I told my wife I was thinking of writing about indifference and asked her what she thought. She said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

I knew it was a joke right away. First, that fits her sense of humor. Second, she is not a person of indifference, and she is definitely not indifferent about my writing. She cares and I know it.

Do the people around you — and I’m including teenagers here, even though some think teens are technically not people during those years — care about you? About what you do and how you feel and what you believe?

Do they care enough to agree or argue, enough to congratulate or cajole, enough to ask? If so, they are not indifferent to you, and that is good.

Turning it around, do you care enough about the people around you to ask them how they are doing, then wait for an answer?

The definition of indifference — “lack of interest, concern, or sympathy” — makes it sound innocuous. It is anything but.

The opposite of love

“The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

-Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was 15 when his family was taken into captivity by Nazis. For a short time they were imprisoned in the town, but then taken to Auschwitz. His mother and older sister were murdered upon arrival. He and his father were placed in forced labor for as long as they were able. They were separated from Elie’s two younger sisters, and assumed they too had been killed.

The father and son were transported from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, and there the senior Wiesel was beaten and killed. The son could hear what was happening but could do nothing. Years later he said he felt a great deal of shame in not being able to help.

About a year after his captivity began, Elie Wiesel and the rest of Buchenwald’s prisoners were freed.

The picture here (click to enlarge) was taken five days after the liberation of the camp, and the young Wiesel is in the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left. You can only see his face next to the post.

In a speech he gave in the White House on April 12, 1999, Wiesel began with these words:

Fifty-four years ago to the day, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe’s beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.

This speech, delivered to an invited audience, has come to be known by the name, “The Perils of Indifference.”

He went on to note that soon it would be “a new century, a new millennium,” and he wondered how the previous millennium would be remembered. He answered his own question by citing several historical events, including wars and assassinations and genocide in several countries — and of course Auschwitz and Treblinka. Then he said, “So much violence, so much indifference.”

His take

Noting that the etymology indicates “no difference,” he added this practical definition.

Indifference is a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

…In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative…. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.

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.

How is that so? Think of your own experiences and you will see that the benefit is always to the aggressor, never the victim. The pain of the victim is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. All of us, whether we were really forgotten or not, have felt that extra pain.

In the camps many prisoners thought they had not only been forgotten by other people, they thought they had been forgotten by God.

Testing, applying, changing

Indifference is sometimes very tempting. If I don’t care about something, I don’t have to defend it or support it. I don’t even have to fight against it. So I have to be on guard and aware of my own feelings. When I feel the temptation to be indifferent I stop, think, and find something to care about.

How can we test indifference in the general public?

We could send out a survey, I suppose, or we could just pay attention. When I look I see people who don’t really care what happens in Ukraine or Nigeria or Taiwan or Israel. Or even in California, another foreign country. (Just kidding.)

Another test is to watch how quickly opinions change. Electric vehicles were hot, but demand is declining. In business ESG (environmental, social, and governance) was a big deal two years ago. Now it is a dirty word. When the public changes that quickly, there was at least some indifference.

But the most worrisome area for me in America is the indifference in the direction of the country. Indifference leads to no choice, never to a reasoned and thoughtful choice.

I believe it is indifference that causes almost half of eligible voters to not vote at all. That is a lot of indifference, and it is a very dangerous thing for the country. If democracy is destroyed it won’t be by a political party, it will be destroyed by indifferent citizens.

Check yourself and check your friends and family for any signs of indifference. Do all you can to eradicate it. Care. Act. Love. Do good.

You will make a difference when you do.

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