Milton Mayeroff A Personalist Vision

The 1971 book On Caring by American philosopher Milton Mayeroff (1925-1979) provides a detailed description and explanation of the experiences of caring and being cared for. Although he drew on several major themes from the history of the notion of care, he took the idea of care in new, personalist directions. Mayeroff s book is a philosophical essay that at the same time shares some of the characteristics of the care of souls tradition, inasmuch as Mayeroffs purpose was to show how care could help us understand and integrate our lives more effectively.

To care for another, according to Mayeroff, is to help the other grow, whether the other is a person, an idea, an ideal, a work of art, or a community; for example, the basic caring stance of a parent is to respect the child as striving to grow in his or her own right. Helping other persons to grow also entails encouraging and assisting them to care for something or someone other than themselves, as well as for themselves (1971).

The caring relationship is mutual: The parent feels needed by the child and helps him or her grow by responding to the child's need to grow; at the same time, the parent feels the child's growth as bound up with his or her own sense of well-being. Caring, Mayeroff says, is primarily a process, not a series of goal-oriented services. For example, if the psychotherapist regards treatment as a mere means to a future product (the cure), and the present process of therapeutic interaction is not taken seriously for its own sake, caring becomes impossible (1971).

According to Mayeroff, caring entails devotion, trust, patience, humility, honesty, knowing the other, respecting the primacy of the process, hope, and courage. Knowledge, for example, means being able to sense "from inside" what the other person or the self experiences and requires to grow. Devotion, which gives substance and a particular character to caring for a particular person, involves being "there" for the other courageously and with consistency. But caring does not entail "being with" the other constantly: That is a phase within the rhythm of caring, followed by a phase of relative detachment (1971).

Caring involves trusting the other to grow in his or her own time and way. There is a lack of trust when guarantees are required regarding the outcome of our caring, or when one cares "too much." One who "cares" too much is not showing excessive care for the other so much as deficient trust in the other's process of growing (Mayeroff, 1971).

In Mayeroffs vision, moral values are inherent in the process of caring and growth. When cared for, one grows by becoming more self-determining and by choosing one's own values and ideals grounded in one's own experience, instead of simply conforming to prevailing values. Mayeroff s moral approach to care is that of an ethic of response: He emphasizes the values and goods that are discovered in caring, and the fitting sort of human responsiveness to self and other that these engender. Care-related responsibilities and obligations—such as those that derive from devotion to one's children—arise more from internal sources related to character and relational commitments than from external rules (1971). When caring engages one's powers sufficiently, it has a way of ordering the other values and activities of life around itself, resulting in an integration of the self with the surrounding world.

The conviction that life has meaning corresponds with the feeling of being uniquely needed by something or someone and of being understood and cared for. Mayeroff concludes that the more deeply we understand the central role of caring in our own life, the more we realize it is central to the human condition (1971). Mayeroffs idea that care is central to the human condition reaches back through several philosophers to the Myth of Care, while his rich descriptions of the nature and effects of care set the stage for an ethic of care in the contemporary healthcare setting.

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