A friend of mine told me a story. His childhood friend was found dead in his apartment in Ukraine six months after his death. The 50-year-old man had died alone from unknown causes. A dead cat was found by his bed. The man had no immediate family, but he did have a nephew who had tried to reach him a few times. He called, came over, and knocked on the door, but that was about it. He just turned around and went back to his life.
This story struck a chord with me. It’s not a secret that more and more people are dying alone, not only in Ukraine or Japan, where by some estimates, 4,000 elderly Japanese die at home alone per week, but also in the US, with its rapidly aging population.
But those facts are not why I couldn’t get this story out of my head. What struck me most is the epidemic that is spreading around the world with horrific speed. The name of this epidemic is indifference.
When I Googled “indifference,” the bulk of the hits were articles about politics — indifference to climate change, to the refugee crisis in Europe, etc. Are these the most dangerous symptoms of indifference? What about our indifference to each other? The lack of empathy for our fellow human beings?
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, a writer, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was a witness and victim of one of most heinous crimes committed in recent memory. However, he noted that it was not the Nazi cruelty that had the most detrimental effect on his life and the millions of prisoners in concentration camps, but rather the indifference of bystanders: the silence of good men and women.
In his speech, ”The Perils of Indifference,” he makes this statement:
Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
Wiesel says that indifference seeks comfort over love, and I think this is the key. We are so overwhelmed with our everyday problems that we just don’t want to spend our energy and time tuning in to other people’s emotions. It’s so easy to dive into the blueness of your phone screen and turn yourself off. How often do we see this scene in a restaurant today: a family gets together for a dinner, but we don’t see their eyes, only the top of their heads glued to the only thing that matters — their phones.
There was a 70-year-old man, Carl, working at the front desk of my gym. He was probably retired, and I think that the job not only supported him financially, it was also something he genuinely enjoyed. This is a large gym with a huge membership, probably in the hundreds, but nevertheless, Carl knew everyone by name. My gut feeling told me that he had no family, but he was blessed with an amazing ability to give people such positive vibes that they would feel rejuvenated for the rest of the day.
Suddenly, he disappeared. Apparently, he was diagnosed with esophagus cancer and had to undergo surgery. At first, everyone prayed for his recovery (the gym is part of a church). After a couple of months, a new person started working at the front desk. I asked about Carl several times, but nobody could give me a good answer. The only thing I heard was “he is fine,” which, as we know, means nothing.
Finally, my gym instructor said, “It’s so nice you are asking about Carl! Nobody is asking about him anymore! He is on the way to recovery but he is still in a lot of pain, and he lost 100 lbs. You know he has no family… I’ll Iet him know you asked about him.”
In “The Perils of Indifference,” Wiesel states,
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.
I am not sure about the punishment part. Do all indifferent people get punished? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of conventional punishment. They may feel guilty and suffer from these feelings, which is already a good sign in and of itself. But I think for the majority, indifference is a shield they use to protect their rat holes of comfort from the wilderness of the outside world, with its human dramas, diseases, deaths, and other ‘nonsense’ that is called people’s lives.
What can we do about it? Can indifference be cured?
In order to treat your indifference, you need to understand the reason behind it.Taylor Bennett, the author of Leaving Depression Behind, outlines 4 reasons for apathy:
· Negative thoughts and feelings about yourself.
· A major life event that affects you greatly.
· You’re stagnant — your life is a boring routine
· You have a much more serious issue, more specifically, a mental health disorder. Apathy can be a symptom of a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, stroke, and chronic mild depression.
I personally vote only for #1, which is low self-esteem; it can strike us from time to time or can be a permanent state. Feelings of being unwanted or unlikeable make us shut down, hide in our own shells, and become blind and deaf toward the rest of the world. The cure is clear: engage with the world! Climb out of your shell, rub off your eyes, and see the sun! Look around and listen to the sounds of life. What is that old lady in the store saying? Does she really need help or does she just want to talk because she is tired of being stuck in her apartment by herself? Take a couple of minutes from your busy schedule to stop and smile at her. That’s all she needs.
A man was found dead in his apartment six months after his death. A dead cat was found near his bed. It was the only witness, but it couldn’t dial 911. This is not the way a human life should end and it is our obligation to prevent this from happening. There is a reason why we are called human beings. Let’s stand for this name.