How Not To Care: Part 1

“Let us not mock ourselves with falsehood, teach us to care and not to care…” [T.S. Eliot]

We are all taught that caring is an important part of being human. “I don’t care” can be one of the most callous things we can say to another person. We should all find our passion, treat others the way we want to be treated, and take action to make the world a better place. Yes, caring is essential to living a good life. 

But it is possible to care too much about the wrong things. 

We’ve all had the experience of being irked by something. Whether it is how your coworker approaches a project, how a friend parents their kids, the political views of an acquaintance, or your child’s homework habits. It is easy to get fixated on how things “should” be, if only people would do it your way. In fact, when these things pop up it can begin to seem like an injustice in the world that you alone need to right.

But is it?

Early in my ministry career I was upset about how another person was choosing to behave. A mentor of mine wisely said to me – “In life you have two buckets – your ‘To Care’ bucket and your ‘Not To Care’ bucket. If you don’t figure out what goes in which you will drive yourself crazy.” Knowing what to care about is important to bringing your highest contribution to the world.

But learning not to care can seem, well…uncaring. However, just because something doesn’t belong in your To Care Bucket doesn’t mean it is not worth caring about. The real question is: Is it yours to care about? Learning how to discern what goes in which bucket is a life-skill that will serve us all well. If you spend your life caring about everything, then you will find that you burn yourself out while accomplishing nothing. So how do we figure out if it’s ours to care about or not?

Here are three questions to ask:

Do I have agency?

Agency means you have the ability to influence the outcome of a situation. When something bothers you it is normally because you believe you could make it better. But agency goes beyond just having an opinion. Do you have particular experience, training, influence or skills that could make a positive contribution to the situation? Perhaps you see your co-worker continually turn work in late, and you have great time-management skills. Maybe you have been trained in parenting, and you see how others are struggling with common issues. Maybe you have an expertise in math, and your child is struggling in the subject. Asking yourself: “Can I bring something to the situation to make it better?” is an important first step to discerning if something is yours to care about. If you have an opinion but not a contribution then it is not yours to care about. Agency is an essential starting point, however agency alone is not enough to intervene in a situation. Which is why we need to discern our level of responsibility as well.

Do I have ownership?

You may have experience, skills, or training that could help bring about a positive outcome, but who is actually responsible for that outcome? Another way to word this is to ask “Whose problem is this?” Ownership means that you have responsibility and leadership regarding the situation. If you are a supervisor, then you have ownership over how a coworker is functioning. If you are the parent, then you have ownership in helping to shape and teach your child. If you own the house then you have ownership on how it is kept. However, if your coworker reports to someone else, if you are not the parent, or you are a houseguest, then it is not necessarily yours to care about. Sure, you might have all sorts of things to bring to the table, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right table for you. If you don’t have ownership then you need to ask the final question to discern if to is yours to care about or not.

Do I have permission?

If you’re not the owner, but you do have agency then you need to ask if you have been granted permission. Sure, you feel like you could really help this other person, and that may be true, but have they invited you into the situation? Has that other parent asked your advice, or are you giving it unsolicited? Has anyone in your company asked you to help your coworker, or are you interjecting yourself? Has your child asked you to help with their homework, or do you simply feel compelled to rescue her? If it is not your responsibility and you have not been given permission to contribute, then it is not yours to care about. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care…you wouldn’t be bothered by it if you didn’t feel it was important. However, it may not be your wrong to right. 

If you don’t have these things (agency, ownership, permission), you can imagine all the losing battles you will fight. Caring, but not actually helping. Wearing yourself out and wondering why other people seem to resent you. Knowing if something is yours to care about (or not) can save you from frustration in your efforts and relationships. However, discerning which bucket to put something in is the first step. But how do you actually put into practice not caring?

Stay tuned for part 2 where I will share practical steps on how to not care without being uncaring.

*A quick caveat to close. These are great questions to ask in normal situations, however they do not apply when you see an actual injustice. If someone is being bullied, harassed, threatened, or endangered then it is always your responsibility to speak up in any way possible. Whether that is talking with HR, alerting the authorities, or filing a complaint, we are all called to care about the well-being of others, regardless of our position. You do not have to wait for ownership or permission to exercise your agency in speaking up and calling attention to a situation that is harmful to another person.