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A friend recently suggested that apathy is a reasonable response to a world gone mad. He called this the “apathy of impotence.” The apathy of impotence grows from the feeling that there is nothing we can do to change a world afflicted by systematic and structural problems. Rather than beating your head against the wall, it is tempting to just stop caring. I fear that the apathy of impotence is one reason young people are succumbing to depression and suicide.
I feel hopeless myself at times in the face of so many overwhelming social, political, and environmental crises. How do we create hope in a world that seems hopeless?
The climate example
At the risk of adding to the mountain of despair, consider an example. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an ominous recent report. We are probably going to witness temperature changes that go beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, without any real plan in place to prevent this. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, warned in response, “we are on a fast track to climate disaster.”
We’ve all witnessed the storms, the fires, the shifting seasons. It seems there is not much any individual can do about it. The world is constructed in a way that requires us to consume fossil fuels. Corporate interests and governmental policies are maintaining a disastrous status quo.
Yes, committed individuals can bike more, drive less, and eat vegetarian diets. But the impact of these individual choices are drops in the ocean. The real solution requires a change in the infrastructure, the economy, and the political system. Individuals feel powerless in the face of this challenge. So we lose hope and become apathetic.
Nero’s fiddle and the vortex of despair
As my friend suggested, apathy is not a moral failing but a reasonable response. If there is nothing you can do to make change, you might as well stop worrying. I once described this as the problem of “Nero’s Fiddle”: If Rome is burning and there is no chance you can stop it, you might as well pick up your fiddle and play, right?
This is dangerous. Apathy and despair create a vicious cycle. Instead of working to fix the problem, we give up—and the problem grows worse. The worse it gets, the more likely we are to give up. And so on.
The vortex of despair is at the root of a number of problems that are best described as spiritual. Loneliness, sadness, and grief are often magnified by a vicious cycle. The lonely person mopes in her room, feeling left out. She convinces herself that she has no friends. She retreats to solitude and finds her worst fears confirmed.
Health problems are also exacerbated in this way. You know you should eat better and exercise. But that is difficult. So, you put it off and eat junk food on the couch. The next day you feel sluggish, which leads you to retreat to the couch again.
Hope as an active and social virtue
How do we break out of that vicious cycle? One solution is religious. At Easter time, Christianity offers a story of hope. But secular and nonreligious folks must look elsewhere for a solution. One key is to understand hope as an active and social virtue.
Hope is not something we passively receive but something we actively create. Hope grows from engagement. It blossoms when you work to generate it. Hope is also a social product. We become more hopeful when we are supported by others.
Hope without action is ephemeral. Passive hope is a mere dream that things will get better. But without action, things don’t get better. And thus, hopeful dreamers slip back into despair, when their passive dreams do not come true.
A more practical kind of hope grows from the realization that progress is only made by painstaking collective action. The philosopher Hannah Arendt directed our attention to this idea, with her concept of “natality.” This is the power of labor, birth, and creativity. Hope requires effort. Children are not born without labor and suffering. To create a better future, we must labor.
The apathy of impotence can be overcome by finding communities of engaged action. The vortex of despair is overcome by going out and getting to work. We find hope when we join together with others who are actively working to make change.
Go to a public rally or protest. Participate in a political campaign. Register people to vote. In those social actions you will find like-minded people to support you and give you hope. You will also be actively participating in the labor of making change.
The apathy of impotence can be overcome by hopeful social action. But this is not a panacea. There is no miraculous solution for big social and political problems. Rather, hopeful social action requires effort, engagement, and even some suffering. But it rests on the realization that things won’t improve unless we join together and get to work.