When I was in my teens, I had a boyfriend – let’s call him Alexander – who told me ‘You care too much about people who don’t matter.’ I was intrigued by that comment and, being a bit of a philosopher, I went away and thought about it a lot. The first bit, I accepted: I maybe do care too much. According to my mother, I was ‘too sensitive.’ I wrote poems, didn’t eat meat, joined political groups that campaigned for fairness, inclusion and equality. I cared, and maybe it was too much at times, but I was a teenager, and passionate. However, the next part of Alexander’s sentence bothered me a lot. ‘…about people who don’t matter.’ I gave that quite a lot of thought. Who decides who matters and who doesn’t? Why do some people matter more than others? What defines the ones who don’t matter? And doesn’t that mean that someone should start to care about those side-lined people? Needless to say, I was a bit unimpressed, and Alexander and I didn’t last very long after that statement.
Of course, I grew up and I realised that what he was probably talking about was simply learning to prioritise. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant that he thought I should prioritise the good people, family, friends, my boyfriend… People who were first in the queue as recipients of my kindness were those I should care about first and, if there was space left over, I could then offer a bit of thought and benevolence for those I didn’t know well, or at all.
Alexander’s criteria for judgement were not mine: I wanted to reserve the right to care about who I liked, to be charitable, thoughtful, to seek out people who I may want to care about for reasons that were my own. And that didn’t just extend to people I knew, but to hordes of people I’d never meet, but who have reasons to be considered and supported.
Through experience, I’m beginning to learn that, had Alexander substituted the word people for the word things, he’d have been spot on. I definitely am learning to care less about things that don’t matter. That’s so important. And I’m getting quite good now at deciding which things to prioritise and which to ignore, which to give credence to and which not to even think about twice.
In a room in my house, I have several inspirational posters, ranging from Just Write and You’ve Got This to quotations by Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath. But on my desk, I just have one inspirational message, that urges me in quite clear language to care less about things that don’t matter. In short, that includes everything negative that worries me, everything I can’t change, everything temporary and secondary, that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter. I might learn from these negative things, I might even consider them for a moment, but I won’t care. I include things like mistakes and criticism, (I’m only human and I’ll learn from them, but I don’t need to beat myself up,) negative opinions from people I don’t know, irrelevant things like cars and hoovering, that sort of thing. And it’s really useful to have that reminder on my desk when I’m stuck on the phone trying to talk to some provider or another, and I’ve been waiting for twenty-five minutes listening to the worst possible music. It’s not a priority. I leave the phone on speaker and go back to my typing. In those cases, caring less is a blessing.
So, back to Alexander, all those years ago. He was only young, and I’m sure what he meant could be summed in the words, ‘think about the effect that caring has on you yourself.’ Perhaps he was just being caring. And perhaps he had a point, but didn’t phrase it right. So, wherever he is now, I hope he’s caring about all the people in the world who matter. And I hope he’s happy.