Constructive Apathy, Part 1

I have long been a proponent of apathy. Healthy, honest, clean and beneficial apathy.

It’s not a popular position. And that’s understandable. When an apathetic person enters a position of authority, where they have an obligation to both care and act in people’s interest, problems happen. The fire marshal, the mayor, or the doctor who does not care for the well-being of people under their purview are unquestionably corrupt. Apathy can certainly find itself in the wrong hands, and when it does, people take notice.

But what about the 87-year-old widow who lives in the mountains with her shotgun and her pet bear? Should she concern herself with how many of the city’s buildings conform to the fire code, or what can be done to keep the busses running on time, or whether there’s going to be a surge in the heart attack rates of men ages 55-67?

If she does, then she is only setting herself up for unhappiness.

Horne’s Law of Happiness

My observations about the nature of happiness have led me to quip the following:

Happiness can never be attained without a certain degree of apathy.

T. Alan Horne

It is one of those cruel-yet-liberating truths that everyone denies yet cannot contradict. Apathy has become such a dirty word that many people reflexively equate it with something much scarier: “EVIL”.

Yet there is no escaping that a catalytic amount of apathy is a precursor to happiness. Take the following example:

International headlines state that a new parasite discovered in Koruptistan is causing children’s eyeballs to spontaneously catch fire.

Now, if this were real, it would be a tragedy. Publicly, people everywhere would make an outpouring of support for the poor, blind, burned victims of this devastating tragedy. Such a story could hold international attention for months!

But who, if anyone, is actually going to fix the problem? Not the happy and well adjusted, 9-to-5 job working people of developed countries. No, this problem will be resolved by professionals. International medical experts will draft action plans, money will be allocated, and some of that allocation will end up actually fixing the issue (the rest will disappear without explanation).

In the end, the problem will at least be contained if not cured.

Making a Bad Thing Worse

Except there is a pathological kind of person—one of those seemingly ordinary 9-to-5 job people living in a developed country—who will refuse to be happy until the issue is 100% resolved.

They will spend hours every day “caring” about the issue. They will lie awake at night, obsessed over the story, hating themselves for not doing enough to solve the problem. They will honestly believe it is their responsibility to save the poor Koruptistani children from a disease that even the highest echelons in the medical community could not have predicted.

Yet they will excuse this pathological behavior as just “showing that they care”. It becomes a badge of honor to them. And when they are surrounded by happy and well adjusted neighbors who refuse to let bad news from abroad ruin their lives, the pathological person will write them off as heartless, cruel, and evil people.

And it doesn’t stop at Koruptistani eye-fire parasites. Every one of the world’s ills starts taking up real estate in the sufferer’s infected mind. Every natural disaster, every urban malaise, every Sarah-McLachlan-scored PSA featuring teary-eyed dogs looking up at the camera with a longing expression compounds the mania.

Such obsessions can lead to serious life problems. Lack of sleep was already mentioned, but there can also be extreme irritability, loss of relationships, loss of employment, and an inability to function at all. It is no exaggeration to say that it can ruin a person’s life.

A measured and controlled amount of apathy could avert many of these consequences. The problems faced by Koruptistani children are certainly noteworthy, but they are not your problems or mine. As long as the people whose care can actually fix the problem are working at it, the problem will be fixed. And even if those people aren’t working at it, or aren’t caring enough, your care cannot replace theirs.

You might be tempted to claw at the walls of the world’s problems until your hands have been filed down to stumps, but this accomplishes nothing except making your own life harder.

Allow Yourself a Drop of Apathy

Among parents, there is a common saying: “Pick your battles”. I believe it also applies here.

In my experience, those who care too much about distant problems don’t give enough thought to their own self-improvement. They make a big deal about “showing compassion” for people halfway around the world, but can’t commit even a tenth of that energy into fixing their own glaring issues.

To those people I say, Allow yourself to not care. Allow yourself to not even have an opinion. And, most crucially, allow yourself to think of yourself.

The one subject where you should never have apathy is yourself, and that includes your dreams, desires, and overall well being. There will of course be opportunities when you can help others. But unless you’ve got your own act together, you will be of no use to anyone else.

Pick your battles. And remember that the home front is the most important front—the one that you absolutely cannot afford to lose, even if it means forgetting about the other, more distant fronts from time to time.

To Be Continued

The above may look like a complete blog post, but it was actually meant to be a precursor to the subject I actually want to talk about.

But I’m out of time. Looks like this post is going to be a two-parter. In next week’s entry, I will tell you the secret mental health life hack I developed recently.

See you then.

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