What’s It Going to Take to Heal the Apathy in Our Society?
With a growing awareness of mounting ecological, economic, and social problems, there exists many growing currents of response.
On one hand, more people are waking up. They’re getting involved. They’re saying, “Not another day! This is where I mark the line.” Their desire to change the world is turning from simple wishful thinking on Monday mornings into tangible action. The thoughts they used to have only occasionally about their relationship to the rest of the world now occurs to them all the time.
They’re beginning to see activism not as something that is done only at non-profit meetings and at protests, but that activism is a way of life – that it represents nothing less than our personal, spiritual choice to choose determination over defeat, and compassion over apathy. Ultimately, in some way, it is the choice to reject our culture’s post-modern slide into narcissism. It is to reject the modern consumer philosophy that true happiness and joy comes from personal material accumulation, from seeking personal desires and needs. It is the realization that the joy that comes from connecting to our relationship with the planet blows the old way of seeking joy out of the water.
These people are realizing that humans are social animals; we crave connection and community; we crave a wide, encompassing identity that connects us with the whole humanity of the world – not just our friends and family, not just our city, our country, our species – but every living being on Earth – plant, animal, and human.
It is a new philosophy, perhaps a very, very ancient philosophy, one that sees everyone on this planet as one family – that everything is interconnected, that the whole humanity and life of all beings resides in each one of our hearts, and that we reside in theirs. There is no “I” and “them.” Truly, honestly.
The happiness of another is my happiness. The suffering of another is my suffering.
There is no separation. For millions and millions of people growing around the planet, the problems of the world are their problems; the happiness others find as we collectively realize a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world is their happiness. It is the most profound and meaningful happiness one could possibly experience.
You can’t buy that kind of happiness at a store. You can’t get it from beating the last level of a video game. It doesn’t come out of the end of a pipe or at the bottom of a bottle. It doesn’t come from watching sports. It doesn’t come from how you dress or what kind of car you drive. It doesn’t come from getting a college degree or from getting a fatter paycheck.
It comes directly from the final and profound realization that there truly is no “self” and there is no “other.” We are inter-connected with everything. We are all of it.
To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki:
If the world did not exist, I could not exist.
If I do not exist, then nothing exists.
Scientifically, this is true, but our culture makes it hard to appreciate. But it is what Martin Luther King saw; it is what Gandhi saw. It is what every person that works to change the world in some way experiences – not in words, but in conviction.
It is this realization, how ever it might be described (it has been described in hundreds of ways) that gave every inspirational person in our history the personal, spiritual power to face the most impossible odds and to succeed.
It is what has made me want to dedicate my life to improving the world. It is why I do not feel like I have a choice anymore in the matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter if everyone around me says it’s hopeless. I’ve got to do it because my inner-most nature wants me to do it.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, reading more news about how the world is falling apart, watching more documentaries about how urgent and dire our situation has become doesn’t shut me down. I’ve watched over 150 documentaries at this point, absorbed an ungodly amount of “depressing” information, and I have not become jaded. I’ve been burnt out before, several times in fact. And over time I have come to see that if we don’t know how to absorb this information we will undoubtedly be crushed by it. I’ve seen this happen to many of my friends. They just shut down, not because they don’t care, but because there is too much to care about, and we just don’t know how to deal with it.
In an age where we receive more information from one edition of the New York Times than a man in the Renaissance might receive in his entire life, it is simply too easy to become overwhelmed by the barrage of stimulus, the barrage of causes and problems that beg us to care about them and to help out.
It is a problem unique to our generation (and I have to laugh as we throw one more on top of the list). But it is one that if we do not discover the solution to, frankly, we’re all gonna be screwed.
Figuring out how to turn apathy into action is one of the most important and vexing problems we can try to figure out.
Because as I mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways people are responding to our mounting environmental and social problems, and among all the people that are waking up and getting involved, there are many that have responded by shutting down. The empathy center in their brains has short-circuited: too many images of oil-soaked baby seals, too many images of starving children in foreign countries, too much political corruption rampant in Washington, too many examples of the media failing to do their job on The Daily Show, too many ingrained and inter-locked institutions upholding the status quo. Logically, they could make quite a case for saying that trying to change anything is pointless. And it seems that the logical side of their brains has won over and suppressed the voice in their heart. Or maybe not.
But in either case, they have given up before they have even started. They’ve accepted that the world is spinning out of control and have resigned themselves to enjoy what little of the party pie is left before it’s all gone. There may be a deep seated rage in many of today’s youth, that goes suppressed, a rage from simply being born into these problems – that it was already out of control before they were even born.
And from the way it’s looking, the world they will inherit has already been squandered. Our parents generation grew up in a time of unprecedented growth, the age of cheap oil – a 100 year paradigm that fueled all the rich affluence that we have enjoyed up to today. But the 21st century, the young are realizing, will be a century of decline – declining supplies of cheap energy, fresh water, arable soil, and clean air; declining mental clarity in a world saturated by commercial noise, declining security in an age of climate change and growing resource wars. For the youth of today that have not responded by becoming incredibly pissed off, they have responded by becoming incredibly despondent – birthing the kind of philosophical narcissism and ironic distance that is so perfectly embodied by the modern “hipster.”
Of course, billions of people all over the world never even got a taste of the party that we in the affluent West have gotten to enjoy. Can you imagine the rage and anger one would feel knowing how so few in the West could enjoy so much while so many in the rest of the world will not benefit from any of it before it’s gone? And some people have trouble understanding (not condoning mind you, but understanding) why kids in the Middle East would dream of blowing us up.
We’ve got to listen to this rage, not fight it but listen to it. So many people in our society are apathetic towards politics or social change. How can we turn the tide? What’s the secret to transforming apathy into resolve?
I mean, what do you say to a person that says “everything is pointless”?
Like I said before, I’ve felt burnt out and depressed about our situation many times, but every time, a spark was lit and my enthusiasm regenerated. Now, it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt jaded. Something happened to me that made “pessimistic realism” completely unacceptable to me.
Now, I get depressed if I play video-games or party too much, and I feel more alive than ever when I’m “working” on activist projects. I don’t even feel like I have a choice about it anymore. I do it because there’s simply nothing else to do. Anything less just feels like I’m denying reality. I know that a world of incredible potential and beauty exists if I will simply work to find it.
That’s the conclusion, but like many core convictions that we accumulate over life, I cannot remember how I got here. I know millions of people all over the world have had this same kind of conclusion. I know many of my friends have had this conclusion. They’ve felt jaded about the state of the world, and then something happens to them, and suddenly their old view of the world seems entirely unacceptable. A spark ignites inside them, a passion to engage with the world rather than insulate oneself from it. And the beautiful thing is, whatever this spark is, it is self-sustaining. It is the furnace that burns in you the rest of your life, and the more you use of it, the more of it you have.
So I would like to ask everyone reading this, what was the spark that lit the fire for you? If you felt jaded once but found your way out of it, what was the catalyst? What gives you the energy to not just care intellectually, but in action?
I would love to hear your stories and thoughts on this. Because if we can figure this out, then I think we’ll have found the key to riding this tsunami of growing problems like a surfer rides a wave. We can engage with the reality of the world without being drowned by it.
From this, I think we can discover a philosophy on how to live one’s short life on this planet with passion and vigor, with unconquerable determination. And from here, a whole other world becomes possible.