She playfully bats at the little ball of fluff, her baby. Tousling, grooming, cuddling, nursing. But when she sees the need, setting the little kitten free to explore without the ever-present eye of Mama to govern and oversee. Sometimes, she completely appears to abandon, lazing in the sun while her tiny kitten sits alone on the top stair of our steps, wary and uncertain. Is Mama neglectful? I think not.
When mama cat lovingly stretches out languidly on our top step with baby nearby, her tiny offspring responds to her in love. There is no doubt that there is a relationship between the two. But it is one designed to set free so that the younger can one day take care of herself. To never allow for the certainty that the baby will one day be on its own would be a tragedy. True. Everyone needs love- even barn cats. But you rarely see amongst animals any form of helicopter parenting as one often sees in human parenting. Animals seem to know instinctively the balance needed so as to nurture and prepare their offspring for life after the nursery.
Care requires that we respond within a relationship. Within relationships of care, there is always a two-way exchange happening at any given time- a process which can reverse and rearrange at seemingly a moment’s notice. And all because relationships of care are responsive. A caregiver in relationship to another acknowledges a need or a requirement, responds to that need and then allows for caring to occur. This process can be reversed almost immediately, depending on the relationship. The cared-for- in response to the care emitted, can then responsively give care to the other almost immediately.
In thinking about care so much and so often, I am realizing that there are elements of care that we have forgotten. I feel we have forgotten at times how to take care. A local radio personality whom I have listened to over the years often signs off with the phrase, ‘take care of one another today’; from the moment I first heard this phrase, it has stuck with me. How does one take care? And where does care-taking begin?
I would suggest that there are dimensions of caretaking that we must heed. That we have overlooked. The first being our need to take care of ourselves.
There is an underlying assumption that we need to take care of one another in life, but in order to do this, we first need to learn the secret of taking care of ourselves. In taking care of ourselves, we need to learn to listen to our bodies, listen to our hearts. We have all heard of the spoken rule, given by flight attendants on airlines, to put on your own mask on first prior to helping your children or other dependents. I am convinced in my own life that the growth and development of care woven throughout my life experiences has been a direct result of my learned ability to care for myself, self-care guided for me by faith through the direction of a loving Father. For years, I looked to others to care for me. Why weren’t they doing what I thought was the basic of all human responses- caring? Why were people not responding to my needs? And why wasn’t I feeling loved and looked after? Why was I feeling so bereft? These feelings of a deficit in care followed me into my marriage, leaving me looking to a husband to fulfil the role of caretaker, a tremendous responsibility considering he was not even the one who had left me feeling unloved and uncared for in the first place. That was baggage I had brought into our marriage- a composite of my difficult years of schooling, my years in the public eye as a pastor’s kid and the other personal experiences of my life that directly impacted me in very private ways. We cannot first expect others to care for us if we have not learned how to care for ourselves. And I am convinced that many, many problems in marriages could be avoided if we first were able to redirect our need for care back to ourselves- as well as if we could start to see that the ways people express care, initiate care, offer care, interpret care and understand care: are different. Different. Not bad, worse, inferior or poorer: just different. Maybe we need to start by seeing the best in what another human being is offering us, starting with our partners.
I would never, ever wish the message I am conveying to be one in which we reduce the responsibility we have toward others. My life is rich because I have learned to care for others. I believe that the transformation in my life has been one in which, with God’s guiding hand, I was able to take something that was painful and difficult and see the good in it. I think this is the reason I am now able to responsively express care to others: there has been a miracle in my life. But I would never want to overstep the responsibility I have been given to care for myself in all of this. That was a first step in this process- understanding the needs in my life and slowly taking measures to meet those needs one by one through loving myself. Through accepting myself. Unconditionally. I had to learn to love myself so as to love others. And I cannot personally underestimate my faith in Jesus and my Abbba Father in this process- as I have come to understand I have a Father who loves me intimately and expressly, I can now love myself as an expression of His love. I am free to love the others in my life as I now know how much I am loved myself.
And this is the very essence of care: freedom to love and responsively give to oneself and the others in one’s life. Freely, wholly, purely.
All because of love.