Caring to Care

By David Corbett

Breaking News: I’ve just learned my interview with Mysterious Press’s Rob Hart is packaged with Otto Penzler’s interview with Nelson DeMille on a just available FREE podcast through iTunes. Just go to the iTunes store, search for Mytserious Podcast, look for the MP logo among the offerings, and there it will be.

This time of year is often called the Season of Caring—the better to distinguish it, I suppose, from the rest of the year, aka the Season of Sneering Unconcern. (Or: the Season of Scaring.)

Caring has been on my mind not just because of the season, though. Two recent articles in the New York Times had me thinking a bit more deeply than usual about the whole issue of caring—how much we can, for how long, and why we often try not to.

In her piece titled How to Live Without Irony, Christy Wampole argued that the current zeitgeist, especially among millennials, requires an almost kneejerk rejection of caring, or at least seeming to care.


She blames some of this on the obsession with digital technology, which overwhelms slower, more demanding, more human connections.

But there’s also the lingering fear of finding one’s passions and desires wanting. Christy admits when it comes to gifts, she’d rather give a kitschy knick-knack, good for a moment’s laugh, than try for something meaningful and have the recipient disappointed.

In this view, irony is the terror of the pain that accompanies being authentic, imperfect, human. It’s a kind of armor against shame.

I learned to care when I stopped trying to be the smartest guy in the room—or the class clown—and realized I actually wanted a meaningful connection with someone else. It truly hit home in my marriage—no more so than when Terri got sick and passed away. (Or, as one of Christy’s friends put it: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”)

And yet a lack of irony can be just as self-defensive and false. Tyrants lack irony, zealots lack irony. For them the hyper-sincerity of unquestioned belief is the armor against shame.

Regardless of the emotional spectrum—dour with power or hip and flip—it’s genuine connection with others, the ability to care and accept the pain of loss and rejection and error, which proves to be the most difficult thing.

The second article I read that had a real impact—“New Love: A Short Shelf Life” by Sonya Lyubomirsky—concerned what’s known as hedonic adaptation—or, more colorfully, the hedonic treadmill. (No, it won’t firm up your thighs.)

Hedonic adaptation is the now widely accepted and broadly verified phenomenon by which we naturally “normalize” experiences of profound joy or bliss or excitement after a certain period of time. Sexual passion for a loved one normally lasts about two years, for example. A new toy may lose its fascination well before nightfall on Christmas Day.

Being happy, it turns out, is a lot like being tall. After about age thirteen, the fix is in. Your general state of personal happiness is largely hard-wired.

And this is significant to the extent we pursue caring because of the joy it brings us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think caring born of fondness is more likely to survive than concern born of moral obligation. But maybe I’m wrong.

To truly care deeply one has to crawl out of the foxhole of the ego and both see someone else clearly, as best you can, and allow yourself to be seen. It’s simple to state. Why is it so hard to do?

Why are we so beholden to an idea of ourselves? Our persona, our identity, our ego—call it whatever you want—it’s the collection of tactics, impressions, and feelings that make up who I usually consider myself to be. It’s the machine that allows me to go out in public and not be afraid I’ve got my fly down—or toothpaste on my chin.

And yet few experiences are as rewarding as when you find someone who lets you put down that mask. It may well be that there’s just another mask waiting, a slightly deeper one perhaps. There may not be a ‘true self,” just one “personality” after another, like the layers of an onion.

But there’s one bit of advice I got in my early twenties that’s as true as anything else I’ve ever learned: You don’t know yourself by yourself.

This can lead down a false path as well, of course. We all know people who “live for others,” and who seemingly would collapse into an empty husk if left alone. Solitude is maddening for such a person, a haunting scream of emptiness. It’s not that they’re lonely. They’re afraid, without someone else there as echo, that they cease to exist.

I guess I’m looking for a golden mean, on the one hand rooted to some core sense of who I am, and on the other open to the kind of change meaningful connection offers. Because if we’re not going to allow others to affect us, to make us feel and worry and laugh and give—to make us care—why bother? And caring changes us.

Sartre had it exactly backwards—hell isn’t other people, it’s ourselves. It’s being locked in the isolation of “personality.” (Interestingly, Sartre himself came to this same conclusion after the war, and devoted himself to political and social engagement.)

The truth is hard, not because it’s complicated but exactly the opposite. Human truth is simple, which is what makes it maddening. We want to love and be loved. We want to care. If it weren’t so sneakily difficult due to the habit of ego and the pieties of selfishness, we wouldn’t restrict that caring to a mere one month per year.

I could connect all of this to the writing of our characters, but this post is already far too long. Maybe I’ll get to that next year. (Oh please don’t, I hear you cry.)

Meanwhile: Who is it in your life that most instinctively arouses your impulse to care?

How has your connection to that person grown over the years?

How has the manner of your caring, or the things you care about, changed with that connection?

Happy Holidays everyone—I’ll see you next Tuesday for Wildcard Tuesday

with the British/American thriller writer Tony Broadbent,

and again the day after Christmas.

Merry Merry, Don’t Be Scary.

* * * *

Wait! It wouldn’t be Christmas without blatant self-promotion:

My short story, “A Boy and a Girl,” is the featured offering in the sweetly named Out of the Gutter 8, edited by the inimitable Joe Clifford. It’s available in Kindle edition now, with print versions forthcoming.

Also, as mentioned last time, I’m teaching a ten-week online course through UCLA Extension beginning on January 16th. The course is titled The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters, and covers the art of characterization from conception of the character through development and execution on the page.

Last, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have re-issued my third and fourth novels — Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running, respectively—in ebook format. Follow the links to purchase the titles.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: It’s time for those Christmas Classics, and the chestnuts haven’t roasted till Robert Earl Keene, Jr. sings “Merry Christmas from the Family:”

21 thoughts on “Caring to Care

  1. JD Rhoades

    "Being happy, it turns out, is a lot like being tall. After about age thirteen, the fix is in. Your general state of personal happiness is largely hard-wired."


    Thanks for playing my favorite Christmas song, though.

  2. Shizuka

    I care about my mom more than I used to.
    And since we've always been relatively close, except for some rocky teenage years, this surprises me.
    Partly, I care more because she's now kind of old (not Old old or feeble) and lives closer, but also because my dad and brother are gone.

    I notice older people more now and worry when I see them taking the stairs in crowded subway stations. I've learned which stations have elevators.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    "There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…"


    "And in the end
    the love you take
    is equal to the love
    you make."

  4. David Corbett


    I think the kind of caring you describe falls into the older-but-wiser category. If we let it happen, our growing older alerts us to how much luck entered our lives, for good and bad. We see the fragility of life, how vulnerable people are, how much at risk.

    I wonder if this deepening of caring is susceptible to hedonic adaptation. If the change of temperature in our caring, even when rooted in compassion not just, well, passion, is susceptible to the same kind of leveling out. I honestly don't know. I may be mixing apples and oranges here.


    Prufrock, speaking of shame.

    And, in the end…

    (Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
    But she hasn't got a lot to say.)

  5. Dana King

    "And yet a lack of irony can be just as self-defensive and false. Tyrants lack irony, zealots lack irony. For them the hyper-sincerity of unquestioned belief is the armor against shame"

    There's your money quote. I see the point the author was trying to make about irony, but the United States must have the lowest awareness of irony of any educated nation. Where else can members of the dominant religion claim they are being persecuted because they aren't allowed to compel others to adhere to their beliefs, or senators can filibuster their own bills, or hold a press conference to complain about being left in the dark about something while a press conference to explain what they're complaining about is being held, and not see a logical issue there.

    The real problem we have wit irony is not the intentional poseurs, but the unitentional bits of it we have to trip over every day.

  6. Ed Foster

    <<<And this is significant to the extent we pursue caring because of the joy it brings us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think caring born of fondness is more likely to survive than concern born of moral obligation. But maybe I’m wrong.>>>

    Mr. Corbett, I think you are entirely correct, and in fact, I am pretty sure that caring born of moral obligation inevitably stops being caring very quickly, even before the behaviors born of it have stopped, creating a curious situation where we are doing caring things but don't mean them.

    Wonderful post by the way. You are scratching here on what I think is the philosophical dilemma of our time, how to be authentically connected to one another. Thanks for the deep thoughts and fine writing.

  7. David Corbett


    I remember after the 9/11 attacks that many of the talking heads decreed that "irony is dead."

    I thought: how ironic.

    Secretly, I feared the attack would lead to a kind of jingoistic fanaticism, and that was certainly true in some quarters. Irony, in those circumstances, equated with permitting yourself a certain perspective on events, not getting swept up in the passions of the moment.

    But I think it's important to distinguish insight or reserve or circumspection with irony. Irony with a sense of good will notices the folly of human affairs, and revels in the infinite array of vanities we see around us every day. Your examples are apt.

    But there's another kind of irony, and that's the kind Christy was addressing, the kind that dresses up fear of being found lacking with a sneering wit. It hides behind a contrived sense of meaninglessness to defend against the slings and arrows of actually engaging with life and love.

    I'm all for circumspection. But I used to be one of the sneerers. I'm glad I grew out of it.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Really, the Beatles said it all, didn't they?

    I could have replaced the Prufrock quote with this one:

    "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.
    Who is it for?"

  9. David Corbett


    What I find fascinating is that you've discovered these profundities in McCartney songs. I usually associate Lennon with the searing insight — and John was certainly the ironic one ("looking through a glass onion"). Perhaps it was Paul's willingness to be sincere that rose to the top in the lines you've quoted. Sure, he could be sappy, just as John could be vicious and wry and … ironic.

  10. Allison Davis

    I mourned the passing of a beloved dog six weeks ago and a cat yesterday, both old, both parts of my life. I was surprised at the hole their deaths made and it prompted thoughts of change and loss. Loss makes connections all the more precious. Caring is the glue, the electricity, the life of those connections. Vulnerability is essential to make them last. But the trust, and I think that's the key, the trust to be vulnerable is the hardest thing to achieve. At least for me. Trust is what opens the door.

  11. David Corbett

    Dusty and Ed: Sorry for the delays in getting back to you. The spam filter was clogged.

    Dusty: I'm not totally sold on the "Your happiness barometer is set for life" argument. Like all arguments concerning personal change, it gets down to: Did you really move forward, or simply discover an aspect of yourself you already had, but had denied, repressed, left stunted, etc. That's an old conundrum, and a bit of a red herring. (Can't believe I just wrote that awful sentence.) Who cares? I do feel that I have a greater capacity to love and be loved than I ever did, or perhaps I just have a deeper insight into that ability. Regardless, I'm a better friend and companion now than I was as a kid or even in my 20s. And those relationships make me happier than I ever allowed myself to be. The key was my marriage, when someone I adored loved me back. Kinda simple. And miraculous.

    Ed: I wonder if the concern for authenticity isn't a pointless digression. Maybe my motives are mixed, but if I'm helping, who's to complain? There's clearly a lot more to it than that, and I don't mean to trivialize it. But Hamlet's famous speech, "To be or not to be," is not, as many think, about suicide. It's about engagement with the world. It's a testament to the new understanding of man born of the Renaissance, in distinct contrast to the monastic ideal that had dominated the Middle Ages. He's asking whether it's better to suffer "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," or do as the scholars and monks had done, retreat from the world in pursuit of a greater purity. I think we're still asking that question.

    Especially after an election.

  12. Sarah W

    My children have the capacity to drive me to the edge of every emotion I have, positive and negative, because I care so much.

    Over the past ten years, I've cared about them and for them because of biological instinct, social obligation, cultural pressure, proximity, and just because they're amazing, funny, brilliant people–sometimes at the same time, sometimes not (we all have those days).

    I now listen with interest to rambling dreams, can name all the members of the Fresh Beat Band, never miss an episode of Phineas and Ferb, discuss Barbie couture, and kiss stuffed animals good night. I care about grades, science projects, skinned knees, and the right hymn to sing for a goldfish's burial at sea (Nearer My Fish to Thee, if you're wondering).

    Life would be quieter, cleaner, more financial flush, rested, peaceful, and far too empty and dull without them.

  13. Jake Nantz

    The person who arouses in me the desire (ability?) to care…that would have to be the only person I know that I never get sick of being around: my wife. It's weird. I mean her family? I love them dearly, but get tired of being around them. My family? Also love them dearly. Also get tired of being around them. Friends of ours? Yep, best in the world, but after a while I gotta get outta there.

    But her? Never. I don't know that it's changed our relationship over the years so much as strengthened it.

    Oh, and I LOVE that song for Christmas. Well done.

  14. David Corbett


    I think the loss of pets, at least mammalian ones, is a greater cause for grief than we are comfortable admitting — which is rather sad, and misguided, imo.

    We're not that different from mammals, and it's exactly in the realm of nurturing and caring that we're similar. The part of our brains that form affectionate bonds finds its evolutionary predecessor in mammals. And unburdened by the miscues of language, we relate to animals with a kind of limbic directness that feels authentic and pure, if limited. No talking books with the pooch..

    Trust is the real issue in human affection. I think fear of betrayal is far more important than the fear of loss or pain. Once you've been seriously lied to in love — even if it was you deceiving yourself — trust becomes incredibly precarious. And yet without it, how can you risk the openness to make a truly meaningful connection?

    Sarah: That is as sweet, caring, and moving an account of caring as I think I could hope for. Thank you so much. It was beautiful.

    Here's the two-buck question: Have your children changed you, or simply drawn out dormant or neglected aspects of your personality?

    Perhaps it's a non-issue, But the point I keep trying to make, and keep missing, is that not just happiness but change, to whatever extent we're capable of either, requires OTHER PEOPLE.

    Even the army recruit who, through discipline and effort, transforms himself from a sulky teen into a soldier, needs a relentless DI to bring that out of him. Just as moms need their sweet, vulnerable, unique children to stir deep, even buried feelings of devotion and unconditional love.


    I felt the same way with my wife. It goes well beyond best friend.

    You remind me of two quotes I include in THE ART OF CHARACTER in discussing how to portray a marriage:

    Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.
    —George Eliot, Middlemarch

    Sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister. At worst she becomes your enemy.
    —Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter

    You seem to have avoided the awful while still embracing the intimacy, and I think you found a better companion than an ersatz sister or an enemy. Those kinds of love are rare. They require two rare individuals.

  15. David Corbett

    P.S. Jake & Dusty: Yeah, the song's a kick. Somewhat disturbing how willing I am to listen to it over and over.

  16. Lisa Alber

    Hi David,

    A little late to the conversation…I, too, am dubious about "Your happiness barometer is set for life." I felt sad when I read that (because I deep-down fear that it might be true?), and it reminded me of a fascinating book I read recently called "The Brain That Changes Itself." Basically, the brain can rewire itself. "Neuroplasticity" is the term…And, of course, according to cognitive behavioralists, we can rewire our reactions to stressors, etcetera. So, can we rewire our barometers for happiness, and for caring? I'd like to think so. It might be a like a practice–like taking up meditation or something. I'm going to practice happiness, or caring. And maybe like anything else, over time happiness and caring become easier…

    Most excellent essay, as ever.

    Cheers, Lisa

  17. David Corbett


    I just did a little Googling on neuroplasticity and I think you're right, the evidence does not suggest we're stuck in some hopeless pit of personality. However, the key seems to be the pursuit of what's novel or difficult, and thus sticking to the habitual, whether the routine is personal or interpersonal, not only traps us, it makes the ruts of the routine even deeper and harder to break.

    Iris Murdoch once remarked (I'm paraphrasing) that love is the uneasy realization that someone else actually exists. It's that stark realization that there is someone else seeing you, beyond your control to effect how they respond, that is, I think, the single most profound impetus to growth, change — and concern. Only by climbing out of our routines, our personalities, our egos can we have that frisson of awareness that things are real. For a writer this is very much related to respecting the reader. Other people rewire our brains, our behavior — for better and for worse, until death.

  18. Sarah W


    That's a tough one. I wouldn't have said that I could possibly have had that much patience/impatience, fear, rage, or love in me before the kids arrived, but maybe I just needed access?

    I'm pretty sure I hated Barbies before they infested our entire house–but now I make an attempt to care about their outfits because I care that these small people care.

    So, I guess the kids are triggers, catalysts, and providers of caring . . .

    Where's my two bucks?

  19. David Corbett


    That was pretty much what I was getting at in my response to Lisa's comment. It may well be that these resources lie within us, but far more often than not it takes external events–often in the form of other people–to make us aware of them, let alone act on them.

    By the way– have you seen Hells Angels Barbie? I'm not making that up.

    As for your remuneration. I referred to a two buck QUESTION. I put no price on the answer.

    Sue me.

  20. Lisa Alber

    Yes, yes, you're right on — the mundane/habitual versus the novel…Yet, it's the tendency of our species to avoid the novel/difficult, isn't it? Therein, lies the eternal struggle.

    Taking this into the realm of novel writing: certainly difficult. But the novelty of this difficulty can itself become mundane, can't it? And thus, perhaps, writer's block could be born. What's the solution? Creating a new challenge within the mundane challenge? I remember Elizabeth George talking about how she challenged herself to write a story in which a perfectly nice person murders another perfectly nice person. How exactly could that come about? Don't remember the name of the novel, but I remember that the solution surprised me–and was believable.

  21. David Corbett


    Freud considered our desire for routine an aspect of the Death Wish. Genuine engagement with life means encountering the unfamiliar and dealing with the anxiety it arouses. Habit may limit our anxiety but it does so by deadening us inside.

    I think applying all this to writing could be the basis for a whole other posting. "Keeping your series fresh" is one of those panel topics every mystery conference seems to require. In contrast, I've heard both Amy Tan and Richard Price confess that each book gets harder, precisely because you have to come up with something new, and your imagination feels tapped out from the last effort.

    But that's the gig. Nobody's putting a gun to our heads, forcing us to write. The good news is, if we trust our imaginations and work, we can keep from falling into creative ruts. I'm not saying it's easy, merely that it's possible.

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