“Apathy has become a way to protect ourselves from the pain of caring and having our caring not make a difference, because to care is to love and to love is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable means that we get hurt. Apathy is a protective barrier against having our hearts broken.”
Story for all Ages: Who Cares? By Krista Taves.
One morning Stella was sitting with her brother at the breakfast table and they were rushing for the bus because they slept in, and her brother’s elbow hit the side of the table and his orange juice fell over and splashed all over the floor! And you know what? Stella didn’t care!
And then on the bus when one girl got on and the bus started moving before she sat down and she tripped and fell and her lunch opened up and spilled all over the bus floor, you know what? Stella didn’t care!
And then at school when Stella was sitting at her desk a boy next to her was working on his math questions and his favorite superhero pencil broke and he started to cry and the other boys called him a baby. Guess what? Stella didn’t care!
And then at recess Stella was hanging out with her friend Anthony and someone came to Anthony and said, “Do you want to be my best friend?” and stuck out their hand like they wanted to shake on it. Anthony shook their hand and the person had old bubble gum stuck in their hand! And you know what? Stella didn’t care!
And then after recess Stella was hanging up her coat and someone ran into her and she fell and hit her knee real hard on the floor and it hurt and she started to cry. And guess what? No one cared.
And then during reading class the teacher asked her to stand up and read out loud and she got to a hard word and she made a mistake saying it, and some of the kids started to laugh at her and she turned all red. And guess what? No one cared.
And then on the way to the bus she stepped by accident in a big huge mud puddle and her shoes filled with cold water and what do you think happened? No one cared.
When Stella got on the bus, she was tired and sad and lonely. Her knee hurt. She kept thinking about that word she couldn’t say right. Her feet were so cold and wet. And as she sat by herself on the long bus ride home, she thought about when her brother’s orange juice spilled, and the girl fell on the bus, and the boy broke his superhero pencil, and her friend Anthony got tricked, and she wondered if they felt tired and sad and lonely when no one cared.
When Stella got home, her dad was there, and he helped her take off her wet shoes and socks and put on cozy warm slippers. He put a band-aid on her knee. She showed him the word she couldn’t say and he helped her say it right.
After she and her brother shared an after school snack, she felt much better.
Reading – Offered by Joe, a member of the Emerson Youth Group
Today’s reading comes from a song by Chicago punk band Rise Against. I sent these lyrics to Krista when she asked the youth group what our theme of the month, brokenness, might mean to a youth. I thought about how apathetic many youth seem to be. They don’t seem to care about anything but themselves when there is so much wrong with the world. When Krista first listened to the song, she wondered if maybe the special music for this Sunday could do it, but when she learned it was the Concord Divas, we thought that they might not appreciate being asked to sing punk rock! So instead, the lyrics are our reading!
So, just to see if Joe was right about this teenage apathy thing, I googled “suburban teenage apathy” and the first link was a blog called, of all things, “Suburban Apathy” (http://throwinupdahorns.tumblr.com/) This is how the blogger identified himself: “I have no name. [I’m] 15…. I have no life, if we are being honest. I accomplish nothing. I love soup, Pop Punk, hot tea, and my girlfriend. I wanna be a troll when I grow up.” On the front page of his blog he’s posted a video of a cigarette pack becoming a transformer, a song about living in a van with your girlfriend and having no place to go, and a pic of a kid dancing with ferrets. And I’m thinking, “OK Suburban Apathy Dude, maybe Joe’s right about the youth of his generation, and maybe it goes even further. Maybe it’s even cool to be apathetic, to not care, and not look to the future.” In fact, it seemed to me that there was something going on around this kid’s apathy that sociologists call “cultural capital.”
The term “cultural capital” was coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it means that human beings are constantly engaged in what’s called “social positioning” so that we can get what we want. When men dress in a suit for a job interview they’re using cultural capital that says, “I am a person of consequence, so give me this job.” When women dye their hair to cover the grey they’re accessing the cultural capital of youth. When you rip out the wild roses in the front yard and put in box shrubs, you are accessing the cultural capital of middle class respectability. We use cultural capital in our body language, facial expressions, hairstyles, the clothes we wear, and houses we live in, the cars we drive, and from what Joe is seeing, there is cultural capital to be gained when you look like you don’t care.
But there’s something else posted on the front page of this blog that made me question this guy’s true commitment to apathy – a post with the title “The Rules of a Creator’s Life” and it includes these rules: Do more than you’re told to do. Try new things. Teach others about what you know. Work when others are resting. Always be creating. Love what you do, or leave.
One of the things Pierre Bourdieu talks about is competing cultural systems. There is no complete system of cultural values anywhere in this world. Two of the competing systems in North America are the one that tells us that nothing matters, including us, and the one that tells us that we are incredibly important and that the wellbeing of this world is in our hands. Every one of us struggles with these two competing systems and we tap into them at different times and get different kinds of cultural capital when we do.
This kid’s blog is living out this tension. He spends a lot of energy to look like he really doesn’t care. But then he posts this list of “rules for a creator”. “Do more than you’re told to do. Work when others are resting.” His desired self-image of apathy crumbled, just for a second, and he started to care.
This is what we’re talking about today. The internal struggle inside each of us, the struggle between giving up and just resting into the ease of not mattering, and the strong desire to make a difference and to make this world a better place.
When Joe talked about his frustrations with the other kids in his high school, my first response was to think. “Oh yeah! That’s our problem! All these pampered suburban kids who don’t care about anything except the clothes they wear and the friends they hang out with and the music they listen to.” It was so easy to give in to the cynicism. But maybe our moaning and groaning is more about Joe and me than those kids.
You see Joe and I are people who see ourselves as the good guys. We care about the environment, we care about women’s rights, we care about peace, and poverty and racism and immigration reform. I suspect many of you see yourselves the same way. And for people like us, who see ourselves as the people who care, apathy drives us crazy, because we think that if those apathetic people would just get off their butts and start caring the way we care, that the problems that hurt our hearts might get solved. Many of us will assume that apathy is a sign of laziness, selfishness, and stupidity. People are apathetic because they’re weak. They don’t have the will to get up and do something. But I think this is too easy an answer. I don’t think it’s right.
In my article this week (http://www.emersonuuchapel.org/documents/twae.030713.pdf), I talked about apathy as the canary in the mine. In the early days of mining, they would send a canary into the shaft, and if the canary came back out, the air was good and the miners could work. If the canary didn’t come back, the air was bad and they wouldn’t send the miners down. What if apathy is like that? Maybe there is nothing wrong with people. Maybe there’s a toxic environment that steals our air, the air that fills us with the oxygen of empowerment that tells us we matter and that we can do something about the things we care about.
That’s what Dave Meslin thinks. Dave is a Canadian community organizer and self-described professional rabble-rouser, and in his TEDx video, “The Antidote to Apathy” (http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html), which we’ll be watching in adult education today, Dave is absolutely convinced that apathy is not a personal failing. People haven’t stopped caring! We just don’t know what do with how much we care and we doubt that our caring can make a difference. So why waste our energy? Why get our hearts broken?
This past week was International Women’s Day, and one of the issues I’m passionate about is women’s reproductive justice, but it’s exhausting to care about reproductive justice in the Midwest. This is a hostile environment for women’s reproductive rights and anything that has to do with sex and freedom, and Missourians keep electing people who want to control those basic rights. We keep fighting the same battles and sometimes it feels like we’re losing. It’s easy for me to become apathetic when my caring doesn’t seem to make any difference. It keeps breaking my heart and I’m starting to wish that my heart would stop hurting about this and sometimes I just want to let it go and move on to something easier.
Dave Meslin says I’m not alone. We are all tempted into apathy. When you are tempted into apathy, it is not a sign that you are weak or stupid or selfish. It is what happens in a toxic cultural environment that is taking away your air. Dave points to all kinds of reasons for this. Political. Economic. Social. The Media. All these things suck away the oxygen of human empowerment that helps us see the truth inside ourselves, which is that we indeed matter very much.
Apathy has become a way to protect ourselves from the pain of caring and having our caring not make a difference, because to care is to love and to love is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable means that we get hurt. Apathy is a protective barrier against having our hearts broken.
And some people mistake this protective barrier for strength. This is its appeal, I think, for teenagers, because those teenage years are so hard. You don’t know what you’re becoming, your hormones are off the charts, you’re still under the control of your parents and your teachers, and there’s pressure to do good in school, to fit in, to get into college, to date, to have sex, and sometimes to do drugs. It’s a lot. And if you look like you don’t care, maybe it looks like you can’t get hurt, and maybe it looks like you’re strong even if that’s not how you feel on the inside.
But the problem is that apathy is actually pretty fragile. Apathy worked for Stella for a little while, but then things changed and she needed people to care, and when no one did she became tired, and lonely. Separate people from each other they lose their power.
So what is the antidote to apathy?
Anything that feeds the oxygen back into our world and back into your heart. Whatever it is that keeps us connected to each other, that keeps our hearts open to each other. Whatever it is that helps us remember that everything is connected and that everything matters, including us. What is the antidote to apathy? To use Pierre Bourdieu’s language, anything that makes sure that a culture of caring has more cultural capital than a culture of apathy. Make caring worth more than not caring.
One of the things I strongly believe is that our congregations, our Unitarian Universalist congregations, are one part of waging this struggle between apathy and action. Our mission is to be the oxygen, to put good air back into our systems and make sure that a culture of caring has more power than a culture of apathy. This is why social justice is a religious imperative for us. It is sacred work.
Unitarian Universalism is based on the premise of covenant. We are in a sacred covenant with life and with love. This covenant says that we are stronger together than we are alone. This covenant says that love always has the last word and that healing is stronger than brokenness. This covenant says that we know there are times when caring will break our hearts, but this covenant also promises that our hearts can and will heal so that we can go on trying again. This covenant says that apathy is not an option; the most it can be is a temporary diversion from the path while we get our feet back under us. It doesn’t mean we failed, but it is a canary in the mine telling us we’ve had too much toxic air and we have to heal ourselves so that we can go back and do the work. We may not have caused this apathy, but we are responsible for managing it and working through it. And sometimes we need to be carried by a beloved community of friends until we are strong enough to care again.
You know, I keep thinking about that kid in that blog, and about how hard he tried to look like he didn’t care and how he just couldn’t keep from opening his heart. What happened in that one post is what our liberal religious tradition witnesses to every single day, that the healing power of connection and caring is ultimately much more powerful than the misguided allure of separation and the protective apathy it creates.
We proclaim as Unitarian Universalists, even when it seems like we may be losing out in the struggle for which moral value systems will prevail in our world, we proclaim that love always has the last word. We proclaim that brokenness is not going to define who we are and what is possible. And so, even if we become fragile and fall into apathy, and even if we try not to care to protect our brittle hearts, and even if we fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t matter and we can’t make a difference, our faith tells us to be patient, that these moments will pass, that holiness is still happening even if we can’t see it, and that our weariness is simply asking us to rest so that we will once again rise up and rise against and be the oxygen that gives us and this world new life.
In the spirit of hope, justice, and freedom, may these words come to live in your heart and in mine. Amen and blessed be.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended
conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to Rev. Krista Taves.