This scene in Guardians of the Galaxy is a special kind of inspiring:
Peter Quill: “Usually life takes more than it gives, but not today, today it’s giving’ us something. It is giving us a chance.”
Drax: “To do what?”
Peter Quill: “To give a shit.”
Giving a shit is maybe the most important thing we do in life. Managing to what and how we give our shits determines how much we love or hate our lives.
When you give a shit, you’re not worried about the meaning of your life. Troubles that used to feel significant fade away as your focus sharpens on the object of your given shits.
Giving a shit about what matters allows you to stop giving a shit about what doesn’t.
In 1971 a philosopher named Milton Mayeroff wrote the manifesto on giving a shit. It’s titled On Caring (for us, On Giving a Shit) and we’ll pull from it to help understand how giving a shit can change our lives and how we might learn to give higher quality shits.
Caring Kills FOMO
When we give a shit about what we’re doing, we stop giving shits about what we aren’t doing.
The more you care about something, the less you’ll do. Life might become less interesting from the outside—but unarguably more interesting from the inside. You feel the significance of your life because you care about something.
This often leads to a total transformation. When you care about something good, you stop being tempted by the bad. Your behavior, the people you engage with, the food you eat all naturally begin to change. Not as part of some self-development project, but as a natural consequence of giving a shit.
Mayeroff puts it this way:
“It is very different from rejecting or excluding previous ways of living by “turning over a new leaf” or “wiping the slate clean”; for instead of becoming estranged from my past because I am unable to recognize myself in it, my past, the self I have been, is now enlarged and enjoys a more expansive life.”
Caring Gives Meaning to Life
“No one else can give me the meaning of my life; it is something I alone can make. The meaning is not something predetermined which simply unfold; I help both to create it and to discover it, and this is a continuing process, not a once-and-for-all.” – Milton Mayeroff, On Caring
This is easier than the existentialist challenge to create our own meaning. It doesn’t require fancy philosophical understandings or anything other than truly giving a shit about something or someone.
It’s not about optimizing pleasure or productivity. It’s not about finding the right trick. It’s not even about finding the right frame.
It’s more of a brute force thing. It’s giving a shit with extreme generosity and discernment. It’s about choosing what to care about, then giving all your shits to that thing.
It’s up to you, but it’s also not up to you. You may not care much about something you think you should care about. You can’t force yourself to care for a particular thing more than you’re able to care for it. There is room for growth, but natural interest is a boon.
This is how you make meaning. It’s simple and terribly difficult at the same time.
Caring Provides Our Place in the World
“We are “in place” in the world through having our lives ordered by inclusive caring. This is in contrast with being “out of place,” trying to escape from the “wrong place,” seeking one’s “place,” and indifference and insensitivity to “place.” It is not as though a pre-existent place were waiting for us; we are not in place as coins are in a box, but rather we both find and make our place in the same way in which the person who “finds” himself must have helped to “create” himself as well.” – Milton Mayeroff, On Caring
When we give a shit we find ourselves at home in the world. This is not a one-and-done thing–it’s constant. When we truly give a shit, we’re home; when we don’t, we’re lost.
When we give a shit, we forget about all the other ways we try to find our place in the world. For instance, social acceptance disappears as something that might provide us a home in the world.
Come to think of it, if social acceptance requires that you stop giving a shit about the thing you must give a shit about then it will stop you from being “in place” in the world. If you care more about what your parents want you to do with your life than you care about what you want to do with your life you will never feel at home in your life. It’s not about rebellion, it’s about giving a shit about the right things.
If you feel alienated from the world, try giving a shit.
Caring Provides Basic Certainty
“Basic certainty requires outgrowing the need to feel certain, to have absolute guarantees to what is or will be. Instead, if we think of basic certainty as including deep-seated security, it also includes being vulnerable and giving up the preoccupation with trying to be secure.” Milton Mayeroff
When we give a shit, the scary uncertainty of the world isn’t so scary. We become less preoccupied with trying to predict the future and more focused on what we must do to assist the thing we give a shit about.
An entrepreneur who gives a shit about her business is concerned about the future, sure, but she’s 100% positive of one thing: that she’ll do whatever she needs to do to make her business succeed, whatever happens in the world at large.
According to the old historian Plutarch, “The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy by where they are.” It didn’t matter if the other army had 100 men or 10,000, their job was still the same.
When we give a shit we’re not worried about “if” we’ll be able to do the thing because we know that we must.
“Do or do not, there is not try.”
This is the only certainty that we get in life, and it only comes when we give a shit.
Caring Makes Your Life Enough
When we give a shit, we stop worrying about all the lack in our lives. It’s not that we’re so grateful for our life as it is, we’re just so involved in our lives that we don’t have space to whine about we don’t have.
Mayeroff puts it this way: “Life is felt to be enough in the living, and what I want is simply the opportunity to live this life.”
He goes on to describe this imperfect perfection:
“This does not imply perfection, however we may think of perfection. When we admit that a friend, a conversation, a musical performance, or a book is not perfect but is “good enough,” it is not that we believe improvement impossible, but that improvement would not fundamentally change matters.”
We give a shit, so we’re obviously improving things, but we don’t feel like we’re falling behind or that we should be doing something else.
Mayeroff suggests that life is felt not to be enough when we don’t “Utilize our distinctive powers (when the writer is prevented from writing and the nurse is prevented from nursing…. Or we feel this lack when we are constantly hurried and feel that we need more time…. [or] when we are basically pretentious and present ourselves as being something we are not…. [or] when we always seek rather than live the meaning of our lives.”
We can all see these patterns in our lives. When I’m not doing good work, I find myself becoming almost delusional in what I think I ought to achieve. When I’m hurrying everywhere, I feel detached from my life and those around me. When I’m being someone I think I “should” be, I lose all gratitude for what I have. When I’m seeking the meaning of life, all I see is the abyss.
Giving a shit is, of course, the way to live fully in the present. Giving a shit allows us to transcend sloth, ingratitude, pretension, and seeking. Giving a shit plants us firmly in energized contentment.
“I do not experience a need to get to life, as if it were something beyond or outside present living. And when present living is enough, I experience myself as being enough.” – Milton Mayeroff
Caring Orders the World
“…it [giving a shit] consists in understanding what is relevant to my life, what it is that I live for, who I am and what I am about in actual day-to-day living, not in the abstract. By contrast, the man who continually seeks the meaning of his life, who is confused about what is or would be relevant for his growth and is therefore unsure who he is lives in a world that does not quite make sense.”
– Milton Mayeroff, On Caring
Many of us would call the world today “unintelligible.” It seems almost impossible to get a grip on what’s going on. We’re in this bizarre universe of extremes where facts, if you can find them, seem to change so fast that they never mattered in the first place.
There’s this scene in Man of Steel where little Clark (young Superman) has some kind of asperger-like freak-out and hides in the closet. He’s overwhelmed by mass amount of new input that his powers are revealing to him: the skeletal structure of his teacher and classmates, the clock ticking, all the stupid posters on the wall. He runs for the broom closet and locks himself inside. His mom comes to get him, this is their conversation through the door:
Clark: “The world’s too big mom!”
Mom: “Then make it small… just, um… focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island, out in the ocean. Can you see it?”
Clark: “I see it.”
Mom: “Then swim towards it, honey.”
Clark calms down and slowly opens the door, then montages into Superman.
We have new powers, just like Superman Clark. We have smart phones dinging us all day with notifications. We thumb through a thousand tweets daily trying to stuff as many headlines of information in our face. We have the Internet showing us the best performers at everything. We have freedom to do whatever the hell we want. There’s infinite everything, which is a little too much for us to take in.
Our challenge is the same as Superman’s: making the world smaller.
Giving a shit is the key to focusing our superpowers. Instead of distractions and depressants, our cares become resources and stimulants. Instead of running away from our new tools we learn to use them by having something to use them on.
Giving a shit focuses your attention on useful information. It makes you aware of what tools matter. It makes you less susceptible to bullshit. The unintelligible become intelligible:
My world becomes intelligible for me through caring and being cared for [giving a shit and people giving a shit about me], or, put differently, as I become responsible for the growth and actualization of others. In the sense in which intelligibility means being at home in the world, we are ultimately at home not through dominating or explaining or appreciating things, but through caring and being cared for [giving a shit and being given a shit about].
Giving a shit makes the world bearable and comprehensible enough. We don’t need to know everything, just what will help the thing we give a shit about.
Instead of bitching about the chaos and meaninglessness of the world, start thanking it for providing so many things to give a shit about.
If you stop yourself from giving a shit you are stopping yourself from happiness, understanding, and courage. You’re stopping yourself from the expression and realization of your individual nature. You’re running from meaning into the abyss.