“They say philosophers and wise men are indifferent. Wrong. Indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death.” (Anton Chekhov)
While the opposite of kindness is, logically, unkindness, I think equally opposite is indifference. One cannot be kind if caring is absent. Unless we are willing to suspend our spectator status and jump into our lives, we will probably wallow in a state of relatively comfortable indifference.
And indifference and kindness cannot coexist.
An anthem to indifference, entitled, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” was written and sung by Phil Ochs in the 1960s, in response to the horrific murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese in New York. Dozens of people were awakened by her screams, and even watched from their windows as she was attacked and stabbed over a prolonged period. Yet none tried to intervene or even picked up the phone to call the police. It seems unbelievable that no one would step up to help in any way. But they didn’t want to get involved; they couldn’t be bothered; they were afraid; perhaps they assumed someone else had already taken action.
Ochs’ song satirizes our indifference not just to a crime such as the Genovese murder, but also to poverty, inequality, and the needs of others. Like so many of Ochs’ songs of protest (and he was a master of the protest ballad), the song is outdated now, too strident and a bit corny. But it still has a bite.
Today’s “anthem” to indifference might be a one-word phrase that is generally delivered with an accompanying shrug and a roll of the eyes: “Whatever…”
There is so much packed into that little word: who cares? … I can’t be bothered … what’s the big deal? … so what?
“Whatever,” delivered with the accompanying tone and gestures of indifference, is not a kind word. At best, it’s a lazy word; at worst, a door slamming on potential kindness.
We learn indifference and phrases like “whatever” from the people around us. Children, especially, model what they see, and from the time they are very young, they see a great deal of indifference. But just as indifference is learned, so is kindness. The earlier we start learning kindness, the sooner we are able to practice it, thus staving off indifference.
According to neuroscience expert Patty O’Grady, PhD, of the University of Tampa, children can learn kindness in school through the teaching of empathy. She cites many classroom experiences that can demonstrate and reinforce kindness, among them simple acts such as charting kind actions, noticing kindnesses, teaching tolerance, and group participation in activities that spread kindness.
In an online article on the Psychology Today website, O’Grady notes: “The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it. Kindness is an emotion that students feel and empathy is a strength that they share.
Kindness and empathy are an antidote to indifference. We cannot force kindness, any more than we can force love or respect. But, the sooner we can replace shrugs with caring, and “whatever” with a smile and a genuine response, we will be on the way to countering indifference and engaging in the precious life that is only ours to live.
“Indifference.” Jerusha surprised herself with the answer. “Indifference, Gundhalinu, is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows. And that’s what gives it so much power.” (Joan D. Vinge, The Snow Queen)