7.03.2012

The Power of Indifference

To say No demands attention. You consider, judge, expend energy rejecting. And when you really, really don't like that thing, well, you expend even more energy. You stew and rage, toss and turn, fixate. Which is why there is said to be a thin line between love and hate: both demand a profound personal expenditure of energy.

And which is why Nietzsche says to avoid saying No as much as possible. But only when you're in a situation where you don't have to say No.  Don't say Yes to things that will hurt you — things like Heidegger, Doritos, or Sandra Bullock. Say No, he tells us, when it's an affirmation of yourself, when it makes you stronger — not when it saps your energy.

This is a fantastic way to assess your life: How often do you have to say No in the course of your day? As food and people and events come your way, do you eagerly greet them with a life affirming Yes? Or do your intestines twist and whine as your body seeks to flee?

Think about it. You wake up to an alarm and think, No! Then get in a car and drive to work and think, No! Move you douchebag! Then you get to work and think, No! This is soul suicide.  And so on and so on: too often, too many of us are in positions where we have to say No a lot.  And it leaves us a crumpled, Ambien-soaked corpse at the end of the day.

Fortunately, saying Yes or No are not our only options. We can be indifferent.

Few things are as devastating as indifference.  Anyone who's ever been in love only to be met not with tepid attraction (which sucks) or with downright distaste (which also sucks) but indifference knows of what I speak.  And those who've been devastated by love only to find, over time, that this feeling has given way to indifference, know it all the better.

There is an incredible power to indifference precisely because it involves no expenditure of power. No longer is your attention grabbed, demanded, no longer do you contemplate, brood, scheme, toss: you simply walk on by. Hating your parents for some injustice continues that injustice, continues to sap you of energy. Being indifferent, however, builds your reserves, makes you stronger.

In some sense, this sounds so obvious: ignore the things that don't matter. This is ancient, Stoic wisdom. But in today's liberal world, indifference has a bad name, as it argues: How can you know you don't like something if you don't try it?

Indeed, how?  Children, I am told, recoil at very few smells. But one of them is carrion. They've never been taught that rotting flesh is, well, a poor dietary choice. And yet they know it. How? Because they, like all of us, know the world through more than facts and knowledge: they know the world instinctively. How are we attracted to some people and not others? To some food and not others? Because we are.

Nietzsche tells us that the strong man, the well turned out man, is the one who instinctively desires those things that make him stronger, healthier, more vital. The weak man instinctively chooses those things that make him weaker, sick, dyspeptic — think of greedy, stupid hands reaching for another Pringle as anal leakage winds down the leg. (What is more unsettling than seeing someone who's sick doing the very things that propel their sickness?)

"That a well-turned-out person," Nietzsche writes, "has a taste only for what is good for him; his pleasure, his delight cease where the measure of what is good for him is transgressed. He guesses what remedies avail against what is harmful; he exploits bad accidents to his advantage; what does not kill him makes him stronger." He guesses.

So this is what I'm saying: I don't have to see Sex and the City 2 to know I don't want to see it. I am guessing — but it's an educated guess. Call it a will to self preservation. And I don't have to spend any time thinking about it. I am absolutely and thoroughly indifferent. Well, almost: part of me recoiled just writing it here. But take all the horrendous books and films and plays and music that are made each year: Do I really have to try them all? Of course not. That would be absurd.

The only way to survive in this information drenched life is to be indifferent. If I had to make to say Yes or No to everything, I'd be dead — my intestines couldn't handle it. No, our very lives are dependent on our ability to be indifferent to the barrage of shit the world hurls at us.

Might I miss something great? Of course. Greatness emerges in surprising ways at surprising times. Might Sex and the City 2 be a subversive work of genius that changes my life forever? Well, sure. But it's a risk I'm willing to take.

2 comments:

Eugene Chen said...

There is a bumper sticker that proclaims "if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention". Nothing outrages me more than this bumper sticker, so I try not to pay attention to it.

Eugene Chen said...

Is that possibly what the authors meant? "If you aren't outraged at this bumper sticker, you aren't paying attention to this bumper sticker?".

I WAS paying attention - to the perfect golden sunlight, thank you very much!