The Emptiness of Indifference

There's so much more to hope for when we care

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903 (public domain - Wikipedia / Google Art Project)

"At the bottom of enmity between strangers lies indifference." — Søren Kierkegaard, 1850


As you know, each Friday I send an additional essay for subscribers only that's a continuation of the topic I wrote about earlier in the week. Recently, I was struggling to get to today's essay, because I felt like I wrote pretty much all I could about empathy.

I thought about it in the shower (that's where the best ideas come to you, isn't it?), in bed, sitting at my desk and staring at the ceiling. I can't remember where I was when it finally came to me, but I thought, "Why not look at the flip side of empathy?" And what is the flip side of empathy, exactly?

Simple. It's indifference.

It's the complete absence of any interest in the other or the unwillingness to show that you care. In other words, apathy. That leads us back to the Greek root "pathos," or suffering. The "a-" means without. 

So, I began my journey to indifference. Not that you care (see what I did there?), but the process of thinking about indifference led me down a path that unearthed some coincidences and just plain kismet.

I turned to my trusted volumes of Lapham's Quarterly, and came across an entry from the volume on Celebrity (Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter 2011), which struck me as an odd volume in which to find a topic related to indifference — particularly when the current leader of the free world is completely self-absorbed with his own celebrity, at the expense of a country suffering through a pandemic. (Then again, his indifference that got us here.)

In this particular interview with John Berryman (taken from “The Art of Poetry No. 16” in The Paris Review in 1970), he's trying to convince us (and himself) that he doesn't care how his poetry is received by the public:

"I overestimated myself, as it turned out, and felt bitter, bitterly neglected. But I had certain admirers, certain high judges on my side from the beginning, so that I had a certain amount of support. Moreover, I had a kind of indifference on my side—much as Joseph Conrad did. A reporter asked him once about reviews, and he said, “I don’t read my reviews. I measure them.” Now, until I was about thirty-five years old, I not only didn’t read my reviews, I didn’t measure them, I never even looked at them. That is so peculiar that close friends of mine wouldn’t believe me when I told them. I thought that was indifference, but now I’m convinced that it was just that I had no skin on—you know, I was afraid of being killed by some remark. Oversensitivity. But there was an element of indifference in it, and so the public indifference to my work was countered with a certain amount of genuine indifference on my part, which has been very helpful since I became a celebrity."

It seems odd that a celebrity would express indifference; in some ways, that's the very reason they seek celebrity status in their work: they wish to be admired, applauded, affirmed. My thinking about a celebrity's indifference to reaction to their work was confirmed by that second to last sentence by Berryman: it's a self-preservation tool.

How often do we feign indifference to soothe ourselves, or to have an aura of strength when we know how hurt we might be about something?

This was the timeless lesson of Aesop's fable of The Fox and the Grapes. Unable to reach the grapes that hung from a vine, after many tries the fox decried them as sour. The moral of the story is there are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.

Self-talk and self-soothing is natural. We need to find the inner strength to move on after we're defeated. But to feign indifference fools no one—certainly not ourselves.

This is where I'll pause in the development of the essay, because I want you to understand the process that helped me through it.

Time for a Break

At this point, I had material about indifference (and this was yesterday afternoon), but I felt like I needed to deliver a little more. I mean, you're a faithful reader after all. So I did what I often do when I have a deadline looming: I took a break.

My break though, had a purpose. I wanted to watch Joe Biden's speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Which I did. And boy, did he deliver.

There's been an overarching theme of empathy this week during the convention. It's refreshing. And it's so sorely needed at this moment in our country's history. But other words kept coming up—words that are recurring themes in my communications and leadership consulting work and my essays here. Words like:

Dignity
Respect
Decency
Humility
Empathy
Character
Compassion

These aren't just hollow words. They speak to the ability of a leader to understand that it's not about them; it's about how they treat others. It's the actions they take that back up their words. And ultimately, it's how they make people feel.

Before I get to the kismet part, a little commentary on the speech itself. As a professional communicator (a speech writer and public speaker), I'm sure you'll allow me this digression.

Delivery Man

What struck me most about the speech wasn't its theme or phrases or big ideas. It was the delivery.

Joe knew this speech. You could tell he felt it. He believed it. And even though he was reading it off of a TelePrompter, it didn't seem as if this was his first time reading it. Nor did it seem as if he was reading it. Why? Because it came from within him—deeply held beliefs, honored principles, a life of public service and concern.

Moreover, the pace, the rhythm, the energy, and the emotion were all spot on. He slowed down when he had to, raised his voice when he was worked up, spoke in near whispers when it was something more sensitive and tender, and even was on the verge of choking up when he mentioned his deceased son Beau.

Here's a leader who has suffered greatly—losing a wife and baby daughter in one day, his adult son (and survivor of that accident that took his wife and daughter) some decades later. He knows what it means to suffer. And this year's makeshift digital format of the convention worked so perfectly in his favor.

The intimacy we got with what at times seemed like a Zoom call—that wouldn't have worked in a large hall with thousands of cheering delegates and attendees. The quiet pause, the crack in his voice, gave us a closer look at the leader who promised to unite us and focus on our possibilities rather than on his personal grievances.

A Literate Leader

Imagine my surprise and sheer joy when I heard little Brayden Harrison—the 13 year-old boy with a stutter, whom Joe bonded due to his own stutter—said that Joe shared his volume on Yeats with him, to help him through his struggles.

And then later on, when Biden quoted a Seamus Heaney work ("Doubletake" from The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes):

“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”

And then, as if two poets aren't enough, I discovered that Biden's favorite quote from Kierkegaard is "faith sees best in the dark." That line comes from the philosopher’s Gospel of Sufferings, a fitting choice for this man who has suffered through so much familial loss. And it means that we see our faith not when we're happiest, but in times of suffering. Whatever your beliefs are, religious, spiritual or atheist, I think we can all agree that digging deep within ourselves to find our inner strength and faith in times of desperation and need, is something we should welcome.


“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.” — Publilius Syrus, c. 40 B.C.


So there I was at the end of the speech, impressed by the delivery, encouraged by a kindred spirit who referenced poets and philosophers, and buoyed by a week of themes that fit with Timeless & Timely advice.

I sat down and began to get my thoughts on the screen. And I knew I'd need an anchoring quote and a painting to help frame the story. I thought first about the image, thinking back to Wednesday's Waterhouse painting that showed the Emperor Honorius as indifferent to the needs of his people, spending his time with his birds (tweeting?). That certainly summed up indifference. But I didn't want to stiff you on a fresh image.

Then I recalled the painting you see at the top—the classic image of Narcissus falling in love with himself, indifferent to the plaintive cries from his lover, Echo. A much better fit, I thought, and a fresh image for you. The kicker? It's also by Waterhouse.

On to the quote, then. I went back to Lapham's Quarterly, thinking I might get somewhere with additional Kierkegaard quotes, and I was not disappointed. The very first that came up was what you saw above (I'll repeat it here, to save you from scrolling up):


"At the bottom of enmity between strangers lies indifference." — Søren Kierkegaard, 1850


Well, if that didn't clinch it, I don't know what would have.

Even though we’re strangers, we have so much more in common than not. Everyone wants a better world—for ourselves, for our children, and for other people. The question is how we get there.

Is it through fear, anger, hatred and grievances? Or is it through hope, compassion, shared burdens, and decency?

The choice is ours.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.


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