That question is typically communicated as a rhetorical one. Instead, I am asking it as a practical question. Why do you care? This is an over-simplification of a question which should be methodically used to critically and objectively analyze each piece of information presented to you. It can also be thought of as a rather simple multiple-choice question.
Why do you care?
I care because this has a practical effect on my life in this moment.
I care because this may have a practical impact on my life in the future.
I care because this has a practical effect on something, or someone, I care about.
None of the above.
In most cases, the information with which we are presented can be answered with None of the above, if we choose to think about the circumstance or experience in an objective way. Some would counter by saying that we do not always have the power to choose what is important to us. Why not? Can we not separate a thing, in and of itself, from the reaction it might inspire in us? Can we not stop for a moment and analyze a thing in an objective way and ask questions about it? Asking specific questions about something, in order to separate ourselves from its emotional connection, requires discipline and practice. That practice is well worth the effort required to build change into our mental approach to external circumstances which are often outside our control. We can then separate out that which is not beneficial enough to warrant a specific emotional response, and what is. One way to look at this method of thinking is Selective Apathy.
What Is Selective Apathy?
Apathy is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. What, then, is Selective Apathy? Selective Apathy is purposefully making a choice regarding what you do not allow to take hold of your interest, enthusiasm, or concern. In short, it is deciding what you will, and absolutely will not, give a wet slap about.
Apathy is a term which is frequently thought of in a negative way. However, apathy can be a useful response and solution to the problems of stress, anxiety, and disappointment. It can allow us to view something from a more objective standpoint, divorced from the emotional baggage that can come with it. Apathy and its ability to separate us from emotions can make possible a thoughtful response instead of a knee-jerk reaction. This gives us time to acquire all information necessary to formulate an educated opinion before we continue the interaction. In other words, it gives us time to read the entire article before we react to only the headline. It gives us time to process the information and educate ourselves, which reduces the anxiety caused by fear of not knowing more about that information.
Sometimes we experience negative feelings when our full attention cannot be given to each and every worthy cause. We are almost constantly being inundated with information from a myriad of questionable sources, and we are expected by our family and friends to validate our relationships with them by investing ourselves emotionally along with them. They sometimes react negatively if they feel we don’t immediately echo back that their cause du jour is important enough to warrant our undivided attention and support. In fact, they can see your own lack of a matched emotional response as some sort of invalidation of themselves. This is simply not sustainable as a way to interact socially. Thus, it is important for us to be selective with what we choose to give our attention, regardless of who is presenting us with the information. I am not advocating building a stone wall to keep out these invaders, but rather, a firewall which keeps out everything other than what you have chosen to let in.
Look back at the multiple-choice question I posed. Notice that three of the four responses to the question “Why do you care?” have answers which show that you do, in fact, care. Selective Apathy is not a lack of caring. The Oxford definition of apathy doesn’t mention caring at all. Selective Apathy is not choosing for what you have care. It is choosing for what you are willing to have interest, concern, or enthusiasm. I am rearranging that order from the Oxford definition in order to create the acronym I.C.E. Yes, I realize that it doesn’t exactly convey a picture of a warm person, but think of it as advice to be generally “chill” about things. Interest, concern, and enthusiasm for things which fall under the first three responses to that multiple-choice question are all good responses to have. If you are asking “Why do you care?” then you are analyzing the information objectively.
Let’s look at some examples of how Selective Apathy may be applied to everyday situations.
A young adult woman named Helen is on the telephone with her mother. Her mother makes a critical comment about a choice Helen recently made in her romantic social life. Helen’s mother says, “You need to stop seeing that guy immediately.” Helen is understandably frustrated and hurt, and reacts by lashing out at her mother. She tells her mother to butt out and stop sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. She hangs up, and the two are now in a much worse place. Helen’s mother only wanted Helen to avoid making a mistake, but Helen stiffened her neck and will probably make the mistake on purpose just to spite her mother. Helen is scheduled on a flight to visit the family next month and now is wondering if she should cancel the trip entirely.
If Helen had been practiced at objectively looking at information coming her way, she might have made a couple of decisions which would have avoided both the fight and the resentment that comes with it.
Helen is an adult who makes her own decisions. Her mother can only offer advice, not command Helen to do something. Thus, the mother’s criticism has no direct power over Helen’s choice of actions.
What is the mother’s motivation in making the comment? Is she trying to manipulate Helen? Is she trying to be hurtful? Or, is she trying to help Helen avoid a bad experience?
Is there any reason Helen should give credibility to the criticism? If so, is that reason applicable and useful for Helen? If not, there is no reason to react, for the criticism carries no weight.
It is often difficult for us to accept information we feel is being forced upon us. Applying the principle of Selective Apathy here would have been more challenging. Helen is an independent adult, and most independent adults resent being told what to do. Whenever someone trying to impart advice starts a sentence with “You need to” or “You have to,” we tend to stiffen our necks. I am quite guilty of this, and often have to remind myself that the person might earnestly be trying to help me avoid a bad experience. A trusted friend could say to me “You really need to put on a parachute before jumping out of this airplane,” and I would probably have to convince myself not to jump without one purely out of spite.
“You need to stop seeing that guy immediately,” in and of itself conveys no helpful information. Helen got the headline, and reacted before reading the entire article. If Helen had been able to respond to her mother’s comment and ask for the reason or reasons why her mother felt that way, she might have been able to give the information objective analysis and perhaps credibility. It could have avoided a fight as well. Helen could have chosen to not have interest, concern, or enthusiasm (I.C.E.) about the comment in and of itself, because it did not convey useful information. It did not get to the root of her mother’s concern. It was an expression, not an explanation. Helen could have chosen to be selectively apathetic about the comment her mother made, and instead, questioned her mother about the reasons for the comment. Asking “Why” is a critically important component of Selective Apathy. Why should I care? “You need to stop seeing that guy immediately,” is just a bunch of vowels and consonants being lumped together and delivered in a certain order. It is nothing more than sound waves permeating the air. What is important here is the “Why” of the matter. Asking people to describe the reasons behind their feelings helps both you and them. Selective Apathy helps you to discard a potentially hurtful comment which has no inherent value, and then helps you get to the bottom of the matter directly and without a potentially harmful reaction.
Here is another example from a different part of life. John is sitting in a waiting room at a large corporate organization. He really needs a job right now. He just graduated college and has a ton of student loan debt. There is a lot riding on the interview going well. John is so nervous that his hands are shaking, and he worries that if his nerves show too much it will make him less attractive as a candidate for the position. He knows that a confident front makes for a better interview, but the butterflies in his stomach are playing full court basketball. He looks great in his suit, he is qualified for the position, and he has done his homework about the organization and its needs. He is ready. He just doesn’t feel confident.
In the multiple-choice question, the answer “I care because this may have a practical impact on my life in the future” certainly applies here. Yes, he definitely should care. We usually fear the unknown, but the only unknown here is whether or not he will get the position. Can Selective Apathy be applied in such a situation?
Yes. At this precise moment, he does not have the job. So, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. There are other companies and other options for supporting himself. If this door doesn’t open for him, another one will. It might not be immediately, and he might even have to build his own door. This position is not the beginning or end of his life. It is merely one single moment that might open up a path which wasn’t previously open. It is not the only path. So, John can choose to not give this interview the amount of finality and weight he is giving it. He can, and should, take the interview seriously, but he can also know it’s not the only interview. It’s not the only job. If he doesn’t get the job, then he will walk out of there with some excellent experience being interviewed.
Here is another notion for John to consider: the company needs someone to fill this position. They are not there to pass judgment upon him. They are actively rooting for every candidate who walks through that door. They want to find the person they need for the job.
They are rooting for John. They are on his side. They want him to be that ideal candidate. If John learns not to have too much concern for the interview, it could even free him up to enjoy the experience. He can enjoy the moment for what it is, and have a better interaction with the person running the interview. Thus, he will have a better interview, which will help him toward meeting his goal of landing that job. In short, being selectively apathetic about the outcome of the interview can actually improve the chances of a better outcome.
Frank loves to read online forums. He loves all of the interaction and sharing of ideas. He enjoys learning about news and current events through online posts in social media platforms. He spends a happy part of every day browsing through different feeds. Occasionally he will post something in response to another person’s original post, and might even get into a debate about a certain topic if it interests him.
One day, Frank decides to share a piece of information in an online forum he regularly visits. Since these things seem to change every other month, we’ll call the forum by the fictional name Defluxio. Frank recently saw someone in his town carrying a sign he felt was offensive. He took a snapshot of it with his smart phone. He blurred out the person’s face so that only the sign was recognizable. He posted it to the forum, and said “It’s such a shame someone would carry that sign in our town.” He specifically made no attack on the person holding the sign, only the sign itself.
Fifteen minutes later, he logged back onto Defluxio to see eight people had made comments. Six people expressed opinions agreeing with Frank’s. One response said “Did you know you can stop erectile dysfunction with just one pill taken four times a day every other day of the week? Visit www….”
One response said, “Who in the hell do you think you are? Your wrong, yore going to Hell, and your everything that’s wrong with this country. I hope you die, you sick jerk!” Internet trolls often don’t seem to know the difference between you’re, your, and yore.
Frank reads this and immediately feels his cheeks flush with anger. “How can anyone actually think that way? How can anyone think a sign like that is okay? I’ll bet he teaches his kids his horrible ways. That moron votes, too.”
Frank is forgetting that the man in the forum:
Has no direct influence or impact on Frank’s actual life;
Is carrying around some pretty heavy poisonous baggage, which he has packed himself, and;
Someday will be reduced to the stardust from which he came and will be utterly and completely forgotten by the universe.
Assigning credibility or weight to the opinions of others (especially uneducated ones) can have a seriously adverse effect on us. In this case, Defluxio is nothing more than some computer code, and the letters we see on the screen are nothing more than characters. What’s the meaning behind those characters? Not much. They come from an unknown source, one which has no bearing on anything even remotely related to Frank’s life, and which happens to convey a different opinion. So what? Getting flustered over such tripe is as useful as getting angry about a man in a city 1500 miles away owning a can opener. I’ll go into social media problems in a later chapter. For now, applying Selective Apathy and asking “Why do I care?” here simply means knowing that interacting with someone like this on the internet absolutely qualifies as None of the Above.
Why do you care? No, seriously, why?
I want to define the word care in terms of caring about people, things, and circumstances. That is, having feelings of concern, interest, empathy, enthusiasm, or focus regarding a person, object, or circumstance. Certain things provoke visceral reactions in us. We identify with the emotions another person may be feeling (sympathy). We have interest and concern over the outcome of a particular set of circumstances. We even hold feelings of affection for inanimate objects. Why? Why do we feel?
Our central nervous system is spread out all over our body. Nerve endings exist everywhere, allowing us to be “aware” of our physical selves in relation to the world around us. When we touch something, our brains give us specific chemical responses to that contact, in order to provide us with feedback we can use to recognize and perhaps deal with that object. The same goes for other sensual experiences such as hearing, sight, or smell. With respect to non-physical things like emotions, our brains do the same thing. The source of emotional information is just something we perceive rather than something we experience through our physical senses. When someone tells us something awful, or something wonderful, the words themselves are simply waves of sound hitting our ear drums. They are interpreted as signals in the brain. We hear and comprehend what is being said. The specific emotional response to what is said is actually learned behavior based on our experiences with ourselves and with society.
When we are born, we immediately begin the process of learning how to feel what we feel. We learn what the appropriate responses are to any given situation. You can actually see a child who, immediately after falling down and skinning their knee, doesn’t start crying until they look and confirm via the reaction of a nearby adult, that it’s something they should be upset over.
Because we have all had different experiences, we all respond to things in our own unique ways. Some people are terrified of cats, some people love them. I was afraid of spiders for most of my life. I had a huge spider crawl across my face once as a child, when I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and walked face-first into the web of a golden silk orb-weaver (a.k.a. banana spider). It took me years to get over that fear, but eventually I was able to reduce the fear through breaking things down objectively. That spider doesn’t actually have anything against me. I am much larger than that spider. I can kill that spider instantly if I want. I have nothing to be afraid of. Banana spiders go squish.
Does that mean I would love to have a golden silk orb-weaver crawling across my face right now? No, that doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend my lunch hour. However, I no longer have the same fearful reaction to spiders that I did as a child. I can watch close-ups of them on nature programs and have no visceral reaction to it. My spouse, on the other hand, runs screaming from the room as if someone were throwing spiders from the back of the television set. My spouse has a fear reaction toward most anything which doesn’t move the same way humans do. This is completely understandable and is even backed by science. More on that later.
Anyway, our emotional response to things is based on our experiences, as well as what we have been taught by society. We generally tend to feel similarly about circumstances, though there are always exceptions. Telling someone that they fell out of the ugly tree and hit every single branch on the way down is generally thought of as an insult. As a society, we have trained ourselves and our children to react positively to certain physical attributes, and negatively to others. But, if no one ever told you that vowel and consonant sounds which create the word “ugly” are bad, how would you feel about that sound in and of itself? It’s not the vowels and consonants, or how they are joined together to form a word, which evoke a reaction in us. It is how we choose to perceive the word and, more importantly, its intent.
When we “feel” an emotion, it is our brain releasing chemicals in response to information we are receiving (stimuli). Have you ever farted loudly in a social situation? I have, and it was during a beautiful, somber, stoic, profound occasion. I was embarrassed. I was terribly, terribly embarrassed. Why? I was embarrassed because society has deemed farting to be a negative thing despite its multiple physical, and dare I say, emotional benefits. In that horrible moment, my brain told me that despite the fact every human on the planet farts, I should be embarrassed for doing so. The act of farting in and of itself didn’t create the feeling of embarrassment. It created a feeling of physical relief that I had been denying myself for about half an hour. Society conditioned me to be embarrassed by it, so when it happened, my brain released chemicals which made me immediately feel embarrassment. I blushed so hard I could feel my cheeks straining to support all of the blood rushing there, as if my head were a balloon being blown up to near-explosion capacity.
If we care because societal norms have conditioned us to have specific reactions, and if fears can be overcome through effort, can it not be said that those specific reactions can also be overcome? If we disassemble a situation and break it down into digestible chunks of information, or ask the right questions about certain circumstances, can the analyzation of that information override the immediate visceral reaction we have been conditioned to have? In other words, can we choose to respond to something rather than react to it?
We care because we have been conditioned by society to do so. It’s in our best interests to care. It is not at all a bad thing. It’s a very good thing. That said, I do believe that caring is something over which we can exercise a certain amount of control. Over time, we can reprogram our brains to accept information and objectively look at it outside the context of what society has conditioned us to feel. We can then choose about which people, objects, and experiences we will care.
We have a variety of chemicals that our brain uses to speak to our conscious about our current situation. Serotonin and dopamine and histamine are neurotransmitters that help us to associate physical sensations with what we are experiencing sensually. These are good things for us to experience as a species. They have taught us how to interact successfully with our environment, how to improve ourselves and the world around us, and how to interact with each other in productive ways. It is good for us to have fear of things which cause us danger. That’s basic survival instinct, and it is rather helpful. We have benefited greatly from emotion as a species. Emotion is a source of great power and benefit.
We’re animals, which means we’re more self-conscious than lower forms of life. The aggression and drive which comes with self-consciousness has helped move us up the food chain. Humans are the most self-conscious of the animals, which means we’re more thoughtful and craftier when it comes to ensuring our own survival. A big part of this is the ability to imagine our past and our future. This helps us to formulate plans, and to learn from our mistakes in order to better ourselves.
Well, if there was no more to emotion than that, we’d be in better shape. The benefit of having emotional responses comes at a cost. When the chemicals our brain releases cause sensations to such an extent that we have difficulty dealing with them, they cause things like depression, phobias, anxiety, hoarding, stress, trauma, obsessive behavior, and abuse of recreational chemicals like drugs, alcohol, and Nutella. The ability to imagine our future and past selves creates additional potential sources for anxiety.
Read that last sentence again. It’s important.
The basic survival instinct benefit of fear is thankfully something we need less and less than our ancient ancestors did. That doesn’t mean it’s not still present and actively working in our brains. Most of our threats are not immediate threats to our safety, but rather, are part of the abstract and unknown futures we imagine ourselves in. If we choose not to have interest, concern, or enthusiasm about something that is unknown, can we dispel, or at least reduce, fear?
When emotions overwhelm our rational selves, we can possibly suffer from the psychological issues I described previously. At the very least, when we allow ourselves to react emotionally instead of responding after rational analysis, we become slaves of our emotion rather than masters of it. Emotion is like a horse. If you’re in control of that horse, it can take you to wonderful places. If you’re not in control, you’re in for one hell of a scary ride.
So, what is Selective Apathy? It is a combination of two disciplines. First, it is lessening the frequency of reactionary and emotionally charged feelings we experience, by reconditioning ourselves to prioritize useful rational responses over less useful emotional reactions taught to us by society and experience. That was a mouthful. To restate that with a little more brevity: It’s reducing the number of things that get under our skin and make us needlessly upset, by deciding many of those things don’t matter. Second, it is building up and actively managing a firewall of access, permitting only the truly important things to get through. If apathy is a lack of interest, concern, or enthusiasm, then Selective Apathy is choosing about what not to be interested, concerned, or enthused.