“But I care about you, Bam,” Ned told him. “That’s what I’ve been teaching all the time–I care about you.” -Ernest Gaines, The Autobiography of Jane Pittman
Ned’s a teacher in The Autobiography, and I wonder if this is the one lesson that, at heart, all teachers are trying to share. “I care about you.” You matter, to me; your life is your own, but your life reaches out past you. It reaches at least to me. Speaking of me looks like shifting the focus away from you, and I don’t want to do that: caring lets me see you as you, value you as you, not as what I want you to be, not as what you’ll give me, not as what you’ll do for others. In caring for a plant, we give it the water and the space it needs to grow. In caring for another, we give them the space they need to become themselves.
Caring, as far as I can tell, is always something of a grand leap–I cannot know you, cannot understand you, cannot fathom you. There are haunts inside your head, and there are heavens; but caring for you doesn’t ask to see them. It is a gift given, without any thought of a return. It is standing, respectful, heart open, and looking in your direction, ready to see something that is not me or mine, something that I do not fully understand, something that I witness and am choosing to love.
Caring looks toward you, looks carefully and intently, but in the end it shifts the focus away from you. It has to. No plant grows without reaching its roots down or its branches up. All healthy roots touch something, and all branches give off a little shade. No person grows without connecting to something larger than themselves: science or music, art or social justice, or cooking a perfect s’more. For once we are ourselves, we can be something for another. When we were not really in the world, when we doubted our own reality, then we had nothing to offer others; but when, perhaps supported by a caring gaze, we choose to see ourselves as real, then we realize that there are listeners outside us, and that our voice (and our silence) speaks. We have grown into ourselves. And in growing, we have learned that our lives reach beyond ourselves.
The Autobiography follows the lives of freed Southern slaves and their children. They are surrounded by a world of hate, ignorance and violence, but they learn and share (and try to learn and share, and, human, stumble) this lesson there. Gaines insists that this awareness, this connection, grows in and between our hearts. Perhaps that means we can grow it on any ground, in any climate, though it can be difficult to cultivate.
I think we all need this connection. I think we all can offer it to anyone. Offering this might even be the fundamental human act: the most wondrous magic we practice: the simple truth of caring.