“People are apathetic.” It’s a glib and easily thrown away line. Is it true?
Are people apathetic?
... and yes!
What other words might be used instead of apathy? Standard dictionaries give us words such as: indifference, ennui, boredom, uncaring, unconcern, sometimes even laziness. These synonyms are the modern meaning of the word apathy.
If these are the meanings of apathy then the answer to the question “are people apathetic?” has to be – no!
Before I go on to explain my answer, let us look at the roots of the word apathy and what it might mean if we had not been so apathetic (pun intended) and sloppy about our understanding of the word.
As with many English words the word apathy has Greek origins. The second part of the word is the same Greek word (pathos)that also gives us sympathy and empathy. It means emotion, feeling,or suffering. The one-letter a that begins the word also comes from Greek and means not or of. Equally it could express a likeness, as in together.
This brings us closer to an understanding of apathy. We get a sense that knowing that the suffering is so great it seems the best thing to do in response is to have no feeling. Repressing the feelings is preferable to feeling them.
This is not uncaring, nor is it indifference.
It is, however, apathy in it’s original sense.
People do care. But, when that care elicits feelings that are too painful, and bring on too much suffering, the response is a-pathy (no-suffering).
Judy Lief1 puts it this way:
“Our hope is that if we keep all the distractedness going, we will not have to look at who we are, we will not have to feel what we feel, we will not have to see what we see.”I could add: we will not have to suffer.
How Has It Come To This?
We might ask; how has it come to this? How have we come to a point where our collective suffering and pain for the world is so great that we prefer to suppress that suffering?
Joanna Macy2 has given a lot of thought to this very question. Her life’s work has been to help people delve into their suffering and to find a way out the other side with “new eyes” and the twin tools of compassion and wisdom.
Macy identifies a number of fears that drive our plunge into apathy. Fear of pain, fear of despair, fear of not fitting in, fear of guilt, fear of powerlessness and others are at the heart of our apathy she says.
These fears, alongside the daily bombardment of mass media, social media, job pressures, State interference etc, combine to keep us trapped in our no-feeling state.
Stop Throwing Sand
Now, let’s apply this understanding to our own social justice and environmental movements. Many of these movements tend to exacerbate the problem, piling more and more facts and figures about gloom, doom and destruction upon us.
It is as if someone were trapped in quicksand and we pour more and more sand over their head, and then wonder why it is that the person does not see or feel the sand.
If we take a leaf from the pages of community development we can approach apathy in a different way. We can start with where people are. We can start with despair, we can start with pain, we can start with anguish.
We can start with suffering.
Suffering is not healed by facts, numbers, or figures. Suffering is not healed by images of the end of the world, or apocalyptic collapse.
Suffering is healed by a facilitated process of seeking it out, recognising it, grappling with it, and discovering the way towards a new way of seeing. Joanna Macy calls it “seeing with new eyes.”
That all means we have to get past our glib ideas that apathy is the problem.
1. Judy Lief has been a Buddhist teacher and writer for over 35 years.
2. Joanna Macy has been writing and running workshops on despair and personal empowerment since the 1970s. Her book, Coming Back To Life (co-authored with Molly Brown, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2014) outlines her thinking and is a guide for dealing with suffering in a way that enables “seeing with new eyes” and a way to get beyond that suffering. See the review of this book here.