Who Cares?

Mayeroff, Milton. On Caring. New York: Harper Collins, 1971


Psychology Today  had this to say about Milton Mayeroff’s classic (and brief: 123 pages) 1971 book: “Should be required reading…. A philosophy of life in a nutshell, one that has latched on to the most practical, central, and sensible of all activities, human or cosmic.” That activity of which Psychology Today speaks is that of caring. In his book, Mayeroff suggests that to care for another person is to help that person grow and develop – for their own sake, not for the use we can get from them.  Caring for someone is the opposite of using the other person to satisfy our own needs.

It is not always easy work. It requires devotion, patience, honesty, humility, trust, hope and courage. A tall order, indeed! But to engage in the act of caring add immeasurable meaning to our lives.

And it is not only persons we care for.  A carpenter can care for the piece of wood he is working on.  A philosopher can care for ideas.  A farmer can care for the seeds he has planted.  A church member can care for the church.

Mayeroff believes that it is in caring that we find our meaning and our place in the world. “in the sense in which a man  can ever be said to be at home in the world, he is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for.”  Caring makes us who we are.

The danger in all caring situations is the temptation to try to dominate or possess the other.  Instead the ideal is to desire the growth of the other “to be itself.”  Mayeroff writes, “I do not experience being needed by the other as a relationship that gives me power over it and provides me with something to dominate, but rather as a kind of trust.”

I am reminded here of the number of times in which women came to Jesus for help and, rather than taking advantage of his position, he treated them with care. Somehow they sensed they could trust him.

Mayeroff understands that helping another person to grow involves encouraging that person to care in turn for someone or something apart from himself or herself.  It is also to encourage that person to engage in self-care.

One can also care for activities (like parenting or teaching or painting) by discovering and exploring their essential traits.  So often we take our activities for granted, as if they were set in stone, and fail to provide for their care and growth.

Caring for the world has its roots in the ancient Biblical story of creation.  It is not anything new.  But we should always be open to new ways to be in caring relationship with people and ideas. Mayeroff’s book will likely stand the test of time as a guide to doing so.    


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