An old myth tells the story of a time when ‘care’ was crossing a river and she saw some clay. She picked it up, and slowly began to shape it. While contemplating the beauty of what she had made, Jupiter came by and ‘care’ asked him to give it spirit, which he gladly did. While ‘care’ wanted her name to be bestowed on her creation, Jupiter refused, arguing that his name should be given instead. As the two argued, earth arouse and demanded that her name be given to it since she provided the body of which it was made. The three asked Saturn to be their arbiter, who came to the following decision:

“Since you, Jupiter, gave it its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at death; and since you, Earth, have given it its body, you shall receive its body. But because it was care who first shaped this creature, she shall possess it for as long as it lives. As there is a dispute now for its name, let it be called ‘homo’, for it is made out of humus (earth).”

This story illustrates the centrality of care in the human condition. What is care? What does it mean to care? The Oxford dictionary defines care as the feeling of ‘concern or interest’, a feeling of ‘affection or liking’. Care is ‘The provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance and protection of someone or something’. It is to ‘look after and provide for the needs of’ that someone or something. Finally, care is about meaning – to care is to ‘attach importance to something’.

Apathy is the opposite of care. Elie Wiesel wrote:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Apathy is born of a fundamental sense of the meaninglessness of life. We perhaps most often recognise it in disaffected youth but this is not their failing – it is the failing of a society that fails to speak to the needs of the young by failing to offer an inspiring vision of life.

However, this sense of care can never be extinguished. To live is to care. Even in the direst of conditions there still exists some level of concern within the human being for something, even if that concern is only that they or others no longer be in pain.

One of the most important questions that should be put front and centre of our education system is the question, ‘What do I really care about?’ How might young people’s lives be different if we encouraged them to constantly reflect on and be guided by this question? How might the world be different if everyday people’s actions were devoted to those things that they cared most about?

The sad reality is that our culture does not encourage people to reflect on this question and so we become alienated from ourselves and our real concerns. The question we are encouraged to think about is, ‘What does society care about? What do others care about?’ and therefore ‘How can I make myself fit into that so I will get acceptance, approval, and recognition?’ If, growing up, I see that money and material things are valued it is likely that I will internalise this and spend my life devoted to the pursuit of these values. But at what cost? What within me do I neglect and exile when I do this?

In Goethe’s Faust, Faust’s pact with the devil means he must find a moment in his life that makes his existence worthwhile, otherwise he will be forever captive to this evil being. He seeks happiness in many ways – through pleasure, power, wealth, even in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. But he finds lasting happiness in none of these places. In the end, as the devil moves in to scoop his prize, he eventually finds lasting fulfilment in the only place possible – the realm of the human heart and the qualities of warmth, kindness, tenderness and love.

It is interesting the reminder the above myth gives about our relationship with the earth. Much of the reason that we don’t act with urgency on the environmental crisis is that we think of the environment as something out there, separate from us. But this way of thinking is a very recent phenomenon in the history of how humans have perceived the world. By thinking of the earth as something separate, a resource which supports us and that we rely on, it motivates some level of concern but it is not enough. In the myth of ‘care’ we are reminded that the earth is not something ‘out there’, but something ‘in here’. We are, as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it, ‘a creature made of clay’. If you found out that there was a disease within your body you would act with immediacy to cure it. The care you have for yourself means that the threat it poses pushes the illness into a position of priority. At the moment the ‘world-body’ is diseased and it is simply a distortion of our perception that we do not see the earth as part of our larger body, or rather, that our bodies our part of the earth-body. Just like trees produce fruit, ‘The earth peoples’ as Alan Watts points out.

In care, kindness, compassion and generosity are born. When we care about something, we become committed to protecting it. Descartes’ motto might be amended to, ‘I care, therefore I am’. Change in the world cannot emerge through anger or guilt, but only through a renewal in the human spirit brought about by a renaissance in the culture of care.