The dangers of indifference


By Rev. Paul Graves

What difference does it make when we’re indifferent? A whole lot! Sometimes that difference is negative, sometimes positive. 

On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel delivered a challenging speech, “The Perils of Indifference,” at the White House. He described indifference as “a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.”

His ironic passion about indifference was born out of surviving the Holocaust. He spoke eloquently about seeing death-camp inmates he called Muselmänner – a term used among concentration camp inmates to refer to prisoners who were near death due to exhaustion and starvation. They had lost all connection to the world. Their lives were essentially over. In their suffering, they felt abandoned by God. (My dad told me of seeing some of these prisoners when he was part of the liberating forces at Auschwitz.)

Wiesel again: “For so many Jewish prisoners, they preferred to be punished by an unjust God than an indifferent God.

In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can, at times, be creative. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.”

Have you ever wondered if God is indifferent to our lives, our suffering? I’ve listened to many folks who wonder that. Is it possible we project our own degree of indifference onto our version of God that doesn’t operate like we think God should? God’s “motives” are so beyond us!

Yet, we’re still stuck in our own moments of indifference. One positive value of indifference is that it allows times of respite from turmoil in our lives. But it can also seduce us into apathy, to let us look away, or avoid the essential humanity of the “other.”

Indifference poisons our passion for living, our compassion for others, our desires to make a difference in the little part of the world we inhabit. This piece begins my 29th year writing this column, and my desire to make a difference is stronger now than when I began. I hope your difference-desire continues to increase, too.

So what’s an antidote to indifference? In a phrase I’ve never used in this column: Give a damn! This phrase drips with passion, purpose and courage – and caring! But that isn’t how it began.

As a kid, I learned to say, “I don’t give a damn!” Recently I learned how that negative term might have happened. According to “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” published 1785, a “dam” was an Indian coin of little value.

One story goes that it was used by British soldiers traveling in mid-18th-century India. They would say “I don’t give a dam” (the “n” was left out). So the soldiers didn’t bother to give a dam.

But today, I encourage us to care – to give a damn (GAD). Because every person has value as a human being.

But to GAD requires something of us. Like compassion, inner energy, self-awareness and social awareness. To GAD also requires responsibility for our own actions and their consequences.

Do you have a passion for another person, a cause? Do you have a purpose that reminds you every day of life’s value? Do you experience even a sliver of courage to act in hopes of making a difference in someone else’s life? Then it’s time to GAD.

What do you care about? Relationships that need healing/nurturing? GAD. Current local, state and/or national political issues? GAD. Big issues like climate change? GAD. Spirituality questions? GAD. Women’s reproductive rights? GAD.

Whenever we GAD, our indifference is transformed into making a difference in some way.

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