When I was a young lad navigating the heady days of college, I cared about getting good grades. I didn’t just care a little bit, I cared A LOT. Looking back, it isn’t a stretch to categorize my collegiate interest in grade point averages as dysfunctional, but I was raised in a private-school atmosphere where semester GPAs were posted in the hall for all to gawk at, so in some respects I was just a product of a neurotic environment.
“Are you like this in all your classes?” my first-semester Spanish teacher asked me during office hours one day. By like this, I now know that she meant obsessive. From what I remember, A's were usually given out around 92 percent at UW-Madison, but I always went for 100 percent—or more. If there was extra credit to get, all the better. I rarely missed a class, I took lecture notes as furiously as if I were transcribing God’s voice onto stone tablets for the world to view, and I memorized both book material and notes as if my future depended on it, which I thought it did.
To answer my Spanish teacher’s question, “Yes. I was exactly like that in all of my classes.”
The flashing red-and-blue lights were an unwelcome sight in the car’s rearview mirror. After a weekend of visiting family two hours outside of Madison, a college roommate and I were headed back to campus on a Sunday night. Per my usual schedule during those days, I’m sure that I had spent the weekend doing more studying than socializing, and thoughts of the week’s upcoming class requirements were no doubt dancing furiously through my mind as the officer exited his vehicle.
What papers did I have due that week? What exams were coming up within ten days? Was I supposed to watch any of those spooky Spanish language soap operas before Tuesday?
As the officer approached the driver’s window, my friend and I knew we had a problem: I didn’t have a car, so he usually did the driving, but he didn’t have a license, so there you go.
After checking my friend’s prior driving offenses, the officer said, “I’m going to have to impound the car.” To me his voice seemed as cold and lifeless as a Kim Jong-il greeting card. I also thought that he sounded suspect.
Being that I was a journalism major—and given my lifelong healthy distrust of authority in general and cops in particular—I was secretly recording our interaction that day via a handheld tape recorder that I’d turned on and tucked out of view (remember this was 1999—no iPhones).
Impound the car? I thought nervously. What did that mean for my grades?
I had to be in Madison and at classes the next morning, and I needed to sleep and study in preparation for those classes. I didn’t have any spare hours to sit on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. I didn’t have any spare hours to arrange another ride. I didn’t have any spare days to shuffle around an infirmary if this officer pulled a “Rodney King” on me and my friend.
My future was at stake here. Didn’t this officer realize that? (Now this situation was obviously much worse for my friend than it was for me, which just goes to illustrate how obsessive thinking works.)
“Don’t you care?” I asked the officer as he reiterated his decision to shut down our progress that night. “I have class in the morning. My classes are important. This is my future. Don’t. You. Care?”
And then the police officer, sounding as unfazed as a tranquilized monk meditating at sunrise, spoke a phrase that I will never forget.
“I care a little bit, I don’t care that much,” he said, and then he finished up the business of writing tickets. “Do you guys have someone you can call?”
I care a little bit, I don’t care that much. How perfect is that phrase? I laughed myself to exhaustion listening to those words on my tape recorder after my friend and I got back on the road that Sunday 16 years ago, but as I approach middle age, that phrase encapsulates so much of what I now feel on a daily basis. For example, when I look at the icy driveway and consider for a moment dedicating an hour to chipping away at the problem, I often just go inside the house instead, thinking, I don’t care that much. It will just snow and get icy again.
Or when I start getting angry while watching a political debate—when I start feeling the sort of righteous irritation that lit me up as a younger man—it usually fades as I remember that the politicians probably don’t even know what they are saying and that none of it will probably change my life anyway.
I care a little bit, I don’t care that much. The phrase can actually help quite a bit in the struggle to keep life’s dramas and disappointments in a healthy perspective. Even the ups and downs of our greatest professional dreams are kept in check by such wisdom.
When I work hard to finish a blog post, construct a short story, win a writing contest, or find an agent, I can get temporarily worked into an absolute lather over the importance of what I’m doing, until I remember that myself and everyone I know and don’t know—EVERYONE, including the pompous literary types who rejected me and my dear wife who told me I was brilliant—are going to one day stop breathing and die.
Now, you could call that train of thought cynical, but you know that you’ve had it, too. Everyone has, some just refuse to admit to it.
The older I get, the more I understand why elderly drivers just stop looking when they back out of parking spaces and driveways. What’s the worst that could happen, and what does it matter anyway?
Sometimes I think I would like to get more Twitter and Facebook followers for my author accounts, but then I think about the possibility of cancer or nuclear war, and I think, I care a little bit. I don’t care that much.
Sometimes I think about people who collect warehouses of obscenely expensive vehicles (I just finished a Seinfeld biography and Porsches are his thing), and I think I’d like to have a little bit nicer of a car for myself (the ones I usually drive were manufactured around the Clinton years). However, I really just want my vehicle to start in winter and I want the thing to continue to ride without the wheels falling off. I care a little bit. I don’t care that much.
I’d love to have great success as a writer, I’d love to make enough money to travel the world, and I’d love to have lakefront property, but I’ll still just need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and take showers every day. A lot of life wouldn’t change all that much.
So what does matter in life? If you can’t take anything with you, and if money, popularity, and success just come and go like so many fading sunsets, what truly is worth caring obsessively about?
I’ll give you a hint: the answer isn’t grades and degrees. When I got out of college, despite being in the top two percent of my class, the dollar figure attached to my first job offer made kindergarten teachers look like Rockefellers and I’d developed a stress problem (in part from obsessing over things like grades). As it turns out, the answer doesn’t appear to be money, either. If I had a dime for every screwed up and depressed rich person I see on the news, I would be the one looking like a Rockefeller.
I think the answer is to care about the truly important things without caring obsessively about too much of anything. And while I can’t say for certain what the really important things should be in your life, because they are different for everyone, I can offer a list of what I devote a little time to most days in order to sleep well most nights.
1. Doing work I care about and creating something of lasting value (like a great blog post, for example).
2. Staying in contact with people I care about who care about me back (admittedly, sometimes this is more of a weekly/monthly thing than it is a daily one).
3. Engaging in activity (and strategic lack of activity) that contributes to the improvement of my physical and mental health.
4. Building a meaningful spiritual life (one that is unique to me).
5. Relaxing (this kind of goes with number three, but it can be less strategic).
At various times in my life, I’ve neglected one or most of the things that I’ve just mentioned above, and I have always paid for that neglect. I’m now trying harder to pay attention to all of those areas at the same time as best I can, but it can be tough (for example, I’m still not Superman when it comes to keeping in touch with old friends, but I’m starting with texts, e-mails, and Facebook messages and building from there).
So I say definitely get excited about a successful term paper, your career, your next vacation, and what you’re having for dinner tonight, because everyone deserves as many nice moments in a day as they can handle. Just don’t put all of your mental or emotional energy into one basket, and never forget to take of your true dreams, your body, your soul, and the people you care about.
And if you ever start to get too stressed about any little thing that you know isn’t that important in the larger scope of things—something like a traffic ticket, a long line at the grocery store, an unexpectedly gigantic utility bill, a loss from your favorite pro football team, or an insult from someone who doesn’t care about you—just remember the words of a certain police officer, recite them like a mantra, and you’ll be just fine.