For many years, from my teens through my 30s, I was painfully averse to causing anyone offense. In big and small ways, I often hurt myself to accommodate others. I loathed conflict and discord and would go far out of my way to avoid them, even with strangers I would never see again. Or at least, I tried to. When I failed to avoid it, which was inevitable, I would be tied in knots for days, guilty and confused. And leaving the house without makeup? In unfashionable jeans? Never. It was constant, a gentle twisting of my thoughts like wool into a worried thread, woven into my life so seamlessly that I didn’t even see it was there.
A fish has no idea of the water.
Or maybe they do, when they’ve been around long enough. Around the time I was turning 40, a colleague of mine got a T-shirt that read, “I’m 50 and I don’t care.” I thought it was funny, taking it to mean she didn’t care that she was turning the age that popular culture seems to deem “old”.
Now that my 40s have ripened in an ombré from disquiet to integration, and I’m 50 myself, I think the sentiment of “I don’t care” is much broader than I understood at the time. Although there is that aging-positive aspect for me in that I don’t feel past my prime, I also find I don’t care about a lot of things that used to consume reams of time and energy. I often walk around blithely not caring. Sometimes, that looks like a little bit of hesitation as I weigh the cost-benefit of a given situation, followed by my throwing caution to the wind:
Am I going to quote what my experience and qualifications are worth in this freelance proposal? Yes.
Am I going to wear weird purple leggings to run an errand? Yep.
Am I going to take the last piece of pizza on the buffet table? I sure am.
Other times, it doesn’t even occur to me to contemplate whether I care. Instead of trying to foresee every eventuality, attempting to guess ahead of time how I can present myself to so that other people won’t be offended or inconvenienced, I now sometimes realize in the middle of an interaction that I am just responding naturally as myself, with no insecure posturing, and that I haven’t even thought about doing things another way. Is the other person okay with that? I don’t care. This would have been unthinkable in my 20s and 30s.
The thing about this new way of being is that when I try to explain it to people, it sounds a little bit nihilist, which is unlike me. I don’t want to be that way, and it doesn’t feel that way to me. What gives? I’ve been examining it carefully to see if I can understand my own reactions, and I’ve noticed some details.
I’ve lived long enough to see things rising and falling, and going in circles through the years. Flared jeans were in style when I was a small child, and I have such a clear memory of how I felt about jeans in the 80s, when what was cool transitioned to tight and tapered. I would not have been caught dead in flares in middle school. Old photographs looked utterly ridiculous to me. I couldn’t fathom how anyone had ever worn something so outrageously lame and unfashionable. But then as I watched, the 80s jeans died, replaced by the wide jeans of the 90s, and the flares of the early 2000s. Here they come back around now, 20 years later, right on schedule. Hemlines and jeans legs and hairstyles rise and fall like breathing — inhale, exhale. So, I see an article about Gen Z making fun of Millennial skinny jeans, and it’s just a thing people are saying. I have no emotional response to it and make no plans to buy new jeans unless I need them. I remember thinking what they think, in reverse. It’s impossible to take seriously.
There’s also a sort of settling of my small self into very large context. It’s easy to see, from perusing just a few photos of the roaring 20s and the wartime feminist 40s that flared jeans predated me, and they’ll outlive me, too. The fad, its ebb and flow, has nothing to do with me in particular. When something that I don’t like or that doesn’t look good on me is in, I don’t have to take it personally. I also don’t have to wear it! Other things are that way, too — whether society thinks I should be working full-time or a stay-at-home mom doesn’t really have anything to do with me; all that matters is what options are available, and what I want. A person who seems irritable towards me, in some banal and everyday situation, is likely to have been irritable before I got there. When annoying or even terrible things happen to me, there’s usually no good reason for it — most of the time, I didn’t cause it, and most of the time, I don’t deserve it. So, who cares? It doesn’t matter that much, and as one of unimaginable trillions of beings ever born on this one planet, neither do I. If I make a mistake, if my hair is flat today, if I burn the toast, it’s all just water under the bridge. A neat trick I’ve learned pretty recently is that even when I do care about something like that, if I get flustered or angry at some petty thing, that too is all just the water, flowing on. I can let it pass, and it doesn’t have to flavor the day.
From paying close attention, I’ve noticed that sometimes when it may appear that I don’t care, it’s actually that I’ve developed a deep understanding, from difficult and painful experience, that I can’t control the reactions and choices of other people. They won’t always understand me. They won’t always like me. They won’t always do what I think is right. A lot of my efforts to curate my appearance, to avoid offense — those were efforts to control another person’s reaction to me. Their reaction, though, is not my responsibility. My responsibility is to curate my character, to find harmony with my placement in the world, to help where I can, and then to let go.
The upshot to all this not caring is that I care more. It may seem like a paradox, but it’s actually the natural consequence of having repeated experiences with the reality of interdependence. I affect others, and they affect me. This is inescapable – I’ll never be able to protect myself entirely from harm, and never be able to protect others from my inevitable mistakes or the mistakes of those around us. When I let go of control, though, I can embrace influence. I can put my energy where it may do some good, both for myself and other people, instead of letting it blow off into the ether on things that aren’t my purview and shouldn’t be. When I say I don’t care, it would be more accurate to say that I care more appropriately. I take that last piece of pizza – if I’m hungry and everyone has had their share. I still want my husband to think I’m pretty, but if the cashier doesn’t like my eyeliner, I couldn’t care less. I work hard for every client, but I don’t work weekends for free. I survive my mistakes. And, I understand my responsibilities. I’m only one person and can’t carry the world by myself. I have to rest. I have to have fun. I can’t do everything, but I can sure as hell do a lot for other people. I can donate. I can educate myself. I can listen. I can vote.
For all of that, although they are fewer now I sometimes notice those old destructive thoughts emerging still, seemingly out of nowhere, like carbonation in a glass of mineral water. They arise and pop, arise and pop…
The water takes no notice at all.
Heather Martin is a registered dietitian in clinical practice, and a senior Zen student at her local temple. She is also a candy corn science correspondent for Today Food. You can read more from her there, or at her blog. You can also follow her on @momofnorank on Twitter or Instagram. She encourages you to take care of yourself, and care less.
all photos also by Heather Martin.