Monday, November 30, 2015

Why We Ought to Admit We Don't Really Care about Each Other

People have been complaining about apathy for decades; maybe forever: "People just don't care." It would seem the direct result of this has been the creation of absurd expectations. Now, people seem to feel bound to care about everything and everyone and, worse, that everyone ought to care about them.

But that is not natural. Our ability to care about one another has limits and so does the ability of others to care about us. To think otherwise is simply an act in ego-centrism that is bound to lead to profound disappointment.

If the parent of an acquaintance dies, I will pause and say, "Aw, man. That's too bad." I might even offer up a quick prayer for the deceased. Within minutes, however, I will be happily going about my business, the death of the acquaintance's loved one completely forgotten. (Bear in mind, I said "acquaintance," not "friend.")

Is that cold? Or is that a reality most are afraid to admit?

If the deceased is a loved one of a close friend or of a family member, everything is different, however. My day would be ruined. My thoughts would dwell upon my friend for an extended period of time. Why? Because of a real bond -- one that has been developed over years. To expect me to feel -- deeply -- the loss of someone I barely know is to cheapen human friendship and human love.

I hope we are in agreement with this. It seems to me that anyone who would react in the same way to the loss suffered by a friend and that suffered by an acquaintance is either an abnormally empathetic person or a praise-seeking faker. It has to be one or the other and my guess is that is is usually the latter, but I'm no expert.

What if I made list, right here, of the people I don't really, truly, emotionally care about? -- not people upon whom I would wish harm or whose suffering I would witness without some sadness or even anger, but those for whom I really don't deeply care. The list would be long for me, and I would speculate that the list, if you were being honest, would be long for you as well.

How many people can we deeply care about in a lifetime? I'm talking about the kind of caring we can really feel.

The proverbial pendulum will swing, though. and maybe the complaints of apathy have caused us to feel obligated to disproportionately care about every creature on the planet. This is ridiculous and it is, as I said, unnatural.

The call seems to be for everyone to feel strongly about everything. Of course, the Internet is a big cause of this. We are attacked by people's cries of inequity and of injustice on every front from race to animal rights to local politics. We are also inundated with the views of people who speak right from the gut. The vomiting of "positions" is met with hooting and hollaring of approval. A reasoned argument is now seen as cold and uncaring.

The entire flip-side of this, for me, is that we --- especially young people -- seem to think people are obligated to care about them.

I recently watched a video of a confrontation (start at 1:35 to avoid extra comment) based on the Yale email incident (in which students who were offended by an email regarding Halloween costumes berated and called for the dismissal of the ones responsible). The upshot of it all? The students feel Nicholas Christakis, a professor who presides over one of their colleges, ought to do whatever they ask and that he ought to think whatever they want him to. (That's my reading of it, of course, but it is the right reading, if I do say so myself.) This is what they see as his being their "advocate." The main confrontation is with a girl whose emotion runs high because the professor (who is always calm, always reasonable, and, in my opinion, always right) doesn't feel student (who tells him at one point to "shut up" and, at another, curses at him) comfort and happiness is his only responsibility.

This is the generation that comes out of this shift from apathy to unreasonable emotional demand. They somehow feel their needs are paramount. It's not as if their needs are not important; it's just that these kids are not as prominent in the minds of others as they are in their own. To live with the illusion that it is otherwise is to set up expectations that are likely to lead to a life lived in a constant state of offense.

(Regarding more on Yale, read this excellent article.)


  1. In Boswell's Life of Johnson, entry for October 19, 1769, one finds

    I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ‘This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself.

  2. When the subject of the name "Redskins" came up at a small gathering I attended recently, someone asked me what I thought. I replied that I didn't really have a strong opinion; since I'm neither a sports fan nor a Native American, I'm happy to let others wage that battle, and whatever happens happens. The reaction was largely confusion, surprise, and slight annoyance that I didn't immediately agree with them.

    In the interest of politeness, I didn't add my next thought: that they didn't really care much either, or the issue would be more to them than a source of coffee chitchat.

    1. It does reinforce the importance the whole question of whether the "dialogues" that everyone wants to open really mean anything. What good comes out of a discussion about a "controversial issue"? Some good can, but, usually, it's just a lot of prancing.