How do we learn to care for ourselves and care for others? Perhaps we learn by example. In my life there were two very contrasting examples of caregiving.
I had just turned one when my father enlisted in the Navy and spent the war fighting in the South Pacific. After the war, he finished his Ph.D. and vanished into his lab. Because of this, for the first nine years of my life I was cared for by my grandparents and my mother, I seldom saw my father.
When I was ten my father got a research position in San Francisco and we moved away from my grandparents. After we moved, my father became the caregiver and dominant force in all our lives. What I learned from his way of caregiving was that caring for yourself meant protecting yourself from physical and psychological harm. This meant learning to never disagree, to be as invisible as possible and to expect to be humiliated. My way of caring for myself wasn’t successful, but it became the only way I knew for dealing with the world.
My parents divorced in 1959 and I graduated from high school in 1960. When I started university I soon became seriously clinically depressed, often referred to as “a mental breakdown.” My grandparents heard rumors of this and took immediate leaves from their jobs and drove over 1500 miles to pick me up at the university and take me back to their home. I really believe they saved my life.
After a year recovering I started college again, and this time I was referred to a clinical psychologist, and worked with him closely for three years. It was during this therapy that I began to recall the first nine years of my life, lost in the pain of the second nine years.
My grandparents had a totally different approach to caring than did my father. My mother used to say that they were the living embodiment of all that Carl Rogers ever taught. I suspect that the basis of their way of acting in the world was their religious belief. The foundation of their belief was that God is good and that creation is good.
I believe that my grandparents were so wonderful at caring about and for others because they were at peace with themselves. The feeling that they were ultimately cared for made it easier for them to care for others. They did not care for others out of any expectation of reward. They knew others might try to take advantage of them and abuse their kindness. After my grandfather died a man took great advantage of my grandmother, but she did not change her caring and loving way of living. When she was at the end of her life and needed constant care, it was this man who stayed with her and cared for her until she died, asking for nothing. Her faith in the inherent goodness found in each and every person was repaid in full, as it had been throughout her life.
I saw how my grandparents treated me, and others and, once I no longer felt compelled to constantly protect myself, I tried to emulate them. It has not always been easy. I end up comparing myself to them and feeling as if I have failed. I often want recognition, an acknowledgment that what I am doing is worth all the time and effort. I find solice in remembering what my grandparents would have said to me. You have done your best, you have done what you could, you must accept yourself as you are. A part of caring is forgiving, and that includes forgiving yourself.
Caring is not easy, it requires effort, risk and constancy. However, if you do not care for yourself you will be unable to care for anyone else. Perhaps the beginning of caring for yourself is what my grandparents had. It is a belief that, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The belief that the universe bends towards justice is ultimately a belief that the universe tends towards that which is good. This can’t be proven, it is an act of faith, not necessarily faith in something supernatural, but faith that the universe is not amoral, that the caring actions that we take do have meaning and that what we do with our lives does make a difference. It has worked for me, it might work for all of us.