This article was originally posted on Sightings on October 22, 2020. Under the sponsorship of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Sightings reports and comments on the role of religion in current events.
Nine months into our pandemic season, most Americans seem anxious to move on. News of the novel coronavirus no longer commands our attention or ignites an adrenaline rush. The poignant coverage of isolated patients struggling to breathe and families mourning the loss of loved ones from afar has been eclipsed by the political theater of an election year. Serious discussions of preventive best practices are reduced to pro- or anti-mask memes. We are tired of being care-ful, and such political care-lessness offers, at the very least, something different to worry about.
But the traumatic aftermath of this worldwide pandemic—devastating losses of life and livelihood caused by a tiny virus that has outstripped scientific knowledge, first-world wealth, and human resolve—will not finally be assuaged at November’s ballot box. At their root, this year’s electoral machinations belie a critical loss of faith: not just in these candidates or this process, but in ourselves. Human beings suffer not only when there is insufficient care on offer, but when we cannot offer such care ourselves.
This is not, of course, a new realization. The inevitability and necessity of our connection to one another, for good and for ill, is as old as our humanity, and as enduring as those religious traditions that warn of our failure to care, and call us to remember who and whose we are. But we are living in a moment when we can endanger the lives of lovers and strangers simply by carelessly exhaling in close proximity. At the same time, we can sense the suffering of people near to us and also of those far away, and be moved to care in myriad expressions that have the power to ease each other’s pain. None of us is born alone, thrives alone, suffers alone, or heals alone. Neither receiving nor giving care is optional for any of us: we are all essential to the essential work of care.
The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago recently opened an exhibit entitled Take Care. Featuring over 50 works from the museum’s collection, the curators (from the Latin, “curare”, meaning “to take care”) urge viewers to consider “matters of care from the personal to the collective. The artworks on view range from portrayals of familial relations and societal obligations, to gestures of hospitality and ritual, from strategies of bearing witness and evoking empathy, to explorations of networks of care and the results of their absences.” The exhibit includes works chosen collaboratively with members of the University community in a project called “Collective Care,” inviting us into conversations with art that uncover fresh aspects of a phenomenon so deeply embedded in our experience that we cannot fully appreciate its significance or bring its wisdom into propositional speech.
As a participant in this project, I found myself scrolling through a collection of the museum’s works on my home computer last week. The image that caught my eye and captured the complexity of this moment was not what I expected; not a tender representation of generous care between two persons, but a stark, unadorned photograph that quietly and improbably captured a split second of extreme precariousness. The photo is from a collection called “Equilbres (A Quiet Afternoon)" by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, works that “juxtapose the spectacular and ordinary, questioning our understanding of reality and inviting a state of wonder.” (Nan Trotman, the Guggeheim Museum, 2016)
At first glance, the image is unassuming. But it beckons us to look closer. What is happening here? Why these items—the wine bottle, the glass jar, the balloon—and how are they in relationship to each other? We are not sure how this arrangement came to be; given the laws of gravity, these are impossible connections. Certainly the next frame will document disaster...but then again, maybe not! The artists encourage us to suspend our own disbelief, if only for a moment, to see the beauty in precariousness and the possibility in that which is improbable. Their playfulness is balm for our pandemic care-weariness, and a reminder that an embrace of our own precarity, our very tendency towards failure, is part and parcel of what it means to care.
In our highly specialized capitalist context, it can be difficult to recognize that full participation in the activity of collective care is at the core of our own communal wellbeing. Such elusive truth becomes more vivid when we are stripped of that which we take for granted. At the height of the pandemic, it was not enough for the inconsolable families separated from their seriously ill family members to know that their loved ones were receiving competent COVID care inside the hospitals they could not visit. They wanted and needed to share actively in the provision of care. We want to be held in strong webs of reciprocal recognition, collaborative decision-making, and mutual care when we or our loved ones are suffering.
Of course, such robust participation in care-giving and care-receiving is always precarious. It is risky, messy, time-consuming and costly. What constitutes truly effective care is not easily discernible nor readily measured. Care is hard to standardize or commodify and even harder to legislate; it is a moving target with a degree of unpredictability and inefficiency that is the bane of a first world economy. And so, the responsibility for care has historically been relegated to those with less power and fewer resources: the old and the young, the poor, persons of color, women. When circumstances require the provision of care to be taken up by institutions and businesses, its vital relational complexity suffers. Care-seekers become “patients” or “clients” without full autonomy to collaborate in their care, nor the possibility of reciprocating with care for those who have eased their pain. As admirable as has been the sacrificial work of health care providers during our COVID crisis, our thank-you yard signs and daily rounds of applause cannot begin to redress the very real suffering of these few on behalf of so many. We must re-conceive a culture that elevates the work of care by distributing its opportunities and its costs across all the sectors of our economy, among neighborhoods, among family members, and within the self-understandings of each one of us.
When the rights and responsibilities of caring are not evenly and generously distributed, our full humanity suffers, because participating in the exchange of care is what holds us together. The work of building a more capacious culture of care is a precarious and improbable task. It cannot be left to elected officials and Supreme Court justices alone; their constrained roles and practices thwart larger visions. Nor can the anxious majority sit idly by while science perfects the vaccine that makes it safe for us not to care, once again. Inspired by our artists, poets, and prophets, we must all take up our share of precarity, entertaining the improbable, if only for this moment—taking part in taking care.