt, can be changed – not something that blots out others, but something we can use to fertilize what we plant.


Source used here:

George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996, first ed. 1871-1872).


Read more on the nature of care:

Susan J. Brison, “Personal Identity and Relational Selves,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, Alison Stone (NY: Routledge, 2017), 218-230

Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (NY: Oxford UP, 2006)

Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1993)

Jean Keller and Eva Feder Kittay, “Feminist Ethics of Care,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, Alison Stone (NY: Routledge, 2017), 540-555.

Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependence (NY: Routledge, 1999

Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder, eds. The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (U California Press, 1984)

Nel Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 2002)

Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (Routledge, 1993)


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