What is care?

pay attention, notice, attend to, look and listen, feel, be present, care for and about, be curious and wonder why/ why not/ at whose expense, take seriously

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries).

Tronto offers four phases of care that are analytically separate but interconnected in the ongoing process of care:

Phase One: Caring About
Phase one involves the recognition that caring is necessary. It is about paying attention to issues/individuals/communities/nations/regions and identifying their needs.

I am particularly interested in the phase of caring because it resonates with my own linking of care with curiosity and paying attention. I think of caring-as-curiosity as more than just paying attention and recognizing that there are needs to be met through practicing care. Is this phase always (and only) phase one in a larger process of practices? Why is it important to distinguish it analytically from other forms of care? What are the limits or dangers of doing so?

Phase Two: Taking Care of
Phase two involves assuming responsibility for those needs and developing ways to respond to them. This second phase goes beyond identifying a need to the recognition that action is needed and can be taken.

When I think of taking care of something, I often think of solving (or getting rid of) a problem. Tronto doesn’t address the (sometimes) negative tone of this phrase or the potential conflicts between solving a problem (taking care of it) and the need for ongoing care. She does, however, discuss how it is often connected with men and the power/privilege they have in being able to address and solve problems (121).

Phase Three: Care-giving
Phase three involves the actual physical labor that is necessary for taking responsibility and meeting the needs of others. Tronto offers the following as examples: nurse administering medication, repair person fixing a given thing, mother (or father?) talking with her child about the day’s events, a neighbor helping a friend to set her hair (107).

I am struck by her examples here. These activities seem to be overwhelmingly feminine–can a father engage in these caring activities? Or, when a father cares is he engaged in mothering? Tronto does suggest that these are the examples that most quickly spring to our minds–is this true? Is this how we envision care?

Phase Four: Care-receiving
Phase four involves the responses of the person/community/object who receives care.  Tronto believes this phase is necessary because focusing on how the object of care responds to that care enables the care giver to assess whether their actions were effective and productive.

Is this another form of paying attention? So, it is not just that we pay attention to the need for care but that we pay attention to our practices of care and the limits and possibilities of that care. Hmm…so maybe paying attention (and caring about how we care) is important for multiple phases of giving care.

Care is more than empathy. Stop cultivating empathy, start cultivating belief.

Care is not just being polite and having good manners

Care as repair

There’s an American word I’ve always disliked which is the word fix, in the sense of just making a problem disappear. “The only way we’re going to fix this is blah blah blah”: this way of thinking is just general. The world actually can’t be fixed. All Year Zero experiments fail dramatically, whether we’re talking about Cambodia, or we’re talking about the French revolution, or the Soviet Socialist Republics, or China. You can’t go back to Year Zero, you can’t kill your way out of the problem of living. I don’t like the word fix even in its lesser forms, it makes me uncomfortable. The once and for all fix: there is no once and for all fix for anything. The word I like is the word “repair”: more tentative, more humble. Actually, repair sounds to me like a word that has been feminized because we think of somebody stitching, somebody weaving, somebody making something carefully with their hands and making do. The marines go in there to fix things, they don’t go in there to repair things. Repair can always be undone. I’m thinking of Penelope, unweaving what she has woven, weaving and unweaving. The provisional character of repair, I would say, is where I try to center my thinking. This is not a quietist view of the world, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. We should do something: we should be repairing. But what does repair look like? There are ever expanding circles of responsibility and care from wherever we’re located. We have responsibilities to the people closest to us. Those of us who work in image-making, broadcasting, and writing have discursive responsibilities that go beyond the people in our immediate household or circle of friends. Because of social media now, very, very many people are in the role of broadcasting, and the responsibility of repair is actually larger now because we can reach larger groups of people. We’re always going to have these horrifying problems with us. That’s not an attitude of defeat. We can ameliorate some of them, that’s the work, it’s like individual work that then gradually becomes collective work. There are obviously very many ways to go about this including being a political activist. My way of going about it just happens to be that of being a writer and a photographer.

Between the Covers podcast with Teju Cole

Critiques of Self-Care

An Ethics of Care


[Curiosity] evokes ‘care’; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental (Michel Foucault, The Masked Philosopher)

taking something seriously through curiosity from Why did we stop asking questions?

But, what does it mean to take a topic seriously? Here is Enloe’s explanation, from pages 3-4:

  • listening carefully
  • digging deep
  • developing a long attention span
  • being ready to be surprised
  • recognizing that something (and/or someone) is worth thinking about
  • paying close attention to

from my online lecture, Why aren’t we Curious?


  • We are afraid to ask questions because it exposes what we don’t know or how we are uncertain
  • It is a lot of work and requires too much energy
  • It stirs up too much trouble and might force us to rethink our most basic assumptions
  • We are trained to receive and accept information instead of questioning it, challenging it or wondering about it


  • Those who wish to maintain the status quo and who resist change
  • Power structures—inside households, within institutions, in societies—that depend on our mere acceptance of ideas as “natural” or “given”
  • Those who wish to hide the political workings of terms and concepts that we have been trained to merely accept
  • Those who don’t want us to think critically about how systems and structures work and at whose benefit and whose expense
  • Those who want privilege (who has access to it and who doesn’t) to remain invisible and uninterrogated


  • To ask why something is the way it is is to suggest that it could be otherwise or that it shouldn’t be the way that it is
  • Enables us to pay attention to how things really work and how those things may serve to reinforce unjust power relations between people, communities, nations, institutions
  • Enables us to explore those things that we are afraid to question or to think about
  • It opens up a connection, a space, for engagement between us and the object of our questions or between us and the others to whom we ask the questions
  • Allows us to move beyond merely receiving information, to critically engaging with it
  • Trains us to wonder, to pay attention, and to be engaged in the world
  • Encourages us to reflect on how power and privilege work and how they contribute to oppression and injustice

Additional Readings. For more on questioning and feminist curiosity, check out some of the readings that inspired this mini-lecture:
Enloe, Cynthia. “Being Curious about our Lack of Feminist Curiosity
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw
Butler, Judith. “A Bad Writer Bites Back
Freire, Paulo. “The Future of School” and Learning to Question


Devoting/Giving Attention

Attention is more an act of surrendering will than asserting it.

Weil, Simone. Attention and Will

What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different (Weil).

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer (Weil).

In such a work all that I call ‘I’ has to be passive. Attention alone — that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears — is required of me (Weil).

The capacity to drive a thought away once and for all is the gateway to eternity. The infinite in an instant (Weil).

on listening when writing poetry

an enormous part of what I’m doing is listening, that I’m listening to the strangeness that is within us, and within our world, and within our ways of speaking to one another. And I’m listening to the energies and desires of the words themselves (Heather Christle).

learning to listen

Lately I’ve been running without headphones more, listening to my breathing and the sounds around me. I’ve also been trying to allow for silence in my running. To not shut everything out with a playlist or a podcast. I like it. I like listening to the crunch of my feet and how that sound changes depending on the condition of the path. I like picking out the different bird sounds, even though I can’t identify them, as I’m running above the river. I like being able to hear people greet me and to respond with a “hello” or “good morning”. And I like listening to the wind and coming up with words to describe its sound, like “sizzle” or “static on a tv.”

Sometimes/Mary Oliver (in Red Bird):

Instructions for living a life:
Pay Attention.
Be Astonished. 
Tell about it.

Mindful/Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light. 
It is what I was born for–
to look, to listen, 

to lose myself
inside this soft world–
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy, 
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional, 

the fearful, 
the very extravagant–
but of the ordinary, 
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar, 
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these–
the untrimmable light,

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Praying/ Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The Real Prayers are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First/ Mary Oliver
Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Teach the children…Give them the fields and the woods and the possibilities of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Upstream/Mary Oliver
Running as Prayer/ Jamie Quatro

In my own case, the allure of distance running involves sinking through the first two layers and emerging into a third, a state of prayerlike consciousness. Past the feel-good vibes, past the delusions, my attention moves outward: I’m intensely aware of the cadence of a bird’s song, cherry blossoms weighted-down after a rain. Things light up and I experience an interior stillness that somehow syncs me more profoundly with the exterior world. It’s a paradox: only when I’m fully present in my body do I begin to experience the absence of myself (Quatro). 

Thomas Gardner and Focused Attention

I’ve been feeling my way all week toward some still-unstated problem, running without a watch, not tracking my thoughts, trying to let the run distill itself down to breath, or rhythm, or attention–a single maple leaf suspended in a web, five feet over the trail. It’s hard to do. Thoughts rise and rattle, spread their wings, legs trailing them over the pond (Poverty Creek Journal, 35).

attend to:
keep vigil
be devoted

have a long attention span:
don’t forget
keep noticing
pay attention

give attention:
care for
care about

be curious:

breathe in the this and breathe out the that
slowly absorb the is through your skin

A Need for Distraction

staring, anxious, too focused, worried
Curiosity as model for questioning/caring, not worry and anxiety

Distraction/ Attention

forms of attention

Sometimes we need to “turn on all the lights” in order to be aware of as much as possible. Sometimes we need to be vigilant to information outside our focal area, and at other times we need to block out distractions and narrow our attention to a spotlight (Reingold).

Attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this. There are also many ways to capture attention: via your thoughts, inventions, self-revelations, expressions, performances, artistic creations, achievements, pleas, and arresting appearances.

Attention Shoppers

attention economy

Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.

Howard Rheingold, read in Attention Shoppers

attention and making sacred

from Our Methodology–Harry Potter and the Sacred Text:

Trusting the text: We practice the belief that the text is not “just entertainment,” but if taken seriously, can give us generous rewards. Trusting the text doesn’t mean we understand the text to be perfect – either in construction or moral teaching – but that it is worthy of our attention and contemplation. A guiding principle is that the more time we give to the text the more blessings it has to give us.

Rigor and ritual: By reading the text slowly, repeatedly and with concentrated attention, our effort becomes a key part of what makes the book sacred. The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement. Particularly by rigorously engaging in ritual reading, we believe we can glean wisdom from its pages.

Reading it in community: Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such.