LAURA OTIS is a Professor of English at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. She integrates scientific and literary thinking, and is especially interested in multisensory imagery and emotions. Here she is interviewed by KASHISH KALWANI, a former student of Professor Otis, about the ethics of care.
Q: Welcome, Professor Otis. Could you please share a little bit about your background and your interest in ethics and care?
LO: At university, I studied biochemistry and neuroscience. Then I had a huge crisis, and ended up with a Ph.D. in comparative literature. So my research and teaching involve the intersection of literature and science. I became interested in caregiving because my mother developed early onset dementia in her early 60s, and that led to an interest in seeing how caregiving is represented in stories, novels, and plays, how people create narratives around caregiving, how realistic they are, and the ethics involved in representing caregiving. That’s what brought me to the course at Emory.
Q: How do you find that literature and neuroscience have formed your understanding and approach to care and ethics, in academics and everyday life?
LO: Literature and science evoke compassion in different ways. Science reminds us of what we all have in common. A lot of people in literary studies think that everything is influenced or even determined by culture and language, but when you think about how brains work, you realize that anyone’s brain can develop problems.
As we age, we develop similar problems. Seeing the things that can go wrong with the human nervous system evokes tenderness in me. I realize how precious and beautiful it is, and want to take care of it, not abuse it. When I see someone who has trouble moving or thinking, I think that everything wrong with that person’s nervous system could go wrong with mine, or with anybody I know. Science is a reminder of what we have in common.
Literature opens my mind to different ways of looking at care giving and understanding or experiencing disease that might not otherwise have occurred to me.
Q: This conversation is especially relevant with climate change, wars, economic crises, homelessness, and more. In your opinion, what would be the key ethical responsibilities of leaders when it comes to caring for others, in community, organizational, and family settings?
LO: First, make sure that you’re well informed, not just listening to yes-people. Nowadays, we have good information about how people are living in communities, involving feedback from the community groups. Be open and willing to listen to what’s happening.
There are different political philosophies about how responsible leaders are for the welfare of others. There’s everything on the spectrum from every person for himself to the government’s responsibility for everyone. And I fall somewhere in the middle.
Listen to people, and then be ready to muster government resources to help. It’s best and probably cheapest if done in a proactive way. Rather than waiting for the next hurricane or disaster, find out what caused so much suffering in the last disaster and keep it from happening again.
Q: How do global issues such as climate change, inequality, and wars impact our ethical obligations toward care, both at an individual and collective level?
LO: Countries that have contributed the most to global warming probably have a responsibility to help people who are suffering, like those whose countries are about to disappear because of rising sea levels, those who’ve had to leave their homes. Money is finite, and even rich countries may not have much money to spare. But they can take into consideration what’s going on.
We can probably help more immigrants than we might believe. It’s not that we should open the border and let everyone come in, but we can invest more resources in processing people, evaluating whether they have a right to come.
We need to do concrete things to help people who are affected by climate change and wars, rather than being reactive. How can we stop the causes? Can we move faster toward green energy?
Literature opens my mind to
different ways of looking at
caregiving and understanding or
experiencing disease that might
not otherwise have occurred to me.
Q: Thank you for talking about the global scale. You said that your mother had dementia, so how did you approach her care while also dealing with your world and the world outside?
LO: The worst time with dementia is when the patient is still trying to live the life they had before, not in an assisted living facility. Once the person is in an assisted living facility (if the family makes that choice), everything is easier. The transition time of deciding what we would do, where she would go to get the care she needed, coincided with me trying to get tenure in my academic career, which is when expectations are extremely high.
You’re getting evaluated all the time. I was also in a psychologically abusive marriage and trying to leave. During that period, I thought very little about the world.
I pulled back, so there’s a void in my knowledge of current events between 1993 and 1995. It’s a natural human response—you feel threatened, so you focus on yourself. But I don’t recommend that. The irony is that it may actually help to think beyond yourself. I know that now. I didn’t know that then.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the way societies approach care?
LO: No stigmas. No stigma for taking care of somebody yourself, no stigma in saying no. No stigma against quitting your job because you want to take care of your family. No stigma against deciding that your family member needs to live in an assisted care facility. Care choices should be open to whatever works best for the family.
I would love to see the stigma taken away from assisted living, what used to be called nursing homes; no shame if a family chooses to do this because they can no longer provide the care.
I’d like to see more affordable assisted living options. We need creativity to set that up because people are living longer, and they need care in the last part of their lives. It’s not something we can improvise.
I feel sorry for people who don’t have the money for assisted living. They have to figure it out themselves. I’d like to see more social and government involvement in care and more affordable options.
Q: So how do we take care of each other? How do we ask for help?
LO: Start with the people nearest you and work outward. We learn how to treat others from our interactions with family and friends. And hopefully that knowledge continues to develop as we grow. Some people are better at it than others, but at any point in life we can learn how to treat other people. Build a network that grows ever outward. It’s most logical to start with your family and friends in your community, but don’t necessarily be satisfied with that. Keep expanding the circle.
Q: I agree. It’s easier to ask someone how they would like to receive care than to ask for help ourselves, but we also need care. It’s tough because we’re raised to “have it together.” No one has time for our mess, everyone’s having a rough life, so we have to handle it on our own. We have to ask: How can I take care of myself?
LO: That’s right. Also, I’d say, be careful asking people if they need anything, because you may not get an honest answer.
Care choices should be open
to whatever works best
for the family.
We can always take better care of each other. Where there are cultural forces involved, there’s a delicate balance. In America, the idea of taking care of each other is that we’re all supposed to take care of ourselves. Some people experience an offer of help as invasive or disrespectful. If someone suddenly wants to take care of them, even within a relationship, there may be conflict. They do not want to be taken care of. There can be exploitation, too. Some people expect to be taken care of, which is not good either. Be aware of the interpersonal and cultural forces that shape the issues around care.
I confess, I don’t respond well when people try to take care of me. I find it disrespectful. But when I’ve needed help, it hasn’t bothered me at all. I’ve been grateful. I was in a traffic accident in 2000; I was riding my bike when a truck ran over my foot. People immediately stopped what they were doing to help, and I appreciated that; I had no problem.
It’s difficult judging when to help. When I’ve seen other people in accidents, I’ve dropped what I was doing so I could help, because I appreciated what people did for me. But I’m also sensitive to people’s pride in their privacy. All you can do is give your best judgment.
We can always take better care
of each other. Where there are
cultural forces involved, there’s a
Q: You are the author of many books. Has there been any ethical or moral dilemma that arose within the characters and themes of your books?
LO: Probably all of them! The one that comes to mind is the most recent one, Banned Emotions. The first line of that book is, “What are the politics of telling people what to feel?” It grew out of a personal story. I’d had a bad breakup, and everybody had advice about what I should do. People were telling me what to feel and in what time frame, and it bothered me. Luckily, I thought outward, rather than just getting mad, and realized how much people try to control their emotions and dictate the emotions of others. The ethical dimension for me is: What right do I have to say what another person should be feeling? I haven’t experienced what they experienced.
I wrote about patterns and emotions like long-term simmering anger, self-pity, envy, etc., which are socially discouraged. We’re not supposed to feel them, especially self-pity. Also, the advice not to feel those things doesn’t go equally to all; it tends to go toward the people who have the least power. Women have very often been told what they should and should not be feeling.
It’s worthwhile paying attention to your own
emotions because it helps you understand
other people who are feeling similar emotions.
One example is, “Life is not fair.” Parents tell children, prison guards tell prisoners, teachers tell students; it doesn’t move the other way. I can’t imagine a kid telling her parents, “Life is not fair,” if something happens that the parent doesn’t like. It’s like that with emotions. “Oh, you’re wallowing in self-pity,” and the person may have a very good reason to feel sorry for themself, or to feel angry. When you feel that way, it’s because you’ve experienced injustice. When you tell people, “You have no right to feel sorry for yourself, you have no right to be angry over this, you need to have positive emotions,” what you’re really telling them is to suppress their anger at injustice.
That’s not going to cause justice suddenly to bloom. It’s a kind of censorship, stopping critique. Sianne Ngai at the University of Chicago wrote a book called Ugly Feelings, and she said that if you’re telling people with less power that they’re not allowed to feel certain emotions, you’re preventing social critique.
Q: That is so powerful
LO: It’s complicated because people on the other side will say, “Well, what good did self-pity ever do anyone?” But if nobody seems to be on your side, it’s reasonable to feel sorry for yourself and say, “I hurt. This isn’t fair.” These are reasonable things to think, as long as they’re healing you. You’re supposed to be moving forward, you’re not supposed to hold onto things. You’re supposed to let go and move on. And if it makes you feel sorry for yourself, it may actually help you to keep going. If you never get beyond the feeling of outrage, then that’s not going to do anybody any good. If it helps you to heal, though, then why not? We don’t have a right to tell people what they should be feeling to heal.
It’s worthwhile paying attention to your own emotions because it helps you understand other people who are feeling similar emotions.
Q: I guess that is how we take care of each other.