By Brandon Lemons
Apathy is the feeling of “blah”; It is when we lack the motivation to do something important, yet we don’t really care that we lack motivation. This is an experience I have personally felt in recent years (not all the time, but definitely more than once). I have also witnessed it with increasing frequency in individuals, groups, and society since COVID disrupted our sense of normalcy in 2020. However, apathy is not new; people have long displayed apathy toward things that really matter. Apathy even infects people’s spirituality, numbing them to the point where they know they aren’t very close with God, yet they don’t really care.
A couple weeks ago, I picked up a book called “Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care” by Uche Anizor. I was drawn to it for multiple reasons, including that it is Christianity Today’s 2023 Book of the Year. It is a relatively quick and easy read at 167 pages, and it is full of helpful information, perspectives, and tactics for understanding and overcoming apathy. I will summarize some of my take-away points here, and I recommend you read the book for yourself.
The Struggle to Care
The author says, “This book is not for those unwilling to change. It is for the perturbed, the struggling. It is for those who feel stuck, but want to change. It is for those who find their coldness mystifying and disturbing. It is for those who want to be passionate about the things of God but can’t seem to care enough. I write for those who pray, ‘Lord, I care, but help my lack of caring!’ This book is for true strugglers.”
I appreciate this sentiment because it verbalizes the tension I (and others) sometimes feel. We know we should care more or should do something, but we struggle to actually make a change. Instead, we get stuck.
Acknowledging our apathy is an important first step. Unless we are honest about where we are – honest about our apathy – we are unlikely to change.
The Tyranny of Triviality
One of the most important insights in the book is that apathy does not mean we are passionless. To be sure, there are times when a person is numb to everything. A season of grief may lead to generalized numbness. Feeling numb and apathetic may also point to depression. Depression is not the same as apathy, although apathy is frequently a symptom of depression. The book provides this and other valuable delineations of the medical and psychological factors surrounding apathy.
But back to what I said a moment ago, an apathetic person may still be passionate…but they are passionate about trivial things. Anizor writes: “we are numb to the meaningful, but often ‘alive’ to the trivial.” A bit later he says: “Some things evoke passion in us, while other things induce yawns. The paradox of apathy is that we are captivated by the things we don’t really care about and are lukewarm to the things that, in our heart of hearts, mean the most to us. We don’t act on what we should act on, but we are awakened to things we should probably ignore.”
I think of how much time I can waste on Facebook Watch. For those who are unfamiliar with the Watch feature on Facebook, it shows videos. As soon as one video ends, another begins. Too often – frequently late in the evening when I should be getting ready for bed but am struggling to pull myself out of a comfy chair – I find myself watching 30 minutes or an hour of videos that are practically meaningless. They are about a car that was rescued from the junkyard and restored, crazy clips of people jumping off cliffs or climbing steep mountains, snowboarding tricks, top 10 catches in NFL history, police officers pulling over speeders, or a strange craft being made using techniques I’ve never seen before. Do these videos enrich my life? Not really. Some are fascinating and relate to hobbies and interests I have, such as cars. But many are a pure waste of time. Maybe it’s fun to tell a friend about a video we saw, but does it have any bearing on what really matters in life – on our relationships, on building our character, on developing useful skills, on drawing us closer to God? Frequently not!
This highlights the danger of triviality: we focus our attention on things that don’t really matter, and we do so over and over and over, which programs our minds to not really care about the things that do matter. Anizor writes: “We’re apathetic because our hearts are alive to things that don’t matter and numb to things that do. Our loves are disordered. As C. S. Lewis famously put it, we are far too easily pleased by lesser things.”
A Recovery of Purpose
“Lurking under the surface of much of our apathy is a loss of a sense of meaning, purpose, and mission.” I believe this is an appropriate summary statement for the book. In order to overcome apathy, we need to recover our God-given purpose and mission in life. That is what will get us out of bed in the morning and give energy and meaning to our day. Anizor focuses on the word “zeal,” which has a biblical precedent for a description of how Christians should live. He says: “Zeal in the day-to-day is about being alive to the important things around us. It is about being awake to God, aware of his presence and calling especially in those hidden moments of our day.”
Tactics for Overcoming Apathy
This is, again, where I recommend reading the book. There is no way this brief article can adequately communicate what is in the book. But hopefully it has whetted your appetite. Here are two of my take-away points for overcoming apathy. The book covers more, but this is a start.
Tactic #1: Examine your routines
Our routines shape us; they shape what we hold to be important and meaningful. The book suggests “taking time weekly or monthly to reflect on the rituals of our lives. Ask yourself: When I ritually go to Starbucks or the mall; fixate on my smartphone; fall asleep every night to a Netflix show; or weekly go to Disneyland, what am I being trained to desire? Ask what these routines are directing you to love or value as the good life. Is it leisure? Is it pleasure? Is it ease? Is it recognition? These are critical questions because you cannot love God and love ____ (fill in the blank).”
Tactic #2: Refuse Absence
When we are apathetic, it is extremely easy to be absent from whatever it is that we are apathetic toward. If not physical absence, then we are frequently emotionally absent even while we are physically present (in the presence of a spouse or child, in a worship service at church, in a conversation with someone in need, etc.). Anizor writes: “While it is sometimes true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it is equally true that absence can breed disinterest and neglect. The less time I spend with my wife, the less connected I am with her heart—the things she’s concerned or excited about. We’ve often heard of couples ‘growing apart’ or ‘falling out of love’ with each other. This is often a result of basic relationship neglect. I think this is all the more the case when the other person is God. Absence breeds vague feelings of guilt, but rarely makes the heart grow fonder. Also, as in other relationships, absence tempts us to believe lies about the other person, or about their love, faithfulness, and so on. So, we must resolve to not allow a day to go by without deliberately putting ourselves in the presence of the Lord. Refuse absence.”
If we are apathetic toward God, the one way to practically guarantee we will remain in that apathetic state is to pull away or stay away from church and from spiritual disciplines like reading Scripture and praying. While these practices don’t automatically draw us close to God, they are valuable resources of re-igniting our heart for Him and re-discovering (or discovering for the first time) our reason for being.
Conclusion: Recapturing Our Reason For Being
I know of no better way to conclude than with one more quote from the book: “Os Guinness once said, ‘As modern people, we have too much to live with and so little to live for.’ We have time and money, but no meaning. We need to recapture our reason for being, a sense of our place and purpose in this world, as this gives meaning to all of our actions.” This is the pathway of overcoming apathy and living with the joy and purpose for which God designed us.