Apathy is mostly believed to reside solely in individual people, considered as some kind of disease to be dealt with. The prescription given takes the form of some immediate action. Get the person involved in an activity and the apathy will go away. The insidiousness of apathy is how easy it is to mistake mere movement with engagement. Movement is a linear process from one point to another; engagement is the imagined projection of self into an evolving and interconnected life. Mistaking the former with the latter can blind a person to life’s pregnant possibility by believing a shallow vision is truly deep.

The myth here is any activity equals conscious, intentional, engagement. However, quantity of movement, no matter how frenzied, does not in itself signify a conscious intentional connection between the individual and the community. This ease of mimicry leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgment that all the family vacations, all the phone calls one makes for a political party, the protests of varying degrees of shrill pronouncement, the house parties one throws for church groups and even the fervor with which an idea is defended, is all for naught if the action is done without an active intentional engagement with those involved. To be next to someone and yet feel alone is an inevitable consequence.

One popular advertising tagline declares: “just do it.” No declaration is made as to just what “it” is, but assurance is pronounced that engaging in “it” will alleviate the banality of a life lacking in active felt experience. There is a form of salvation message here, a way to feel immediately connected without any concern for understanding. Action for the sake of action covers a barrenness of relationship and a paucity of ideological understanding. Yet with every rally, every weekend retreat, we feel a growing sense of our own powerlessness and a disconnection with our fellow human beings. Without deliberation, without consciously placing the self into the stream of life’s events, seeing the inter-relation that one has with every experience, action is simply a haphazard attempt to fill a biological need, a gut reaction without meaning.

Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, notes:

“Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness. Dropping the salvational fantasy frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundation of soul.”

Mere action leads to apathy because we are so busy attempting to be free from our natural reality, we run away from it rather than engage and embrace. Consider “imagination as a connect-the-dots image-maker expanding the reality we’re aware of. The available dots and their connections stem from the disparate parts of our past and present experiences.” Imagination is the means by which we bridge the content of our lives with the substance of our hopes and dreams. When engaged, imagination looks at our inability to fly and creates airplanes, looks upon relational separation birthed by religious fundamentalism and declares instead we belong to an interconnected natural universe, ponders disease and comes up with research to cure it and looks upon a world continuing towards destruction and offers new forms of energy, conservation and the idea of living in balance.

None of these engagements require running away from reality, none of them hope for a salvation that is always just beyond our grasp. Each and every one of them, big and small, from the airplane to helping a stranger with getting food, never once lack acknowledgment with our physical limitations. Seeing limit, each of these engagements creates a new path to address, casting aside the shallow vision of a separated self for the depth of potential residing in the continually manifesting universe.

This is why apathy is not an individual sickness, it is a felt relational absence. Mere action would have us believe we exist in our own worlds, lonely billiard balls careening through existence. Intentional engagement seeks to widen the vision to the interconnected whole. We embrace our relational experience not with mere action, but with every conscious acknowledgement of the lives we live and the nature within which we live it.


© David Teachout


Artwork by elreviae

One comment

  1. OTOH, if you are engaged or wishing to engage with something, e.g. a cause, instead of with people, you can experience the same emptiness if you are faced with people who think your cause has no meaning in itself but only as a matter of relationships (with them).

    Also, I think it makes a big difference whether you try to lose your own apathy or someone else’s. Because if someone else is just moving their body, they still enable us to ignore our own helplessness at their suffering.


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