Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2012 - Volume 12, No. 6
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Giving and Caring

Some time ago, a friend was telling me of her relationship experiences, and within  the conversation, she said to me, “By nature, I’m a very giving woman, but it seems every time I get into a relationship with a man, and I relax to become my natural self - then the man all at once stops giving.” For some reason that stopped me in my tracks, and I admitted to her “I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around that.” I just couldn’t think (very unusual for me). The conversation moved on to other matters, and we didn’t return to it, nor have we since. But my mind has been working at this ever since.

What I share here is not so much about my friend, but the odyssey this particular conversation sparked for myself. And so that’s what I want to share with you.  

A few years ago (in October 2007) I wrote a series of four Newsletter articles around the subject of “Givers and Takers in Relationships.”  From that perspective, my first thoughts here were to consider that, as a giver, this woman was inclined to attract takers, whom after the (‘giver’ activity of) seduction was accomplished, settled back into their true colors as takers. And in her specific case I’m inclined to hold onto that explanation.  

I also considered, and I think with some accuracy, the possibility that her background made her attractive and attracted to those men who use women to build themselves up. God knows in my clinical practice I’ve met quite a few of them, and worked with the women who have been their partners (and vice versa). 

But still, that doesn’t account for my own moment of personal confusion. My training, and emotional discipline tells me surely, there’s something else going on here - and I’ve been wrestling with it for awhile now.

I began to consider that my confusion had very little to do with the situation with my friend, but with a parallel pattern from somewhere else that was gnawing at me.  

Then one day recently, the egg cracked. I was thinking about a woman who years ago had been in my life, who was by her own definition, a very giving woman. That had been part of my attraction. But then I also recalled situations where I had the distinct feeling she didn’t ever really care about me, only about herself. My tendency, especially clinically, can be to encourage this self-orientation as good, as an important part of a current developmental process, which often it’s my professional task to encourage. Hence even in the past I would, at least for awhile, overlook the absence of any deep caring. There are some women whom you know they care, because it’s a central and active part of the friendship or relationship. But there are others for whom it just doesn’t seem to be there. They give, but they don’t seem to care - or perhaps to be able to care. There’s a compassion, or empathy that’s missing. It’s difficult to put this into words, because I don’t want to misjudge them, nor to be one to personally claim to ‘want’ their care. It would be rare for me to ever ask.  I believe I’m one to give (care) even in the absence of receiving (care), or so I can see in my history - both past and recent.   

That was it!  I’d never considered there was an essential difference between giving and caring.  And it brought me to awareness of a web I’d been caught in many times in my own life.  

How is it that one can give, but not care? At first it seems a non-sequitur.

Perhaps it’s this: For some (many?) life hasn’t given much, if any, true caring. And so, in response to a seemingly universal hunger within to be cared for, we strike a bargain - that if I give (what I have to share), then I’ll have a better chance of getting (what I need). It’s usually an unconscious bargain, often even pre-verbal - taking place when we’re very young, before we have any language by which to think about it. And without language, there is little accessible memory. Sometimes that bargain is with God - “I will serve you and you will then love me.” (The original theology has been turned upside down, so as to be more manageable to the ‘sinner’.) This is a giving for the sake of the self, but not for the benefit of relationship.  

I think of so many clients, men as well as women, who give and give, and yet end up empty (depressed or generally anxious), as if the bargain has collapsed. My work with them usually must be slow and care-full.  

For many, their giving is a way of reinforcing an image of goodness, the reinforcement of an undeveloped ego. To stop giving can cause much anxiety as the ego defenses are threatened. Giving is a behavior, which can serve many purposes in life, some healthy, some not. Caring is not so much a behavior, but an extension and expression of the heart. One of the primary behaviors of caring can be that of giving, which is why we tend to see them as synonymous.

Now I began to realize why I was ‘stopped in my tracks.’ This was in part my own story. It was a web I’d been caught in many times. A number of the relationships in my own life were sufficiently giving, but not caring. And then even the ‘giving’ would disappear. That was the pattern my friend’s story matched. Sometimes I’d held on way too long. That’s where that ‘hostage‘ feeling came from - where my brain was ‘stopped.’  

To be sure, I’ve played out the reverse as well, and I’m not proud of that. But that’s my own story, and probably not of interest to most readers here.

Back to the question, how is it that one can give yet not care? And I have to admit I don’t have a good answer. But now that I’ve opened that question, the reality of it becomes more obvious. We know a lot about giving, and about others not caring in return. I’ve done that myself, but have been blessed with a strong enough interior life to weather it, as well as having many around me who genuinely do care.  

With people who give too much, I may encourage them to give less. That doesn’t mean to care less. Caring can mean choosing to give less - in a sense to better care for the right reasons.  

More difficult, I will at times encourage people who care too much to choose to not care. Yes, it can be a choice.  What most people do instead is to is to build enough anger to make that choice easier. I claim that’s not necessary, but it does help lawyers make a good living.  

The woman about whom I spoke in the beginning - I wanted to believe her story, in a sense that she was a giver, and the victim of taking men. But life has matured me since my October 2007 writing. Maybe she was not a victim at all. She could have been telling me even more about herself, that she contains within herself both parties of her drama - she gives, but herself does not care. And perhaps so does her partner, and perhaps his not caring is all she can see of him. Often I’ve seen people in their giving try so hard to care, but consciously or unconsciously just don't seem to make it, or have it in them. I don’t think that’s true of her, but it certainly gives me a different set of eyes by which to see myself.  

Now things can make more sense.

As a therapist, I believe the ability to care, what I sometimes call the ‘empathy organ’, can be found, developed and mastered, though it’s often difficult work. But as a man out in the world, I’ve been told more than once,          

Pay attention.


Let me add an important addendum.  

There is little or no benefit in using this material as a specific criticism of other persons - although it can be very tempting. So please don’t, except in very trusting relationships. My intention here is to present thoughts and ideas that have value only for each individual to question and come to better know themselves.

Comments (6)

  • Yes, C. S. Lewis called them “goodish women”.

    — Alice, 6/1/2012
  • iChing

    That is a fascinating conundrum, isn’t it? From reading the iChing, which I’ve picked up again recently, it’s my understanding that caring (for someone) should actually come before giving (to someone), and not the other way around nor one in exchange for the other, for things to work out most harmoniously. To give in the hopes that caring will follow does not often bode well according to ancient Chinese wisdom. But yes, I see this happens a lot now that you mention it! I think it’s kind-of like falling into a relationship and hoping that love will follow. I’ve been at both ends of that, too.

    — Heather, 6/1/2012
  • Many people are taught to give as an empty act. Their behavior is repeated but the intention is missing. They are giving falsely – or as you mentioned (and I’m paraphrasing) - selfishly. The lesson of giving to others is missing the reason — I believe that reason is caring. I bristle when I hear people – or even catch myself – saying “I'm a giving person” or “I'm a caring person.” If this statement is true, then it doesn’t need to be said because people already recognize this. When a person says this, they are running to the roof top and crowing like Peter Pan. That is how they make you stop and take your mind hostage.

    — Amy, 6/3/2012
  • giving / caring

    i liked the story here bill. while reading it, keeping in mind the teller, i began to think of my own issues and if this was for me ( like the sermon you wanted to miss). Then you throw out the line which was highlighted in me that,“ sometimes caring is not giving”. i wrestled with this for years with my older boys thinking myself a bad dad having to say NO more times than Yes. Oh how i wanted to give give give, but sercumstances always needed to be the guide, at least for me. not saying you had to do something right to get something because giving is from the heart apart from the mind i believe.the mind only helps decide what to give but the heart does the giving.
    Looking back i can see that i had giving my boys more than what i had known. i gave them all of me that is the good the bad both of which carry valuable lessons for life (its a what to or not to do thing).
    Being the lone disaplinarian in the home at the time, this was hard to see, but now that the fog has lifted, i can see the riches that it carried. My boys love there dad and understand this now and that is in part my reward.Im reminded of the verse that states God disciplines those that he loves.
    its sad that we as a people have such a hard time recieving which just may be the real issue. we shy from the recieving of to much and sadden or anger when we dont recieve enough.
    this topic can carry a person through life but it made me look back on my own. i appreciate this story and you for being You.
    thanks Bill; mike

    — mike gomez, 6/5/2012
  • I like the concept that caring needs to take place before giving. I think the opposite is prevalent in our young people today.

    — Alice, 6/6/2012
  • Givers.

    This concept of giving and not caring spills over into other aspects of life also. One who donates money to “causes” only to make themselves feel better, not really caring about those they are helping. Mostly doing this to look good in the eyes of others or a big tax write off.

    — Barbara Davis, 6/7/2012

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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