Apathy in the darkness

People say that the two biggest problems facing western civilization these days are ignorance and apathy. How can we confront these two concerns? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a group of philosophers who called themselves Stoics sang the praises of apathy. They insisted that a virtuous person will not love anything in this world too much, not even a family member or a friend. The world, to Stoics, is a bad place, and everything in it is bad. They recalled the words of Socrates, who pictured the death of his body and the release of his soul as a bird flying free from its cage. So, for the Stoics, should be the attitude of every wise man and woman. We should be unencumbered by the things of this world. We should be seeking freedom from the physical world, freedom to become purely spirit, freedom not to care about food and drink, about clothing and shelter, about health and safety, or about any other matter than pertains only to our physical existence in this world.

Already two thousand years ago, a trade network linked the Mediterranean world with Persia, India, and China. Possibly Buddhist teachings traveled along this network, suggesting thoughts to the Stoic philosophers in the West. For Buddhists also seek to be unattached to the things of this world. Desire, or craving, leads to suffering. Learning to live without desire promotes life without suffering. Buddhists do not completely withdraw from the world—they consider proper vocation as important as proper beliefs and proper meditation. But behind all that is proper lies unattachment—freedom from desire for anything in this world, with the expectation of nirvana—complete freedom from suffering and from the burden of maintaining a self-identity.

In the Star Trek world, Vulcans practice the same apathy and non-attachment as Stoics and Buddhists. Vulcans seek to be guided by logic and reason, not by emotion. Scriptwriters could not resist toying with this philosophy, forcing Mr. Spock in one way or another to confront human emotion. Spock struggled to remain faithful to Vulcan values, to be apathetic and unattached, to be guided by logic unclouded by emotion. Doctor McCoy found Spock’s apathy to be cold and unappealing, but Captain Kirk often found Spock’s Vulcan ways to be helpful to the crew and the mission of the Enterprise.

This winter I am starting with a new therapist, hoping to overcome the burden of apathy. My own depression, combined with the challenges of the past year, have left me feeling burnt out and uncaring. The virus crisis, the year’s political chaos, and threats to my own job and income have exhausted my inner strength. Moreover, I have for years been taking medicine to help control my feelings of anxiety and depression. Christmas season was an ongoing struggle—I did not want to celebrate the holiday, and I did not want to spend time with family. I stopped caring about my health and well-being; I was uninterested in taking care of myself. My writing lagged. My personal space became increasingly cluttered and untidy. Even my decision to seek therapy comes, not from any desire of mine to recover, but from the insistence of family members that I need help.

Christians are not meant to be unattached. We are to love God whole-heartedly, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians are not meant to be apathetic. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are to mourn our sins and the world’s evil—then we can be comforted and satisfied. Christians do not seek a spiritual existence untouched by the physical world. When God created the world, what he made was good. When the world became corrupted by sin and rebellion and evil, God became a physical being, as human as we are, to redeem the world. He defeated death by dying and by rising to life again—rising with a body that could be touched, that could eat and drink with his disciples, that remained physical and human. He promises his people a resurrection to a new and perfect world where we will eat and drink together at his table and enjoy everything that was good in the first creation.

Not caring is a problem. The loss of emotion means fading into darkness, not walking in the light. Right now, I honestly don’t care, but with help I expect to start caring again. With that change, other parts of my life might also start falling into place, aligning in a way that is right for me and for those around me. J.