I have been troubled this week about the word “indifference.”
It’s a "two-faced” and unreliable word, really, and thus not very welcome in usage. One face connotes blame and accusation, with a side profile of guilt. It is very uncomfortable to be accused of indifference, of not carrying at all, or not caring enough, about an injustice or the sad plight of someone or whole groups of people. I thought of that word this week when I saw the heart-wrenching photo and video of a small Syrian boy named Omran who had had just been dug out of bomb rubble and, in shock, was wiping the blood from his face. I asked myself, “How can I possibly be indifferent to this child, to the bombing, to war in general, when I see such a sight.” The problem, of course, is that I didn’t really know how to respond. I can often be left with only a sadness, a sense of impotence to do anything, in the face of suffering. The more I have these feelings, it seems, and don’t know how to respond, the more susceptible I am to becoming emotionally and empathetically numb and, yes, increasingly indifferent.
The more positive face of indifference, however, is that it reminds us of our common humanity, our responsibility for one another, our interconnectedness and interdependence that are violated when we become numbed by indifference. The late Elie Wiesel, writing from the personal perspective of the Holocaust, often spoke of indifference as the penultimate evil. "The opposite of love is not hate,” he said. “ It's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” Coming from the voice and the experience of the Holocaust we need to listen. Indifference to unspeakable suffering is bad enough. But the more we become indifferent personally or culturally to life the more we loose the vital center of life itself. For Wiesel there is a sort of death when we are cut off from the suffering of humanity and from the awe of life itself.
The term indifference makes us especially uncomfortable when we consider ourselves good and caring people. The challenge to me this week, then, has been to try to better understand this tricky word and use it to some advantage. How might we more helpfully respond when we see injustice or suffering that touches us deeply and calls us to respond, but we feel unable to do so in any adequate way?
Two clues, but only clues. The search will go on.
First, I have been thinking how many people across the globe who simply don’t succumb to indifference in themselves, or the indifference of their community, or the indifference of the whole wider world. They act anyway. They persevere through hardship to try to make things right. Locally, for example, a group of us here on Whidbey Island have organized, at considerable personal expense and sacrifice, to address the health and cultural dangers caused by the noise hazard of our Island-based Navy fighter jets, the Growlers. The Growlers are clearly a threat to our health and to our way of life. But despite the supportive research identifying this harm, and now four years of pleas for solidarity from the wider community and public officials, the group raising the alarm has too often received an indifferent response. But they have not given up in spite of the difficulty of facing down the U.S. Navy. They continue to try, and more and more people are taking interest and joining the cause. Indifference has not been the last word.
And this week we on Whidbey were visited by the little anti-nuclear peace boat, the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule’s place in history is that a small group of Quakers felt they could no longer tolerate the indifference to the atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific that were causing global nuclear fallout and threats to world health, especially children. So they used the little boat in a creative nonviolent way to try to enter the test sites in the Marshall Islands and stop the testing. They failed on this mission and were arrested, but their arrest and the notoriety of their cause initiated a world-wide response not only to nuclear testing but the whole nuclear arsenal that led eventually to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed by the U.S. in 1968.
A second clue about how we might more creatively and effectively respond to indifference comes from my Quaker tradition. We are a relatively small group with no particular political or social power, but over the years we have been able to overcome societal indifference and often lead the way toward addressing various kinds of injustice. Three things make this possible, I think.
First there is a high esteem given to individual and corporate acts of conscience, aided by our contemplative tradition of silence and prayer. Conscience is highly honored, respected, encouraged, and, following approval of a particular action, usually has the full support by the whole Quaker community.
Second, we are aware of a long Quaker heritage of addressing difficult issues nonviolently that have often called for considerable courage and sacrifice. If Quakers in the past have faced equally difficult or worse challenges and persevered, even over decades, issues like women’s suffrage and slavery, we can do no less.
And finally, there is little emphasis put on success. The emphasis is on being faithful to the call of an individual or collective conscience, supported by a committed community. The way forward is often unusual and surprising and less carefully researched and planned than might be expected. In any case, this creative call to faithfulness has been a kind of antidote to indifference for much of our history and continues to be so. And it offers a model and encouragement for others.
My point is this: Indifference need not be “two-faced.” We need not succumb to feelings or accusations of indifference. Instead we need to use it to remind us that we, in fact, cannot afford indifference in our lives. There are possibilities for creative, nonviolent acts of conscience for all of us, and we need to be alert to them and act on them.
Blessings and peace,