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.

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. J.


Labor Day weekend led me to thinking about the many different holidays we observe. My initial thoughts about holidays became too complex and entangled to post. Here, then, is a summary of my remarks about holidays.

Some holidays are truly holy days. Christmas and Easter stand at the head of this class, although over two thousand years the Church has marked many other days and seasons for celebrations and commemorations. For this reason, I don’t take part in the seasonal objection to “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The world’s recognition that a certain day is holy should be encouraged, not resisted.

Other holidays are national holidays. In the United States we mark Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, among others. All of these are declared by the government to be holy, time for us to set aside work, to enjoy life, and also to consider the blessings we have s citizens of the United States of America.

In the United States, certain days have been set apart to reflect the various cultures of which the American experience has been built. Saint Patrick’s Day, el Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and Octoberfest all have developed as holidays that call attention to one or another ethnic groups in the United States.

Some holidays reflect the seasons as they change. Most cultures have, in some way, observed the solstices and equinoxes. Many Yuletide customs reflect more the change in seasons than the Incarnation of the Savior. Celtic and Germanic groups in pre-Christian Europe also marked the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes, laying the foundation for Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween.

Not all holidays are widely celebrated. Some are personal, celebrated only with family and close friends. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries fall within this category, and some families have other special commemorations to recall past events in their shared lives.

Families and nations sometimes commemorate sad events. September 11 and December 7 are days that “live in infamy” for most Americans. Once again, families might commemorate the loss of their loved ones on the anniversary of their deaths, or they might remember other sad or frightening experiences they have shared.

On my personal calendar, I like to add a few celebrity birthdays to celebrate in my own private way. The four Beatles, the seven main cast members of the original Star Trek, and a few other entertainers are listed on my calendar. They neither know nor care that I remember them on their birthdays. No one else really cares either. I don’t make a major celebration to mark their days, but I do happen to remember them on their birthdays.

Do you have any holidays that are special to you or unique? J.


Remembering the Sixties

It’s all coming back to me now: the Beatles, the space program, Woodstock, Star Trek, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, I Dream of Jeannie, the Vietnam War, the Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel), MAD magazine, hippies, protests, the Six Day War….

My youngest daughter and I watch television together. Mondays we see I Dream of Jeannie, binge-watching if you can call three episodes a week a binge. Wednesdays we see the original Star Trek, although we have only three episodes left until we have to jump to the feature movies. Weekends this new year we’ve been watching musicals. So about ten days ago we saw “The Way to Eden,” known among Trekkies and Trekkers as the “space hippy” episode. With that episode still in my head, when we chose a musical to watch last night, I suggested we see Hair. She had not seen it before, but she’s old enough to handle it, so that is what we did.

Now I am very much in a Sixties mood. I’m torn between two movies for tonight. To stay with musicals and with Sixties music and dancing and clothing, I’m leaning toward Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the other hand, to continue her education about the 1960s (which is as remote to her life as the Great Depression is to mine), I am thinking of watching Forrest Gump. Either one would be a lot of fun, and I have a few hours left before I have to make up my mind.

Of course there is also the four-hour movie version of the Woodstock music festival. That might have to wait for another weekend, though…. J.

Bitter driving

I recently calculated that, in a typical week, I spend between five and six hours driving my car. That’s right: about 3.25 percent of my life is spent strapped in a metal box, powered by highly explosive fuel, moving at varying speeds down a strip of artificial rock surrounded by similar metal boxes. I admit, I am bitter about that discovery. (Are you listening, Bitter Ben?) Until we find a better way to travel—until Star Trek transporters become everyday devices—I can either drop out of life and join a rural commune, or I must continue my bitter driving.

Part of my bitterness about driving comes from the fact that these explosive metal boxes do not all travel in the same way. Some move faster and some move slower. George Carlin had a very funny routine about that fact, one in which he had vulgar insults for those who drove faster than he did and more vulgar insults for those who drove slower than he did. We all know that the highways would be safer if we all drove the same way. Various levels of government have made laws and posted signs about the speeds we should drive on different roads. Some drivers see those signs as mere suggestions, and they work hard to drive much faster, weaving in and out of lanes, dodging metal boxes with explosive fuel. Other drivers—for lack of confidence, or distracted by phone conversations and texts—drive slower than the limit, clogging our cities’ arteries like blobs of cholesterol.

One of the rules which many drivers take only as a friendly suggestion is Slower Traffic Stay Right. This rule has the corollary, always pass on the left. If there is only one lane of traffic, of course, this rule is hard to break. Where two lanes of traffic are traveling the same direction, slower traffic really should stay to the right and people who want to pass should be able to use the passing lane. Only one on road to I generally break this rule. Between work and home there is a four-lane road (two lanes each direction) with a lot of stores and parking lots, with traffic leaving and entering the highway. Here I stay in the left-hand lane for more than a mile, particularly since I will be turning left of this highway when I am nearly home. Of course if conditions allow, I am driving at the speed limit on this highway. I am bitter about those drivers who want to exceed the speed limit, who drive right behind me until I feel that I must be towing their vehicle, or who blast into the right-hand lane to zip beyond me. My bitterness is slightly relieved when I reencounter them at the next traffic light. I’m tempted to open the window and ask them if they enjoyed getting to the red light before I got there.

When three lanes are going the same direction, slower traffic should still stay right and faster drivers should still pass on the left. Depending upon traffic conditions, I usually follow this rule, but sometimes I will drive at the speed limit in the center lane, particularly in an area where a lot of cars are entering and leaving the highway on various ramps. I am bitter about those drivers who could pass me on the left but instead choose to pass me on the right. If they want to drive faster than the speed limit, can’t they at least do so in the fast lane? And why do those drivers who weave around the law-abiding vehicles think that they never have to single a lane change? If they are going to drive at unsafe speeds, can’t they at least let the rest of us have a clue as to where they are going next?

I am bitter about drivers who think that rules are for other people but not for them. I am bitter about drivers whose first priority is to reach their destination as quickly as possible, while safety is far down the list of their interests. I am bitter about roads that merge lanes due to construction or just to traffic design. I would prefer the zipper merge, in which each vehicle remained in its lane until the merge, at which point vehicles then would take turns—one from the left and the next from the right, and so on. Of course I’m not one of those drivers who follows the zipper merge. If a sign tells me that my lane ends in a mile, I get out of that lane as soon as possible. Then I am bitter about the drivers who go full speed down the disappearing lane to pass as many cars as possible. I am tempted to try to prevent those drivers from merging in front of me when their lane ends. Especially when another driver tries to continue to pass more cars after the lane has ended and turned into a shoulder, I want to strand them at the side of the road. In the interests of safety, I resist that temptation.

Driving makes me bitter. Having to drive from place to place can ruin an otherwise nice day. When, oh when, will technology get rid of these explosive metal boxes and offer us a better way to get from one place to another?


What if nothing is wrong?

For many years I tried to convince myself that there is no problem in my life I cannot handle with God’s help. Do I have negative feelings? Virtue is the ability to ignore feelings and to do what is right in spite of feelings. Do little things bother me more than they should? I may have a short temper, but with the virtue of self-control I can swallow my anger and not act inappropriately in public.

Unfortunately, I am not Spock. After a trying two years, I finally told my family doctor how I really feel. Now for several months I have been taking anti-depressants and seeing a counselor. For the first time I am starting to see that those fits of anger—which made me want to rave like Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers—were actually attacks of anxiety. For the first time I am starting to accept that depression is not a normal part of life that every person handles his or her own way.

Even as I accept this help and try to make progress, though, my anxious mind says to me, “You only think you have problems. You’ve heard of anxiety and depression and you have become a hypochondriac. You are merely pretending to need help because of the attention it draws to you, and because now you have excuses to misbehave.”

Moreover, my anxious mind tells me, “Other people really have these problems that you only think you have. They cannot handle situations where you are able to swallow your fear or your anger and move forward. You are taking up the time of professional people who should be free to help the people who really need their help.”

Fortunately, the Vulcan half of my mind is able to respond to this thought. “Is it normal to pretend to have problems? Is it normal to seek help when one is not sick? If one imagines one has problems and needs help, is it not true that one has problems and needs help?”

Some people imagine an angel and a demon sitting on their two shoulders whispering into their two ears, one urging good behavior and one suggesting bad behavior. As I write this post, I suddenly picture myself with Mr. Spock at one shoulder and Basil Fawlty at the other shoulder, each telling me I should be more like them.

In this blog I have not requested comments before, but I would appreciate some input on this question: Am I the only person with mental or emotional distress who thinks I might be faking my problems? Am I the only one who feels guilty for seeking help, as if the help I seek is something I don’t really need? I very much desire some sense of how common this experience is. (The comment box is way, way down at the bottom of the screen.)


I am Spock

In a previous post, I mentioned how my best friend in high school always wanted to be Captain Kirk and wanted me to be Mr. Spock. Of all the Star Trek characters, Spock is most like me—or at least like me as I see myself. I would like to believe that I’m the smart one in the group, the one to whom everyone turns for answers. I would like to believe that I’m capable of solving just about any problem, given enough time and enough information. I would like to believe that I am free from the burden of emotions, able to make wise decisions without being pushed and pulled by inconvenient feelings.

Spock speaks often of logic. If I could travel through time to the 1960s to suggest one change in the Star Trek scripts, I would ask them to mention reason in place of logic. Logic is the set of rules by which reason operates. Reason is the practice to which Spock and the rest of the Vulcans are dedicated. Loving the rules instead of the process makes no sense—preferring logic to reason would be like preferring reading a book of the rules of baseball to watching a baseball game.

Vulcans are not the only beings in the galaxy who prefer reason and logic to emotion. Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha taught in India that suffering can be escaped by a person who learns to cease desire. The Stoics of the Greek and Roman civilization also proposed a life guided by sober thought and not by emotion. They coined the word “apathy,” but they said apathy is good. They said it is better to go through life unmoved by emotion, because then people can make wise decisions.

It may seem strange for a Christian to speak of approval about Buddhists and Stoics. The Christian is commanded to love: to love God whole-heartedly and to love every neighbor. I countered that love is not a feeling. Love is caring more for the other than for the self. Feelings can confuse love, especially when the world around us treats love as only a feeling. Feelings confused for love can lead to great temptations and great sins. Feelings confused as love can destroy a relationship that was meant to last until death.

Over the years, I have tried to help other people get around their feelings. When they are frightened for no good reason, or when they think they are worthless and life is meaningless, I say to them, “I know you feel that way, and I know that it is a powerful feeling. I also know that it is untrue. You are valuable. You have no reason to be afraid. Do your best to set aside how you feel and to do the right thing.” After all, virtue is always measured by doing the right thing in spite of feelings. Courage is not a lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. Honor is not a lack of temptations; honor is doing the right thing in spite of temptations.

I gave this advice to others because I thought it worked for me. I thought that, like Spock, I made good and wise decisions by ignoring my feelings and trusting reason and logic to guide me. I thought I could continue to ignore my feelings and would continue to make good and wise decisions. Finally, after several stressful events, I confessed my real inner feelings to the family doctor. Instead of lying, as I had done year after year, assuring him that I felt just fine, I described for him how I really feel about myself and about my life. He listened to me. He prescribed some medications. He referred me to a counselor. He did the very job that I had been paying him to do, but that I had kept him from doing by hiding information from him.

The diagnosis is depression and anxiety. The outlook is good. Feelings I have ignored for most of my life are feelings I can now acknowledge and confront. I don’t expect the future to be easy. Even Spock had to struggle with feelings and allow them to be real from time to time. But I find myself on the highway to health, instead of on the road I was traveling before. For that, I am grateful.


Star Trek fan

The death of Leonard Nimoy this past February was particularly sad for me and my daughter, since we have been watching the original Star Trek episodes on Wednesday nights since last summer. I doubt that I qualify as a Trekkie or a Trekker, since I have never attended a Star Trek convention, do not own a Star Trek uniform or mechanical device, and do not have any Star Trek posters or commemorative plates. I own a small number of books related to Star Trek, and I have all the episodes of the original series on DVD. (I also have about half of them on VHS.)

Moreover, I have never warmed to the Next Generation or any of the other incarnations of Star Trek. For me, the words “Star Trek” will always signify Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scottie, Uhuru, Sulu, Chekov, and the other four hundred members of the Enterprise crew. The original series had an energy that overcame its weak special effects and other limitations. As one of the most optimistic science fiction stories of its era, Star Trek deserves the respect given to the show as an icon of American culture of the 1960s.

I vaguely remember a couple of first-run episodes of Star Trek, but I was still quite young during the three years of new episodes. I became better acquainted with the show and its characters through syndicated reruns in the 1970s. My best friend in high school and I made radio plays based on the Star Trek characters. He was always Kirk, and I was always Spock. We eagerly waited for the first feature film of Star Trek and were not disappointed by it. Other reviewers complained of the pace of the movie, especially its long lingering introduction to the rebuilt Enterprise, but those scenes suited the two of us just fine.

Star Trek has remained with me through the years, and I was glad to be able to own the episodes and watch them at my convenience. I’ve shared them with my children and watched them come to understand and relate to Spock, Kirk, and the rest. Like the original cast, my children and I have a sense of humor about the show. They can, for example, identify and imitate a “Shatner comma.” Beyond that, we sometimes pretend that the family van has impulse engines and warp drive, and we know that our cell phones are really communicators.

Scottie, McCoy, and now Spock have left this world. Unlike in the TV episodes and movies, no amazing trick or alien technology is going to return them—not, at least, until all the dead are raised and the world is made new. But we will always be able to relive their adventures and to imagine further adventures for them. We too are able “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”