Cultivating Indifference

In Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

The dictionary defines Apathy in the following way:

Lack of Interest, enthusiasm, or concern.

Synonyms: indifference, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of concern, unconcern, uninterestedness, unresponsiveness, impassivity,passivity, passiveness, detachment, dispassion, dispassionateness, lack of involvement, coolness.

I don’t know about you, but I used to think about apathy in the same breath as depression and other psychological disorders but perhaps it’s actually something that we should try and cultivate in our daily lives.

It’s not actually apathy that we should try to cultivate but apatheia, the ancient Greek word for apathy. It doesn’t translate as clearly today.

It’s about being free from suffering in our lives through objective reasoning and clear judgement about what is important (and so should be cared about) and what isn’t (and so shouldn’t be cared about).

ou see, there is a dichotomy in life between things that we should care about and things we shouldn’t. I think we can all agree on that.

Now what those things are is another matter altogether. After plenty of reading and lots of thinking I’ve reached the following conclusion, which happens to be in line with the Stoic way of thinking.

The only things we should value is the things that we truly own.

We are fooling ourselves if we value things that can just as easily disappear as they first appeared.

So what do we actually own?

Well, not much.

Think you own your smartphone? I’d like to see you tell that to the four large guys you bump into in a dark alleyway on a Saturday night.

Perhaps your home? Well, there is always fire, divorce, lawsuits, bankruptcy and many other situations that can take that roof that’s over your head.

What about the money in your bank account? Better read up on your history. Hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920’s, Zimbabwe in the last ten years and let’s not even start on the numerous bank runs and collapses since the start of capitalism.

Alright, at least we own our bodies…right? Have you never met anyone who has had an amputation or has lost the ability to walk, talk, see or hear? In fact, our bodies regularly get smaller illness no matter how well we tend to them! In fact, we’re still struggling to find a cure for the common cold!

No, the only thing we should value is our ability to act in a virtuous manner because that is the only thing we can control. But wait, exactly what does it mean to be virtuous? Well, in my opinion it’s a mix of certain qualities which, as a whole, combine to form something greater. Virtue can be subdivided into four sub-virtues:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Justice
  3. Courage
  4. Moderation

Each of these four categories can be further subdivided.

  • Wisdom can be subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness.
  • Justice can be subdivided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing.
  • Courage can be subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness.
  • Moderation can be subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self control.

I will leave an in-depth discussion of virtue for another time.

It’s not coincidental that what we should only care about what we can control. Actually, as you might imagine, it’s extremely convenient!

When you start caring about things outside of your control, you give up your peace of mind. You can go mad trying to control the uncontrollable. This concept can be tough to grasp, especially when you consider the fact that we cannot control other people, yet we all have people we love and care about. So how can we come to terms with this apparent contradiction in our beliefs?

Well, it depends how you look at it. Each one of us has various duties towards other people and society as a whole. These duties depend on our role within the society we live in, we might be teachers, husbands, daughters, law-enforces, heads of governments etc etc. By using just a little wisdom, we can analyse our roles and this in turn tells us how we should act. If we have a son or daughter, a superficial analysis is enough to tell us that we should care about their development. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that we cannot control our child and that he or she may be taken away from us at any time.

This means that we should learn to see most things as they really are:

Neither good or bad.

There is a brilliant saying by the ancient Greek Philosopher Epictetus that I am sure you will have heard before:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

This sentiment is echoed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the line:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

You are stuck in traffic? Then say: “I am stuck in traffic, people have been known to get stuck in traffic.”

You broke your arm? Then say: “I broke arm. I’m not the first person to do so and neither will I be the last. Have I ever assumed bones were indestructible?”

Your father died? Then say: “My father died. He’s human and that is what happens to all humans. It is as natural an event as waking up in the morning, breathing air, or drinking water.”

All of these things are not in your control. You cannot control the traffic, you cannot stop your arm breaking if circumstances conspire for it happen. It’s a scientific fact that your father will die.

You should be indifferent to these things.

If you lament to these type of events outside of your control, then that is bad. You are letting uncontrollable outside circumstances dictate the only factor that you control – the acceptance or denial of an impression.

There is no person or event that can upset you unless you allow it to. When something”bad” happens and it’s upsetting one could argue that you are an accomplice to making that event “bad” because in reality it’s your judgements that make the event bad.

In other words, the way you look and interpret the world around you makes events good or bad. That is your choice, and nobody can steal that away from you, everything else pales in comparison.

One usual counter to this above point is that advertising can influence the way you think. I gave a rebuttal to this in a previous essay named On Control

If you are not careful, you can let others influence the way you think. An obvious example of this is with advertising. An advertising agency only needs to make you see the same advert less than a dozen times for it to have some effect. It is estimated that the average person is bombarded with around 250 direct adverts per day (such as internet and tv advertising and billboards) and up to 3000 visual attacks (such as labels on clothing, etc).

In contrast with the claim I made earlier about advertisers only needing less than a dozen messages to influence us , it may appear that we have no chance to stop ourselves being influenced by advertising. One would be correct in making this assumption, if it wasn’t for the fact that we have between 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day (depending on how “deep” a person you are) and so consequently there is plenty of room to fight off the effects of advertising. In fact, nobody stands a chance in trying to control or even just influence your thoughts if you are a deep analytical thinker.

Advertising (and governments) try and turn us into puppets by pulling on the strings of externals that we care about. If you develop apathy towards externals and concentrate only on the internals (i.e your thoughts and actions) they have nothing to temp you with! You a truly free to see the world for what it is.

One could say that human nature actually helps us to develop apathy. Hedonic adaptation makes us apathetic to external things over time, we stop finding the things we already own and do exciting and yearn for the new. This natural human condition needs to be handled carefully, give in to it whole-heartedly and you will forever be chasing the new, never being content with what you have. Crush it completely, and you might find you don’t have any reason to get up in the morning.

So, how can we use Hedonic adaptation to help us become apathetic is to allow it flourish in some parts of our lives and crush it in others. The division of this is exactly the same as the division we made earlier. So let Hedonic Adaptation run wild in the areas of your life you truly own and crush it in the areas of life that you do not truly own.

So don’t pine for the latest tech gadget (although it’s not a problem buying one, it’s how you go about buying it that counts) but have a strong desire to use your rational brain to live virtuously and well.