The infinite temple of care

On the border and beyond/12 – The time of a different rhythm and relationships that can change life

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 09/04/2017

Sul confine e oltre 12 rid'When you were coming down from the quarry this afternoon with the loaded donkey cart, weren't you approached by a stranger? Didn't you give him a piece of bread?,' the carabiniere went on asking. (...) 'Is it a sin that he is accusing me of? Is it a sin now to do an act of charity?' 'Couldn't you see,' pursued the carabiniere (...), 'that the man was an enemy soldier?' 'Was he an enemy? What does that mean?' 'What did he look like?' asked the carabiniere. 'He looked like a man', Caterina answered.

Ignazio SiloneA Handful of Blackberries (English translation by Darina Silone)

Ora et labora is not only the image and the message of monasticism. It is also the breath of our civilization, which was founded by chanting to different measures, composing a symphony from the variety of rhythms, in the alternation of sounds and silence. The words and the spirit of work are different from those of prayer: they are allies and friends, because they are near and far from each other, intimately close and foreign at the same time. When, in those ancient monasteries, monks were returning from the vineyard and entering the choir for prayers, they were given some time for the transition. It was to another rhythm: that of prayer and the opus Dei, which had a different pace, a different rhythm, a different sound. It pierced through historical time to touch, or at least draw near, eternity to try and defeat death. That first last supper and the cross was experienced again, even the stone was rolled. When you cross the threshold to enter the templum, to a certain extent you become lord of time, you feel that you aren't dominated by the only rational and ruthless tempus, but travel freely between the first day of creation and the eschaton. The adam walks in the gardens of Eden again.

Something similar happens to the time of work when compared to that spent with care (as in caring for others – the tr.). There is a deep connection between prayer, contemplation, interiority and care. The time, the modes, words, hands and spirit of care are not those of work. When we get back from the office and play with our child, we tell a story or sing a nursery rhyme we leave the registry and the rhythm of work and enter a world governed by other laws and other times. By listening to an old and ill parent, by talking to them we know that the disease prevents them from understanding our words on the level of the logos - but if we listen and talk with care we feel that we tune in to another time with another rhythm; and so we continue the dialogue of the soul that no disease can prevent. When we take care of a plant, prepare a meal, or simply clean the house, in the silence we say important words to others and ourselves. We talk every day also by setting the table for breakfast, cleaning the bathroom, watering the plants, tucking in our loved ones in a blanket when they are asleep. These are of key importance even when that breakfast is ours, because we have been left alone.

We all know that care is another name for gift. And so we know that care conserves all the beauty and all the ambivalence of gifts. Because gifts have never been all the same. Those, for example, celebrated in the public sphere were always reciprocal. The gifts-sacrifices to the gods, those made for the pharaohs and later the great acts of generosity, donations and philanthropy were associated with some form of virtue, and as such they were publicly acknowledged, appreciated, rewarded and honoured. Gifts were made to the great and the powerful, to the city and the church, and blessings, thanks, honours, applause and praise were expected in exchange.

A rather different discourse, which was also radically opposed, was that on the gift inside the home, or under the tent of the house. Here the gifts of time, resources, life and care were certainly not less than those in the town square, their value was not lower, their presence was no less essential in order to live and to live well. But, for many reasons (most of which are related to power, force and their instruments) domestic gifts were not recognized as gifts. The names that gift took in the house were mostly duty and obligation.

The actors of the public virtue type of gifts were male, those of the private duty type were women. In traditional societies the honour and glory of the gift belonged to men, while the first work of the women's subjection and subordination was the denial or non-recognition of their gifts. Motherhood, the care and education of children and youth, care for the house and primary relationships were considered the duties and obligations arising from being a mother, wife and sister. The freedom to donate that men experienced in the public sphere and what constituted its merit based nature, disappeared in women's obligation-gifts in the private sphere.

The same goes for sacrifices. Those offered to the gods, pharaohs and kings produced credits for those who made the sacrifice. Sacrifices made in the world of work produced salaries and wages as reciprocity. Only the sacrifices made by women in the house were simply duties and obligations arising from their status, from maternal and filial debts, or from marital debts. We do not understand how much the possibility meant for women to get access to the 'labour market' of all in the twentieth century unless we consider the significance of recognition and reciprocity hidden inside a work relationship. Women’s salaries, whether they were blue-collar or white-collar workers or teachers, was not different from that of their husbands and brothers except that it was (usually) lower: the pay check also had a flavour and a colour of reciprocity, dignity, social esteem, recognition, honour - which were not the flavours and colours that women experienced at home. The work of men and women have never been held equal.

Until recently, mutual benefit and reciprocity, which we put at the heart of public life, and later the market have not been the main register for civilizations to read the man-woman relationship, and in general the contribution of women to social life. Western civilization reserved love and gratitude for women, but not free reciprocity or recognition.

It was also for this reason that women's take on gift is different from that of men, just like on sacrifice. If it was written by women, the whole theory of the gift, built on the triple movement of 'give-take-exchange' would include a 'take' that's much less free and is very far from gratuitousness. 'I don't like using the words sacrifice and service,' Jennifer Nedelsky, an American philosopher confided to me a few days ago, 'because for too many women these have been and are words associated with actions that they did not chose to take and that are full of pain.' Every time I speak and write about gift, sacrifice, gratuitousness and service, I try to do this by fixing my mind's eyes on the gifts, sacrifices, gratuity and services of my grandmothers Cecilia and Maria, both farmers, and those of my mom, a housewife.

These experiences and their different attitude still have important consequences on my way of conceiving the relationship between the market, assistance and care. Cleaning the bathrooms and sweeping the rooms, taking care of the children, the sick and the elderly were activities once entrusted to the servants and slaves, then to wet nurses, nannies, waitresses and cooks. Finally, to mothers, sisters and daughters. Never to free men or noble and wealthy women, so they have always looked at the activities of care as the chores to be done by slaves, servants, or women - to understand the different experiences of gift and sacrifice, it is best to make a 95% man/woman selection, because there has always been an 'élite' group of women whose views resembled that of their husbands rather than their servants as regards care and sacrifice.

At one point the 'care market' was born, but the thousand-year-long experience of care as the kingdom of slaves, servants and (poor) women continues to strongly affect our society and our capitalism. We can see it everywhere. The jobs of care (health, education) are poorly paid because they are still associated with sacrifice and obligation-gift, still deeply affected by the culture of sacrifice-without-reciprocity. The recognition of care workers is still insufficient, as is our gratitude towards them.

The low esteem status of care has been and is one of the deep reasons of the illness that has accompanied the world of work - and still does. Care is an essential dimension of every good human life, but the association between care and servitude has kept it away from the public sphere and therefore the economy (not to mention politics). The famine of care always hits in businesses and offices and it does not diminish with the arrival of many women in these places, because, in general, the care-lessness of the male register tends to prevail over everyone and everything.

Care continues to be abused, disesteemed, humiliated - no less today than in the past. The new slaves are not bought in Lisbon or Nantes, but in the 'labour market' where rich men and women buy services offered by poor women and men offering the care that the powerful dislike and despise, out of need. We have fought for centuries to eliminate slavery and servitude from the political sphere, and today we are totally and shamefully silent in the face of the slavery-servitude that prevails in the field of care in the economic sphere.

Finally, because of the strong influence that the economic culture exerts on the entire social life, the values and virtues of economy and business are changing and colonizing the world and the times of care. Efficiency, speed, hurry, stress, meritocracy and incentives enter the house, too, and destroy what little is left of the times, rhythms, words and spirit of care. Crossing the threshold of the house we do not change the times, we do not change our spirit, we do not change our words. And we don't enter into another time, we don't savour eternity, we don't experience the freedom that only the different kind of time associated with care can give to us. The economic value grows when the time taken is reduced. The value of care grows along with the time invested.

When we are able to enter the temple of care, our hours and those of others get expanded, our lives get longer, everyone's death gets distanced. As in our childhood, when the days never ended, and a school year seemed eternally long. The first reciprocity of cure is the gift of a slower and longer time, it is a return to the endless time of childhood.

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