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.

Love your enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47).

Many people come to Jesus hoping that he will make their lives easier, that he will spare them from the problems of this evil world. Jesus warns of persecution in this world, remarking that those who have received the blessings of God are the same people who will be persecuted in this world. Jesus offers several examples of ways that people of the world take advantage of God’s people, adding that we should not resist them. Now, instead of saying that Christians will have no enemies or that we will conquer all our enemies, Jesus acknowledges the existence of those enemies and commands his followers to love our enemies.

In the Stoic philosophy/religion of ancient Greece and Rome, people were taught to be disinterested. Apathy was a virtue to the Stoics. People were taught not to treat others on the basis of what they had done for one in the past or on the basis of what they might do for one in the future; instead, all people were to be treated fairly and equally. Here, Jesus points out that God acts in the same manner: he gives sun and rain to all people, no matter how good or holy those people are. When good things happen, all people benefit; when disaster strikes, all people suffer. God does not use sicknesses and accidents to sort the good from the bad. If an airplane crashes, we cannot judge the goodness or sinfulness of the passengers by analyzing who survived and who was killed.

We are told to be like God, treating everyone the same. Yet Jesus makes it clear that the disinterested approach of the Stoics is not good enough for God. We are to love everyone, even our enemies. We are to imitate Jesus. He did not resist those who sentenced him to death, those who mocked him, or those who nailed him to a cross. Instead of resisting their evil, Jesus prayed for them, asking his Father to forgive them for their sins.

This kind of love surpasses our usual way of living. We are more likely to measure other people by what they have done for us and by what they can do for us. The other religions of the world protest this selfishness. Still, only Jesus has been able to live according to the higher standard. As Jesus calls us to be like him and to be like his Father, he knows that he is asking something difficult from us. When he tells us to love our enemies, he knows from his own experience how unlovable those enemies will be.

God hates sin. God hates sinners. Whenever we sin, we are God’s enemies. Though it seems a paradox, God also loves his enemies and wants to rescue us from our sins. When we were still enemies of God, lost in sin, Jesus died for us. He took our guilt upon himself and absorbed God’s wrath so we could be treated as the sons of God. We could become, in God’s eyes, righteous people who deserve God’s rewards. Jesus grants this blessing to his people. When he commands us to love our enemies, Jesus requires us to be living pictures of his love, the love that has transformed our lives. J.