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The nature of caring

Writing a quarter of a century ago, Gilbert Wrenn presents a contemporary exploration of the work we do with young people. This is the first of two parts. See part 2 here.

"To care" immediately suggests caring for another. It does mean that, but it also means caring for yourself. The relationship is very close between the two kinds of caring. In fact, caring for yourself is a vital factor in how much and in what manner you can care for another. If you care little for yourself, you are less likely to be able to care for another. It would be reasonable then to discuss “caring for self" first. But “caring for another" provides our most vivid association of the word and we will look at this in this first part.

My very helpful editorial consultant has been admonishing me that I shift from second person to third person and back again throughout this book! In the remaining pages of the book where I am being very personal about caring, I am also being reckless. Don’t expect consistency at all! “You" means the reader, as a counselor or as a person; “we" means you and I, sometimes as counselors, sometimes just as people. So bear with me. I am talking to readers, not writing to them or about them. Most of all I value you, the reader, as a person more than you, the reader, as a counselor.

I – Caring for Others

In the middle of writing the first draft of these last chapters, I found that the time had arrived to fulfill a commitment to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. For a week I served there as seminar leader for a group of forty graduate students “counselors from various settings, nurses, teachers, probation officers, etc. They proved to be a delightful and responsive group, so I asked them for help in analyzing the nature of caring. From their forty short papers (two were in verse form!) and a lively group discussion, I have selected the following as the more commonly accepted definitions.

Caring is ...

Some quotes from the seminar papers are included because they cast intriguing even though individual highlights upon the topic:

It is apparent that caring has various meanings for different people. It would be a fruitless gesture to attempt to summarize them. Your own perception of caring is a reflection of the person that you are. But you change and so your perceptions of caring can change. You can enrich your pattern of caring by seeing new facets of expression, new dimensions of being.
Since I have shared these perceptions of seminar members with you “and pondering them has enriched me “I can do no less than add to them some persuasions of my own. Adding to them is all that I will do. I will not urge any perception of mine as meaningful for all. Each reader must select his own if the perception is to become related to behavior.

Kinds of love
I cannot distinguish between caring and love, and love without expectation of return was stressed in the seminar. This is love in the agape sense. Three kinds of love are frequently mentioned “erotic (sexual love), filial (brotherly, or family love), and agape. Filial love is an expected love, a love within a structured relationship. The counselor is often seen by others as exhibiting this kind of love within a school setting. He is expected to care, it is part of his duty, and in turn he at least hopes for some response of appreciation from the students.

In “The Three Worlds of the Counselor" (Personnel and Guidance Journal, October 1970, pp. 9 1–96) I have said:

On the other hand, I interpret agape to mean a love for those to whom one does not have any structured responsibility. It is a concern for a person as a person, with no expectation of a return from the other individual. It is an open love, one which is a condition of life and is inherent in the nature of people and their relationships to each other. I think students suspect that a counselor’s love is filial, a kind of professional obligation of a counselor, while their whole being cries out for agape, love freely extended to them as a person. Edwin Markham’s famous couplet is pertinent here: “He drew a circle that shut me out “heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win “we drew a circle that took him in." This love has no professionalism in it.

Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land) defines love in a manner that has come to have much meaning for me: “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own."

Style and agape
Do we care for another because we “should" or because we cannot help caring? The “should" is only a style, the fulfillment of a “professional expectation" that a counselor care. Recently I have read expositions on “style" by Maxine Greene, a professor of English at Teachers College, Columbia University, and by Seymour Halleck, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin. Both are analyzing style as many young people think of it today “being modish, contemporary, expressing oneself freely, dressing as one likes. These comprise style, but they are shallow. Halleck says, “You can go to Hell with Style," your own particular hell of trying constantly to be “hip" (a dated word no doubt!). Greene goes back to S–ren Kierkegaard, who distinguished between the aesthetic person and the moral person. Many youths, says Greene, never get beyond the style, the art form of life” they have not made a moral choice of that to which they are committed and which will determine what they do. They have the clothes but not the commitment or the sense of personal responsibility.

If counselors do not care beyond the style level, they are not seen as caring at all. To care is not a professional garment to be donned in one’s office “it is so very apparent there as a garment. Recently I wrote somewhere that it is an insult to a client to offer him a role rather than a person.

Can I continue to love when it is not returned? I fully believe in the principle of reinforcement, that one continues doing what he is rewarded in some way for doing. Does this concept conflict with agape? With no feedback, will I persist in caring? No, I would reply, but I will get feedback from some, from enough people “to keep me going." Caring (loving) is an attitude, an integral part of me, a way of living (Erich Fromm). If I care for the unlovable, those who return little or nothing at all, I will also care for those who return some or much. So I am rewarded “and can, occasionally at least, live agape.

I have not thought through whether it would be possible for me to continue loving only those who give no return. Perhaps a saint could, but I am not one. It would also be unrealistic to conceive of my world as not containing many returns (feedback of love) from others. It is immaterial that their appreciation of me often seems undeserved. My perception of myself is not always the image that I project to others and they give feedback to the image, not necessarily to me. It has taken me a long time to understand this. I can accept “undeserved" appreciation more gracefully now that I see that it is of their me, not of me as I perceive myself. So I can live agape to the limits possible within my personality, and the rest of my world will reinforce my caring. If my inferences are valid, this makes agape love possible “for anyone.

Caring for others means to me “moments of caring," sometimes hours of caring but never days. Therapist Gerald Haigh once commented that counselors had as their major function that of creating a relationship in which clients experienced “moments of humanness." It may be only for moments, said Haigh, that a client can feel entirely open to himself, unguarded, freed of internal restraints. These are precious moments, deeply rewarding ones, and the counselor who makes them possible for a client is fulfilling a high mission. As I reflect upon these “moments," I am reminded of Maslow’s “peak experiences" and of C. S. Lewis’s transcendental moments in Surprised by Joy.

Caring also means an ordering of priorities. Where is your primary loyalty? What will you risk in order to care? In a Time story in 1970 a young psychiatrist drafted into the army asked to be restored to civilian status because of his inability to reconcile the goals of psychiatry with his function in the army. As a psychiatrist in the army, he was a member of a “–mental hygiene team" on which he served merely as a consultant, with the decisions made by his commanding officer. His purpose, as defined by his commanding officer, was to serve the army, not the individual.

This interesting commentary suggests a clear analogy with the dilemma of many counselors. The counselor, when employed by an institution, be it social agency, school, college, or hospital, is immediately faced with a question of the primacy of his loyalties. In his professional preparation, he has learned that he is to serve the interests of the individual, to keep the confidence of the individual, and to be more concerned with the individual than with the institution. If counseling is to have any specific meaning, it is that the counselor operates in the interests of the person with whom he is counseling, except under most stringent circumstances threatening the welfare of other individuals.

When a professional serves as the agent of an institution, and in the interests of the institution primarily, then I very much doubt that he can be called a counselor. This is not to mean that a counselor has no regard for the welfare of society or that he has no consideration for the institution that is paying his salary. In the counselor’s hierarchy of values, however, the individual ranks higher than the institution. There is simply no way around this. When a psychiatrist represents an institution, he always has problems because, although he has responsibility to the institution, he has even more responsibility to the patient. When this institution is war, then the institution or the nation becomes paramount, and the welfare of the individual is secondary to the good of the whole. This is why another psychiatrist recently said, “Military psychiatry is a contradiction in terms."

The theme of this book is that the contemporary counselor must know the world he lives in, its trends, and its moods, but that beyond this he must care for what happens to the client and care for him as a person. Knowing and caring are both in the interests of the client. Caring for his client is not to neglect or deny society but to serve it indirectly rather than directly. I am reasonably convinced that when the best interests of the individual living in a contemporary culture are served, then the best interests of that society are also served. The point is that the start must be made with the individual and his needs, rather than with the society and its needs.

Caring, then, means making some decisions, taking some risks. How much do you care? School people generally are loyal to order and follow consensus. They are likely to be suspicious of liberty which disturbs order. David Cook quotes a 1969 Massachusetts court decision, which says in part, “Order can be defined properly only in terms of the liberties for which it exists, as liberty can be defined properly only in terms of the ordered society in which it thrives. As Albert Camus implied in The Rebel, order and liberty must find their limits in each other." Does a counselor care enough for students to encourage the expression of liberty as well as the maintenance of order? Is a counselor to “help students' express themselves, even at some risk to himself? If helping shows caring, then look at your priorities “for whom and about what do you care most?

Wrenn, G.C. (1973) The World of the Contemporary Counsellor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Reprinted with permission in The Child Care Worker Vol.3 No.4 April 1985

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