Joanna Macy

Apatheia by Richard Lawless

Activists decry public apathy. The cause of our apathy, however, is not indifference. It stems from a fear of the despair that lurks beneath the tenor of life-as-usual. Sometimes it manifests in dreams of mass destruction, and is exorcised in the morning jog and shower or in the public fantasies of disaster movies. Because of social taboos against despair and because of fear of pain, it is rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. It is kept at bay. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurrent response, produces a partial numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut.

The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. It not only impoverishes our emotional and sensory life - flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic - but also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies. Fear of despair erects an invisible screen, filtering out anxiety-provoking data. In a world where organisms require feedback in order to adapt and survive, this is suicidal. Now, when we most need to measure the effects of our acts, our attention and curiosity slacken as if we are already preparing for the big sleep. Doggedly attending to business-as-usual, we’re denying both our despair and our ability to cope with it.

So it’s good to look at what apathy is, to understand it with respect and compassion. Apatheia is a Greek word that means, literally, non-suffering. Given its etymology, apathy is the inability or refusal to experience pain. What is the pain we feel - and desperately try not to feel - in this planet-time? It is of another order altogether than what the ancient Greeks could have known; it pertains not just to privations of wealth, health, reputation, or loved ones, but to losses so vast we can hardly name them. It is pain for the world.

- Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self