#414: All Work is Care Work

Fine Islamic ornament under a domed outdoor structure in Istanbul. Golds and colors glowing in ethereal light.
Istanbul, Turkey (Dec 2014)

All work is care work. Not a statement of fact, more an outlook, a mindset. What if you asked, of your tasks and projects, “For whom am I caring?”

The answer can be yourself. That’s a valid answer. It’s often not only yourself but yourself and another – or more than one another. The reader of the published article or book. The neighborhood. The future children and grandchildren and/or your childhood self. The forest, the planet, all things living.

Sometimes the whom is your client. Again, a valid answer, and not necessarily a conflict. The conflict comes when care for one comes at the cost of the others. When it produces a kind of antimatter – anti-care. For me, this anti-care looks at times like neglect, like imperceptible harm. I opt for impulsive convenience and care extends not beyond that frozen moment. Or I think only of the recipient, or the end user, or the system in which we’re both embedded, and neglect myself.

Maybe these are actually the same hollow shell, a Ferrero Rocher without the filling. Maybe true care, even when directed, turns out to be warmly concentric. By caring for one whom, you’re also caring for many other whoms. Maybe true care has no hard edges; it radiates outward.

Along those lines, I love Mandy Brown’s Unified Theory of Fucks, which posits that we each have a limited supply of fucks to give:

This is one of my answers to the question of, why give a fuck about work? Why love your work? It won’t, of course, love you back. It can’t. Work isn’t a thing that can love. It isn’t alive, it isn’t and won’t ever be living. And my answer is: don’t. Don’t give a fuck about your work. Give all your fucks to the living. Give a fuck about the people you work with, and the people who receive your work—the people who use the tools and products and systems or, more often than not, are used by them. Give a fuck about the land and the sea, all the living things that are used or used up by the work, that are abandoned or displaced by it, or—if we’re lucky, if we’re persistent and brave and willing—are cared for through the work. Give a fuck about yourself, about your own wild and tender spirit, about your peace and especially about your art.

The whole thing reads, in the best possible way, like a Mary Oliver poem wrapped in a George Carlin routine. An instant classic.

Here’s one way I’ve been trying to, ahem, give a fuck about myself: Last Wednesday I sat in on this year’s Self and Wholeness final presentations. The class runs alongside the first semester of the Building Beauty studio program. It explores the link between the maker and the thing being made. Hearing the students’ reflections, I discovered something I’d overlooked in my daily routine: Dedicated time to beauty.

What counts as beauty? My definition today: Any aesthetic experience that makes you feel alive. It could be a walk in the woods or quiet contemplation in a garden. It could be art, certain books and paintings and music and films. The act of making tea, or of cooking a meal. Looking at and editing photos. Even mundane acts like rearranging the oil and condiment tray next to your stove as though it were ikebana.

Dedicated time also means dedicated attention. Not everything you give your attention will necessarily be beautiful, but anything beautiful can only be accessed through a certain level of attention. The more you converse with beauty, the more beauty reciprocates. Like care, it too is radiant.

Speaking of aesthetic contemplation, Ezra Klein’s podcast conversation with Kyle Chayka about Kyle’s new book, Filterworld, hits some of these same notes. Since I seem to be into lofty definitions today, I loved this one Kyle drops in literally the first minute:

Style or taste is knowing who you are and knowing what you like, and then being able to look outside of yourself, see the world around you, and then pick out the one thing from around you that does resonate with you [...] it’s a process of collection, almost. Like you’re grabbing on to the little voices and artists and touchstones that make you who you are and give you your sense of self. You’re drawn to something without knowing why.

The conversation only gathers steam from there. I’ve been following Kyle for a while, and I can’t think of anyone writing more thoughtfully and prolifically as he is about the entanglement of technology, art, and culture. Kyle’s newsletter is pleasantly occasional and collects his longform pieces for the New Yorker and elsewhere. I’ve also started Filterworld, though admittedly I have been a bit overwhelmed to dive fully in yet.

Does that count as making time for beauty? I think so!