My dogs and I have a very nice arrangement.
Here’s what they get: A warm bed, a roof over their head, dog food magically appearing at predicable intervals, belly rubs.
Here’s what I get in return: I get to take care of them.
You might be thinking, oh, he’s being sarcastic—the dogs get an easy life, he “gets” to take care of them, ha ha, great bargain you made there, Jonny!
But you would be missing something.
This arrangement is indeed uneven. But in my favor, not the dogs.
Taking care of the dogs—taking care of anything, actually—is one of life’s great gifts and can profoundly influence metrics of health and well-being. That’s worth a whole lot more than the cost of kibble.
Ellen Langner—the first female professor to gain tenure in the psych department at Harvard- performed a brilliant and classic experiment that illustrated what I’m talking about. Here’s the short version.
She gave half the residents of a nursing home a plant to take care of. And not some hothouse orchid that requires a degree in botany just to water it, but a snake plant. The kind your grandmother had. That will grow in a garage in the dark with no food and water for six months. The straight ugly kind that you basically can’t kill.
Know what happened?
The residents who were assigned to take care of a plant had better metrics on just about everything. Less doctor visits. Better blood pressure. Quicker recovery from illness. Practically every measure they looked at improved significantly.
From taking care of a snake plant.
The comedian Marc Maron has talked on his podcast for years about his feral cat Boomer, who, as far as I can tell, won’t let anyone near him (including Maron, most of the time). But Boomer wandered into Marc’s life somehow and now he feels responsible for him and acts accordingly. Somehow he’s intuited that he’s got the better part of the bargain. The feeling of being responsible for the welfare of something outside yourself can be a very healing, growing experience, particularly for those of us who might have a tendency towards self-involvement.
All this sheds new meaning on the casual valediction, “Take care”. Maybe the speaker is actually wishing that you spend some time every day in an activity which is health promoting, spiritually
Now let me deal preemptively with a criticism of this whole “taking care of something is a gift” thing. There are people who are working two– or even three– jobs to take care of a family, which may include kids, perhaps an elderly person with dementia, a partner with needs of her/his own…. you get the picture. And they’re doing it on a shoestring income with the attendant elevation in stress, the inevitable sleep deprivation, and the oppressive nature of a life you feel trapped in.
Surely those folks don’t think it’s such a great deal to be 24-hour caretakers. And they’re right. Because people in those very difficult circumstances have the added stress of having exactly zero minutes a day for themselves.
And that’s the difference.
Adding the responsibility of caretaking to an otherwise reasonably balanced life can be the gift I was telling you about, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. But when responsibility is all you have—with no time to nurture and nourish your own interests, dreams and relationships— that responsibility doesn’t feel like a spiritual gift, it feels like you’re drowning in quicksand.
Interestingly, neither being 100% devoted nor being 100% independent, works. If you’re 100 percent focused on yourself, you’re a narcissist. If you’re 100% focused on others, you’re depleted.
When “taking care” is a PART of who you are, it makes the other parts grow.
When it’s ALL of what you are, you’re in danger of losing something very valuable indeed.
Beautifully written. Thank You!
Jonny, I love this article! You made me re-think my responsibilities as a caretaker. While normally I tend to feel like caring for all my pets and family members is a bit of a burden and keeping me from other things, I now see it in a new light. Thanks for that brilliant and needed mindset shift! xo