On Caring for Others, Part II

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Caring Hands

Unavailability: Unwilling to be Open to Others

In the modern world, many people don’t have the time for another human being, because of their busy schedules. In such a busy world, an “outsider,” someone who does not fit into their schedules, may be viewed as “bothering” them, disrupting their lives. Although, in general, it is relatively “normal” and mentally healthy for people to be busy, being too busy is not good, because someone may easily be shut out of their lives.

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel calls the experience of being too “wrapped up” with one’s life indisponibilité, which, in English, may be translated as “unavailability” or “unhandiness.”1 Simply put, such a person can’t be there for others, because too much is going on in his or her life. Too much focus is placed on his or her world.

Quality, Not Quantity, of Time

Of course, Marcel himself was often busy. What, then, does he mean by indisponibilité? For him, it is not the quantity of time, how much you spend with others, that necessarily makes for a helpful connection; rather, it is the quality or kind of time you spend with them. For Marcel, the opposite of indisponibilité is disponibilité, which, in English, may be translated as “availability” or “handiness.”2 It is an attitude, a personal disposition or tendency, of being open to others, “being there” for them.

Availability: Willing to be Open to Others

Dr. Viktor Frankl exemplified Marcel’s concept of availability. Although Frankl was a busy psychiatrist, professor and travelled throughout the world, giving lectures on Logotherapy, his life, on one occasion, was interrupted at an awkward hour by a suicidal woman. He recalled the episode,

“Recently I received a telephone call at three in the morning from a lady who told me that she was determined to commit suicide but due to her curiosity whished to hear what I should say. I evolved all the arguments speaking against this resolution and for survival, and I talked to her for thirty minutes — until she finally gave her word that she would not take her life but rather would come to see me in the hospital. But when she visited me there it turned out that no one of all the arguments presented by me had impressed her. The only reason why she had decided not to commit suicide was the fact that, rather than growing angry because of having been disturbed in my sleep in the middle of the night, I had patiently listened to her and talked with her for half an hour, and a world, she found, in which this can happen, must be a world worth living in.”3

Caring as a Form of Suicide Prevention

To take time from one’s busy schedule to care about another human being, be it ever so briefly, means, in effect, “I notice you, recognizing you as a person.” To listen to someone express his or her feelings and concerns is to validate him or her, saying, in effect, “You matter or have value to me.” Such a response gives the other person the impression that he or she is somebody, someone, a worthwhile individual.

Caring, then, for another human being literally has the power to prevent suicide. Arguments, although they may be impressive logically, are not always convincing to someone who is contemplating suicide. The reason is that data, facts alone, only appeal to a person’s intellect, head. Arguments are often detached, dispassionate, impersonal. That is why, on a profound level, they do not really “touch” someone who is emotionally hurting. They need to be supplemented, “backed up,” by a person’s life; a life that genuinely feels for and is concerned about another human being’s problems. That personal quality is called “empathy.” Thus, the saying is true: “People don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Endnotes

1. Gabriel Marcel, Mystery of Being, Vol. I, trans. G. S. Fraser (Chicago, IL.: Henry Regnery Company, 1950, 6th printing 1970), p. 201.

2. Ibid.

3. Viktor E. Frankl, The Feeling of Meaninglessness: A Challenge to Psychotherapy and Philosophy, ed. Alexander Batthyany, in Marquette Studies in Philosophy, No. 60, ed. Andrew Tallon (Malwaukee, WI.: Marquette University Press, 2010), p. 124.

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