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Tuning In To Apathy

I can manage social responsibility by contributing to my world without controlling it.
Ann Marie Caffrey

Issue #10, December 1993

Addiction is understandable these days. Filling a news craving becomes a compulsive hunt for headlines. Our hunger for televised images from presidents to plane crashes means plugging into the fragmented reality defining our modern world. This dallying in details goes beyond television. Our reality is laced with hype. Whether it's newspaper coverage of the Perot-Gore NAFTA debate or the latest JFK assassination theory, the media too often is a soap-opera sequence of underdeveloped plots and overblown implications.

I've been conditioned to think responsibility means keeping informed. But this cycle of fractured recession updates, unemployment stats and crime rates leaves me feeling paralyzed. Action seems inappropriate, even if the concern is genuine. And apathy takes the appeal of a drug — a defense against these increments of angst.

I've been taught in this glorious information age the power in personal choice results from awareness. But the result of awareness is a paradox: does knowledge of global warming, a drive-by shooting two miles from home and a sluggish economy extending my job search, empower me? Instead I feel threatened, but indirectly — unable to identify and confront the source of my concern. Sound familiar? An intimidating scope of endless recession, escalating crime and a spiraling national deficit numbs me, but is apathy the answer?

To remove apathy, apply belief to action. Like other twenty-somethings, researching the job market, rehashing my resume and reinforcing my outlook on life brings me constantly to the edge of possibility. I follow up job leads, take internships, perform incremental tasks 'pointing me in the right direction.' This period of transition tires me, and succumbing to apathy, like one long glorious nap, seems attractive. I'll admit I slack between my various stages of future-readiness. Its kind of like snacking between meals — think of it as a 'Snickers Break.'

Addiction resembles apathy when escape replaces reality. Consider a generation of twenty-somethings pegged as a bunch of apathetic 'Slackers.' For director/writer Richard Linklater's cynical, college-educated, unemployed Slackers, 'Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.' It is the same thing. Withdrawal and non-participation are clever rationalizations of apathy. Reinventing apathy as the Slacker lifestyle may seem like a solution to society spinning out of control. But slacking becomes a sinkhole. Society may be spinning out of control, but at least out is a direction. Slacking means sedentary self-indulgence.

Slacking is seductive; we are slack-sympathetic. Even Jerry Seinfeld slacks. The whole 'Seinfeld' cast is a bunch of older, Manhattan Slackers. Look at the characters: Elaine and Jerry have jobs but George doesnt. He lives with his parents. And what exactly is it that Kramer does for a living anyway? Listen to their conversations: delightfully witty but inane, passionate about tiny details-for example, exact biographies of the 'Superheroes' and their arch rivals. With enough information to become 'experts' on facts that dont achieve any real purpose, they bide time. I am a Seinfeld fan. This is fun and harmless. Like millions of other Americans, I find refuge in silly social-slack.

Facts without personal reference points correspond to apathy. Unemployment stats and foreign policy updates are important information but don't replace real human interactions. If mass communication matriculation is unfulfilling, then depending on a kind of selective memory of what worked, recycling the rest, fills the void without filling a purpose. Whether its lingering band practice or theories how blue Smurfs condition children for the return of Krishna — preoccupations are just that, fillers without substance, recreating detached information from which Slackers flee.

And then there comes a time when I 'just say no' to slacking and the allure of apathy. Addiction to apathy means a dangerous dependence on daily routines that elude personal responsibility. If Im caught up in a Slacker-cycle, obsessed with the happy habits of drifting, I can avoid disappointment by divesting myself from personal community connections. A smoke screen insulates against reality.

There's a flaw in insulation-it keeps out sunlight and fresh air. Whether I insulate to keep information in or keep information out, I risk suffocating in my own selectivity. I yearn for authentic correspondence within commercialized compassion. So I think I'll shorten the slack. That is, maybe I won't feel overwhelmed or ineffective if I keep things simple, manageable. Downsize.

I'll always be exposed to the information race, and I continue looking for a job without knowing when I will find one. But I can manage social responsibility by contributing to my world without controlling it. It is noble to pursue awareness, and exciting to enlist change. But the possibility of saving the Rainforests on your lunch hour is a tyranny enslaving productive citizens into apathy addiction.

An old man in Linklater's 'Slacker' says of the 1930s: 'There was such a thing as belief put into action in those days.' I recover from apathy when I invest myself in personal social connections. Remember the slogan 'think globally, act locally'? Overwhelming injustice or escalating crime is downsized to helping a neighbor do homework, saying 'yes, I'll do you a favor' and talking to service industry workers like human beings. Concern won't mean a conscription to apathy if we believe in our contributions.

Ann Marie Caffrey stopped slacking and was recently published in the Hokubei Mainichi, a daily San Francisco newspaper.

Copyright © 1993 by Ann Marie Caffrey. All rights reserved.