I grew up thinking it wasn’t cool to care too much about things.
Caring about something too hard made you vulnerable. Weak. Care too much for a person, and they can hurt you emotionally. Care too much about a cause, and it will let you down. Care too much about a piece of media or an institution, and it opens you up to ridicule. The world was full of opportunities for pain and weakness, and I saw them all as beginning the moment I decided to give a damn.
This idea wormed its way into my mind via American cinema and storytelling, much of it geared toward portraying the rugged masculine ideal of the loner hero whose dedication is not to individual humans, but to himself. His world was littered with backstabbing femme fatales and best friends who betrayed him, and the worst parts of humanity were always on display.
Don’t care too much about things, these loner-hero stories seemed to say; people will let you down, and humans are just a few steps away from destroying themselves. Smoke ’em while you got ’em, and screw everyone else. Nihilistic takes like Fight Club and American Psycho – while they may have been satirical – read to rapt ’90s teen audiences like me as validating everything the grunge rockers of the time held to be true: life is a garbage joke, and anyone who gives a damn is a bloody fool.
I used to be a far more selfish and nihilistic person. I looked up to these idealized western heroes and the grim ’80s and ’90s media of my childhood and adolescence. My mother taught me that selfishness meant self-preservation, and, in many ways, she was right. She didn’t want me to feel constrained by others’ expectations or desires. She wanted me to find my true north and follow it, no matter what anyone else said or thought. These are good values to instill in children, but they don’t equip us with the tools we need to create positive and passionate relationships – with humans or anything else in our lives. Constant focus inward ends in narcissism.
After high school, I cared about nothing and no one except my own path forward.
Developing a chronic illness when I was 26 forced me to re-evaluate how I treated myself, the people in my life, and what I allowed myself to care about. I was big on apocalypse movies as a kid, because they advanced this libertarian fantasy that each of us was fully equipped to live a long and productive loner life as long as we kept people away from us. As a profound introvert, I was fine with the idea of everything ending and me having to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I figured other people were just weak, and they’d die, but me, no way! By walling myself off from others, I would achieve true greatness.
When you find yourself dealing with a chronic illness, it lays bare the lie that you’ve told yourself about how self-sufficient you have been your whole life, and how that lie of self-sufficiency poisons so many otherwise kind and logical human beings. Being chronically ill, totally reliant on synthetic insulin made in a lab somewhere, my body’s immune system completely out of whack, was a stark reminder of how much I not only need people now to survive, but how I have always needed them. Vaccines, hospitals, roads, schools, clean water, antibiotics, parents and relatives and friends to care for us when we are ill – this is how we have survived as a species despite several evolutionary bottlenecks.
What we need in order to be alive in this moment are the people around us.
Knowing that taught me to become more invested in the world around me, and in humanity generally. Knowing how brief and dear life can be helped, too, as I understand now that after all this is most likely a long blackness, a true nihilism. I didn’t live in a place or time where death felt that close until it suddenly did, and it completely changed my world. I came to understand why our dark holidays and superstitions and gory fairy tales were all so – creepy and weird. They were preparing us for strife, for death, for suffering.
After getting sick, there was also a renewed urgency to my writing, a clear focus that I had not had before. I stopped trying to write what everyone else was writing, and focused instead on what I was passionate about. If I was rejected for something I loved, so what? At least I had spent time crafting something that mattered to me, instead of churning something out I didn’t care for and thus didn’t hurt me when it was rejected.
Allowing myself to feel, to care, to be hurt, was the only way I was ever going to produce any kind of work that mattered.
What I’ve learned since then is the value and necessity and decency of kindness to others, and to myself and my work. I’ve found that it’s not weakness to care about others, or to care about a cause. The true weakness is when we are too afraid to care about anything at all. It’s an unwillingness to open ourselves up to potential despair, but it also means cutting off vital pieces of ourselves and our connections to other people. It means living always at the edge of things, focusing inward, unfeeling, until the bitter end.
In truth, there is a unique power in caring passionately for others and for creating a better world by investing in the causes around us. We may gripe about how “nothing ever changes,” but historically, it is small groups of passionate people who change the world. If we don’t care about anything, if we give up, if we are nihilistic, we are not protecting ourselves emotionally, we are dooming ourselves. To which the nihilistic points at the news and says, “We are already doomed!” and I have to say, “Not yet.”
We’re not dead yet. I was given an additional 13 years now, since that day I nearly died. Every moment we are still here is a moment we can turn everything around.
I think about that a lot.
It’s easy to opt-out of political action. To say you don’t care about libraries or voting rights or healthcare or what’s going to happen to your neighbor who’s being deported. Not caring is the more cowardly choice. It is a choice, this willful turning away, always seeking the next town, the next experience, the next indulgence, without caring about where the roads come from, who’s allowed to live in the town, and who can afford not to die of sepsis there.
We are all connected. I’ve discovered that when I allow myself to be more fully invested in an outcome, the fulfillment I get from that is greater than the feeling of loss if that outcome does not see fruition.
Fall down seven times. Get up eight times. Care deeply and intensely, and then let it go. Begin again. It’s the only way to get anything done that’s worth a damn.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and the award-winning essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, Locus Award, BFA Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
This article and more like it in the December 2019 issue of Locus.
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