Apathy: The Greatest Danger

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It is the destruction of the world
 in our own lives that drives us
 half insane, and more than half.
 To destroy that which we were given
 in trust: how will we bear it?

Wendell Berry

As conscious, embodied beings endowed
 with multiple senses, we are geared to respond—instantly we leap from the path of an oncoming truck, dash to douse a fire, dive into a pool to save a child. This response-ability has been an essential feature of life throughout our evolution; it allows us to adapt to new challenges and generate new capacities. It enables whole groups and societies to survive, so long as their members have sufficient information and freedom to act


But in our present situation, things don't seem that simple. The perils facing life on Earth are so massive and unprecedented that they are hard to believe. The very danger signals that should rivet our attention, summon up the blood, and bond us in collective action, tend to have the opposite effect.



Do the perils of Earth make you want to pull down the blinds and busy yourself with other things?


Are you distracted by billion-dollar industries which tell us everything will be all right so long as we buy this car or that deodorant? Do you eat meat from factory-farmed animals and produce grown by agribusiness, knowing of the pesticides and hormones they contain, but preferring not to think they'll cause harm? Do you buy clothes without noticing where they are made, preferring not to think of the sweatshops they may have come from. Do you bother to vote, or do you vote for candidates you may not believe will address the real problems, hoping against all previous experience that they will suddenly awaken and act boldly to save us?

When you reflect on your answers to these questions, do you feel you have become callous, nihilistic? Have you ceased to care what happens to life on Earth?

It can look that way. Many reformers and activists decry public apathy. To rouse us, they deliver yet more terrifying information, as if we didn't already know that our world is in trouble. They scold and preach about moral duties, as if we didn't already care.



Do their alarms and sermons tend to make you pull the shades down tighter, stiffening our resistance to what appears to be too overwhelming, too complicated, too out of our control?

Do you then feel guilty about your apathy?

Apathy and apatheia


The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia or apathy, where apathy was understood in the ancient sense — being objective or having "clear judgment" — rather than simple indifference, as apathy implies today. The Stoic concepts of passion and apatheia may be considered as analogous to the Buddhist noble truths: all life has suffering (Dukkha), suffering is rooted in passion and desire, meditation and virtue can free one from suffering. It is also analogous to the concepts in Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, which stresses rising above the dualities such as pleasure-pain, win-lose.

It's good to look at what this apathy is, to understand it with respect and compassion. Apatheia is a Greek word that means, literally, nonsuffering. Given its etymology, apathy is the inability or refusal to experience pain. What is the pain we feeland desperately try not to feein this planet-time? It is of another order altogether than what the ancient Greeks could have known; it pertains not just to privations of wealth, health, reputation, or loved ones, but also to losses so vast we can hardly name them. It is pain for the world.