The loss of empathy is the introduction to apathy – Anonymous.
Dr. Paul Brand, a top researcher on the subject of pain, once said, “If I held in my hands the power to eliminate pain, I would not exercise it.” His conclusion came after understanding that the curse of leprosy was not dismemberment, but the paralysis of nerves. Leprosy’s chief aim is to deaden the nervous system, creating a loss of feeling and sensation. This condition makes lepers unaware of the pain of a burn or walking with an open wound. Eventually, the infection from the open wound causes damage to the bone. The result is the loss of the body part.
Apathy, like leprosy, attacks our empathy. Apathy is a loss of interest, a lack of feeling, sensation, or emotion. Indifference is one word to describe apathy. It originates from two words that mean “without feeling.” According to Jessica Hagy, an author and frequent writer for the New York Times and Harvard Business Review, apathy conditions us to, “shrug in the face of doom and sigh when we should be awed.” A keen investigation shows apathy’s footprint is present where paralysis of caring exists. We sit on the fence on every issue and carry no stand or standard. “Whatever” becomes our default response to life’s events. We are buried in apathy’s cemetery when we stop believing we can and start accepting we can’t. Our dreams and goals fall off the perimeter of possibility as apathy eats at our passion and desire to take action in a purposeful direction. We become neither “here nor there” people. We stop living and start existing, having little to no sense that anything worthwhile lies ahead. Our dreams, goals, values, and our connection with others start to fall off like limbs infected with leprosy. In my assessment, apathy is complacency that has been allowed to breed or go unchecked over a period of time.
Failure to Cope
There are events in life we wish we could go through without feeling the effect. But pain is a gift that reminds us we are alive and an indicator to take action before things get worse. In trying to avoid the pain of reality, we adopt unhealthy ways to cope and numb ourselves. The desire for “numbing agents” eats away at our authenticity and level of engagement in relationships. These mechanisms keep us settled on our lees of false comfort and security, opting for a cruise-control life while ignoring the warning signs indicating we are heading for a crash and action is required.
Coping mechanisms become masks we hide behind to disguise our true feelings and need for help and healing. According to behavioral research, coping mechanisms caused by apathy sap our attention, encroach on our time and prevent us from living fully. The mechanisms, for a time, soothe and pacify. In the end, they deepen apathy like self-inflicted wounds from leprosy. These habits include but are not limited to procrastination, displacement, regression, denial, excessive social media time, overeating, binge-watching, and alcohol.
Tied to the above coping systems, Hagy gives this in-depth effect of apathy:
Apathy makes us numb. And numb people cut each other off in traffic. Numb people don’t dance at weddings. Numb people scroll without clicking. Numb people swallow their food without tasting it, ignore sunsets, are left cold by great literature, don’t vote, and can’t fall in love. And some of them ask the scariest question of all, “What’s the point?” Apathy and humanity are locked in a deathmatch. A culture of apathy is a culture of decay. Closed eyes don’t see opportunities or dangers. Closed hearts don’t build communities. Closed ears can’t learn new things. Closed souls give up. Apathy is dangerous. Apathy kills. And apathy is horrifically contagious.
The Way out of Apathy
Living in the age of information makes apathy an increasing threat to humanity. We are exposed to more information than our emotions can handle, further perpetuating the risk of contracting apathy. As we become informationally bloated, we become emotionally starved. Empathy seeps out as apathy creeps in. Pastor and author Craig Groeschel said it best; “many things will catch our attention, but few things will capture our heart.” I believe one of the greatest places of tension in fighting apathy is ensuring we don’t lose what captures our heart in the myriad of things that catch our attention. What captures your heart? Does it still beat, burn, and break for the things that matter?
Lepers are eventually isolated into colonies. Likewise, victims of apathy self-isolate by retreating to colonies of their coping systems. Breaking out of apathy requires improvement of your spaces. The space around you improves the space within you. These spaces push apathy out, making room for empathy to return. The spaces you frequent most influence how you feel. Choose your spaces carefully, for they have a way of building empathy or developing the destructive fox of apathy within you.
Final Thought: President John F. Kennedy clearly stated, “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” Carrying the attitude behind this quote is paramount to keep apathy at bay. Don’t let apathy jaundice your life. Find spaces that will stoke the flame of empathy and build your courage to take action in the direction of your dreams and goals. I pray that if apathy dares to knock on the door of your life, empathy will answer with an emphatic, “You are not welcome here!”
Keep on keeping on
Brand P. & Yancey P., The Gift of Pain p. 219