Meaning of Apathy

It’s nothing to die; it’s frightful not to live (Victor Hugo)

What is the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care. Do you realize that scientists discovered a cure for apathy? But no one cares! Lastly, a public service announcement: The Apathy Anonymous meeting was canceled due to lack of interest.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I was only joking. Yet, there’s nothing funny about apathy, so let me get serious. The word has its origin in Greek and literally means "without feelings." Isn’t that a description of the dead? That was what Victor Hugo was referring to when he wrote, "It’s nothing to die; it’s frightful not to live." In other words, we should not be afraid of dying, but not living. The apathetic are alive, but without feelings, so they are not living. They are the living dead.

Here’s what the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) had to say about the subject, "... In the 19th century the problem was that God is dead; in the 20th century the problem is that man is dead ..." He calls apathy a problem for a good reason. It is a double-edged sword that wounds both the apathetic and the society in which they live. For example, although nuclear weapons cannot destroy democracy, voter apathy can! Such is the horrific negative power of apathy. As the world’s leading democratic country, The U.S., prepares to go to the polls, voter turnout is expected to be about 36%. Wouldn’t you call that a wakeup call?

What is the cause of apathy? It is often frustration and a sense of powerlessness that causes people to withdraw from life. However, the ultimate cause is their attitude, the way they react to the changing world. Let’s take a look at a specific example.

Jan has recently learned that her company has been bought by another company. Within a month, she and her coworkers will learn who among them will be hired by the new company and who will lose their jobs. Overnight their sense of security has been shattered. They are experiencing apprehension and frustration. They feel that they have lost control over their lives. They complain and disengage from activity. "If the company doesn’t care about me, why should I care about it? What’s the point of working when I’m probably going to lose my job anyway?"

This is an example of worker apathy. The staff has been reduced to a bunch of zombies. No one is doing their job. They are just putting in their time until that fateful day when they learn whether they have a job in the new company. There is one exception, however. And that is Jan. She is different. She has a different attitude and is living proof that apathy is not caused by events, but by our reaction to events.

Like her coworkers, Jan was disappointed to hear the news. But she wasn’t completely taken by surprise because she understands nothing is permanent, including her life. She also understands that adversity is our friend. Because it makes us stronger. By being forced to adapt, she will grow more flexible and knowledgeable. This is not to say she has no pain. But, again, she’s not complaining because she realizes pain is part of life. Like a child, she feels the fun of life more than compensates for the unavoidable scratches and bruises, which will heal anyway. She is also like the Japanese Daruma doll, which no matter how many times it is knocked down, just keeps rising.

Rather than look into the future with dread, she recalls her many happy memories with the company and is grateful for the opportunities she had. Not certain that she will be hired by the new company, she starts networking, putting out the word that she may become available. Because she is a hard worker and has a positive attitude, she has a wide circle of friends, which now come in handy. During her off-hours she scans The Internet and newspapers, looking for opportunities. She also updates her resume. Unlike her coworkers and because of her activity and attitude, she doesn’t share the feelings of hopelessness, loss of control, or apathy.

As Jan continues to work as hard as ever, she realizes she has made a big contribution to what will soon become her former employer. She looks forward to playing a vital role in another company. This enthusiasm, by the way, is the opposite of and the cure for apathy.

Other Causes and Cures of Apathy

Student apathy. The fear of being ridiculed or rejected by their peers sometimes prevents students from candidly offering their opinions. Yet, if they were to courageously give their views, they would earn the respect of their classmates and teachers. Another form of student apathy is lack of involvement in the student government and other activities. This can often be overcome by an invitation to participate by members of the faculty. When a teacher asks someone to join the student council, there is the implication that they are being asked because of their leadership qualities. This is often enough to motivate the student to join in.

The media. In their quest for higher ratings, the media keeps pushing the boundary of what is suitable for viewing. Skeleton-like starving children, people being burned alive or falling from buildings, or endless rows of bodies in a foreign battlefield. These and other images appear on our TV screens so often that they seem to represent the norm, rather than the exception. If it’s normal, why be concerned? If we’re not desensitized, we deliberately shut those images out of our mind to avoid the pain of thinking about the suffering of others. What the media needs to do is switch the focus from the news of people suffering to the news of people helping those who suffer. When we focus on people like Mother Teresa, other missionaries, and charitable organizations, we inspire participation rather than dropping out.

Overwhelming problems. Because of the vast number of problems facing society, we feel overwhelmed, which leads to paralysis. Peace in the middle east and elsewhere, the nuclear threat, which still remains; poverty, homelessness, crime, global warming, pollution, the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics, corporate downsizing and reliance on part-time workers, animal rights, euthanasia, capital punishment, and countless other problems haunt us. But we need not give up. True, the limited nature of our lives makes it impossible to do EVERYTHING, but we can do SOMETHING. And if each of us were to do something, the number of problems would lessen or their effects would decrease.

We are social creatures and need one another for survival. So, let’s get involved and do our part. "The world is a dangerous place to live;" said Albert Einstein, "not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it." We need to take sides and stand up for what’s right. Apathy and neutrality oppresses the victims, and silence encourages their tormentors. We are guilty of complicity in the suffering of others when we are indifferent to their pain. Scientists discovered a cure for apathy. It’s called involvement. Who cares? We do, so let’s continue to make a difference.

© Chuck Gallozzi
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