The Enemy Is Apathy


Apathy is our enemy. Pain, paradoxically, is our ally because it is one of the most powerful fuels we have to impel us to a different and better tomorrow.

I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't make any difference.
                           -Jack Kerouac

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting rampage that killed 6, young and old, and wounded 13 in a Tucson shopping mall on January 8, 2011. Many imagined that event would move this country to action in ways that would truly reduce the risk of another mass murder.

After the Tucson event, there was a heartening resilience demonstrated by the victims, their families, and their communities. The deep compassion shown them by countless fellow Americans was needed and wonderful to witness.

But that is where the responses ended. Did we see changes in gun and ammunition laws that might prevent the ready access that exists today to weapons that can fire dozens (or more) of rounds in a minute, even those capable of penetrating Kevlar? Did we see schools or other settings where there are youth in crisis or deterioration take action and identify and implement ways to intervene rather than extrude problem individuals? Did we see the introduction of comprehensive prevention, detection, and treatment programs for people with mental health and addiction disorders in community health settings?

I suppose those questions would be academic had not another 12 people died and 59 been physically wounded (and far more emotionally traumatized) in Aurora, Colorado, a mere 18 months later. It is frightening to listen to those who say we need not see this as a call to action. It is frightening because it speaks to and supports the apathy that is our greatest enemy.

Mental health professionals learn early and repetitively that change is really hard. We humans are deeply wedded to our ideas, to how we see the world and behave, and to what are conditioned emotional responses to the world around us. As a rule, change does not happen until the pain of continuing to be the same outweighs the comfort of maintaining the status quo. A highly popular, and effective, method of promoting change called motivational enhancement-ME-How to Break Free From Your Unhealthy Habits, has spread not only throughout behavioral health programs but also into primary medical care because of how much motivational techniques are needed to enable anyone to change.

Apathy was recognized as one of the symptoms of “shell shock” during and after the Great War. Those who are apathetic have lost the capacity to feel and act; they are disconnected and numb. Today we often regard apathy, disconnectedness, as a symptom of PTSD; that is when it afflicts an individual. What do we call it when it afflicts a whole population? A nation? I think that is called apathy.

More important than what we call it is what we do about it: it is only a matter of time before another person tries to equip himself with weapons of mass destruction-not for political purposes but out of the angst, loathing, despair, and mental disturbance that characterize the perpetrators of violence who have dominated our nation’s media and grief ("Random" Acts of Violence Are Not So Random).

We know a great deal about how to reduce the risk of violence in our society and our communities. Knowledge, however, is not the limiting factor to a safer future. Our capacity to overcome apathy and to mobilize human passion, determination, and action is what is in short supply. Individual and collective will eludes us. No meaningful change is just delivered to our doorsteps: we have to work really hard for it to come. Not only is the will to change resisted from within us, it has powerful external resisters as well, perhaps best described by Gandhi who said: “. . . first they ignore you, then they laugh at you. Then they fight you, then you win.”

Apathy drains the suffering we could feel from doing nothing, from staying the same. It dulls the pain needed to motivate change. Apathy is our enemy. Pain, paradoxically, is our ally because it is one of the most powerful fuels we have to impel us to a different and better tomorrow.

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