Maurice Sendak’s short story, Pierre, is the kids’ book that haunted me the most throughout my life.
In this story, the little boy, Pierre, will only say three words — “I don’t care” — no matter what options or choices are presented to him. Whenever his parents ask him to do something, or try to give to him something — whether they are offering him breakfast, or inviting him to go to town with them — he only says, “I don’t care.”
And finally, when a hungry lion comes to Pierre’s house and asks him if he’d like to die, Pierre answers — you guessed it — “I don’t care.” Spoiler alert: The lion eats Pierre. But, fortunately, a handy doctor manages to shake Pierre out of the lion’s body, at which point Pierre has learned that being alive means that it is incumbent upon you to care.
This story made a tremendous impression on me as a child. I remember my little fists balling up with fury when Pierre said he “didn’t care” about anything his parents said, or anything that happened to him. Perhaps it was, in part, because I am a person who has always ferociously cared about things and people — whether it was what I was eating for lunch or how my friends and enemies treated each other — that the story affected me so deeply.
But I also think it’s because, from the second I was born a Jewish person, I knew that to live means to care. The very root of Judaism, in the Torah itself — never mind all the commentary — explicitly and implicitly assumes that to live is to care: about the God we follow, about the Torah, about Shabbat, and most important, about each other and our world.
Respecting people — starting with “honor your mother and your father” — does not mean obeying them. It means caring. Honoring someone is not a gesture of fealty, but an act of deep love. Yes, we care for the people we honor, but the act of honoring is itself an act of caring – of passionate feeling, of manifesting that our choice of this way of action is an expression of the essence of our very souls.
The reason I’m thinking about Pierre today is because of an incredibly stupid, infuriatingly offensive jacket worn by our nation’s First Lady – worn as she visited children torn apart from their parents by her husband’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Her $39 Zara jacket — yes, that’s the brand that previously caused controversy with a shirt that resembled a concentration camp uniform, and a skirt with a Pepe the Frog-like image — said in large, white letters on the back: “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?”
To so many observers around the globe, Melania’s fashion choice was the sartorial version of Marie Antoinette’s statement about her struggling, bread-less subjects: “Let them eat cake.”
Because here’s the thing, Melania. I care. I care fiercely and furiously and passionately and eternally. I really care about the worth and holiness of human life. I really care about the state of our nation and our democracy. I really care about systemic attempts to degrade other people based on the color of their skin and their nationality. I really care about attempts to suppress voters and to choke off freedom of expression.
And, what is more — whether people agree with me or not — I believe that the very beating of this nation’s heart is contingent on people caring. Ferociously, fiercely, vociferously, loudly, passionately. And none of your contempt, your nihilism or your thinly-veiled disgust will stop me, and so many others like me.
Caring deeply is something that Sendak, too, knew a lot about: He was born to in Brooklyn to Jewish parents from Poland, and his childhood was deeply colored by the murder of many of his family members in the Holocaust. He knew how viscerally criminal it is for a person to deliberately opt not to care about others — how offensive it is, how obnoxious, how entitled, and yes, how deplorable.
Sendak himself did not believe in God. And yet, each one of his stories reflects the elements of the divine — in the context of children, wild beasts, and imagination.
Caring is holy. And I pray that all of us become more holy and more caring, both about our fellow humans and the future of our nation.