Learning to Care Less

I get pissed off when people are late. Even if it's four minutes. I care a lot about punctuality.

I'm incredibly frustrated by stupid drivers at stop lights looking at their stupid phones, which causes them to not see the light turn green, then it takes them five seconds to realize the light is green and start driving their stupid car. I care a lot about efficient traffic patterns.

I burst a blood vessel when bicycles don't follow the regular rules of the road. If you want to share the road, stop at the stop signs you vacuous velocipedes. I care a lot about following rules.

Growing up and into my adult life I've found identity in learning how to do things correctly. I've spent a good deal of time learning the right course of action, and avoiding the wrong one. When things I care about - like rules and correctness - aren't respected, I get frustrated.

Life note: Anywhere extreme emotions well up, it's wise to pay attention. Within those emotions some core piece of our identities is likely found.

Enforcing rightness, or what I deemed to be correct operating procedure, was a passionate pursuit until I realized the effort no longer fed the deeper pieces of myself which needed more than compliance or enforcement to be healthy and happy. I began to realize the folly in assuming others saw the world the same way I saw the world. I saw the ignorance in believing others wanted the same things I wanted in life. I recognized the stupidity in thinking I had the ability to change any person's behavior besides my own. 

Regardless of these recognitions, I was still getting frustrated. A lot. Lists of frustrating people and events consumed my shower thoughts. 

I even attended a conference where the speaker challenged us: "Just stop getting frustrated about the actions of others." Good advice. Easier said than done, bro. As a matter of fact, I'm frustrated at that speaker for even thinking it's possible to stop getting frustrated by others.

Knowing I had to do something, here's how I started to process all of this:

I observed those who seem to get frustrated less often. Of course there are all kinds of folks who don't show they are frustrated - either they're ignorant to the cares of the world, or avoiding something, or really good at faking it. I'm not talking about them. I'm interested in learning from the people who have actually harnessed a deep sense of inner calmness. Who’s in that group?

  • Children.
  • Old people.
  • Those on the other side of extreme pain.

In addition to this list, I made sure to pay attention to individuals who have been respected throughout the ages. Who has modeled a freedom from frustration - an internal carelessness - so powerfully that the rest of us remember them, quote them and, in some cases, worship them, years and years later?

In examining the similarities between the groups mentioned above, I found it helpful to map out a spectrum on which I believe they all have a place. 

Behold, the Pugh Model for The Progression of Caring Less:

No need to care > Care out of necessity > Care too much > Care confusion > Intentional carelessness

No need to care

As a child we’re under the magical spell of carelessness. We don't yet need to care because we don't yet know the rules of living or the ways humans manage to confuse maturity with seriousness.

Care out of necessity

The innocence of youth soon wears off as we realize caring about our place within the tribe by comparing ourselves to others provides a handy measuring tool. We assimilate in one way or another and protect ourselves from pain as best we can. This generally involves placing our identity into a few buckets: personality traits, default mindset, perceived capability, social status, sense of place. Because these buckets give us identity, they become valuable.

Care too much

Moving into young adulthood many of us begin to care too much about the buckets in which our identity rests - to the point we're angered when the world doesn't line up with our way of thinking. Why are we angry? Because when our construct of the world begins to shift, we often get scared and defensive. Our concept of our identity was created through caring. Never mind if it was a healthy identity, at least it was ours, and at least it was certain.

Care confusion

Uncertainty and change lead to confusion. We're not sure what to care about anymore because we're not sure who we are. If the things to which we fastened our identity are no longer providing us stability or comfort then where will we exercise our power of caring too much? If I don't care about some structure or construct around me, or adhere to some set of rules or measurements - who am I? 

Intentional carelessness

The desperation in the previous stage leads to growth. As I've observed the wisest and most experienced among us, or those who've experienced a life altering event, the last stage is this: If our life is to fully blossom, we learn to intentionally care less about things that aren't useful to us or others in the long-term. We relinquish the idea that caring equals control and become free to care less and live more.

I've never heard someone say their secret to leading a fulfilling life, creating meaningful relationships, and having a positive influence on others was caring too much about the right things.

It's more like this: Care less about most everything - especially the things we have no power to change.

This is not a form of passiveness. It's not about abandoning control over our lives. As a matter of fact, if anything this work strengthens our intention, not weakens it. Caring less is the harder path. It's easy to find identity in our frustrations with the people and things we’ll never change, because then we're off the hook for the results. It's more difficult to do the lifelong work of making small shifts within ourselves no one will ever know about. And it is the small shifts that grow our hearts and color our lives.

This sounds like a lot of work for me to do. What about all the other jerks out there who suck at driving and being on time?

Well, in my experience no one ever began the process of authentic internal change as a result of someone else's anger. I can scare my friends into being on time and honking my horn on the road produces instantaneous results - but what do we really want? Do we really want to view our lives as a daily march into the battlefield to crusade for our cares, control, and correctness? 

Friend, I believe our energy is best spent in the effort of freeing ourselves from the majority of the things we find identity fighting for in the short-term. If we can engage in this work, we can create space for more peace inside ourselves, and with one another, as we endeavor to care a little less each day.

Hakuna matata.