It is incredibly easy in our day to observe an incredibly saddening reality: Apathy is everywhere. To which you might reply: “Who cares?” To which I might reply: “Fair point, and my point exactly.” To which you might reply: “Whatever.” This could go on for a while, and I would win, but you wouldn’t care!
It is easy to be apathetic when we feel unthreatened, or unimpressed. Imagine being at one of those zoo aquariums where you can walk through a transparent tunnel and be surrounded by all the sea life. You feel quite safe, even though a group of gnarly- toothed, flesh eating sharks swarms above and beside you. The Plexiglas is protecting you, so you’re rather indifferent to their presence. You might even get irritated that the sharks aren’t doing anything interesting, like attacking some other sea creature or each another. Maybe you can find a video like that with your phone.
After several minutes of searching, you look up and see the sharks looking back at you. They’re now together, side by side, and it seems they’ve been staring at you the whole time you were staring at your cellphone. You’re a little embarrassed at being startled, so you mug a look of mock horror. As if sensing your insincerity, the sharks glide closer. Bearing their gnarly teeth, they press their rounded noses against the glass. “Oh, it’s ON …” you say aloud, more unnerved than you want to admit.
You cautiously step forward, thinking this scene is perfect for a selfie. But then you notice a crack in the glass…and then another, and another. Water starts to leak through the spider-webbing cracks, and you react instinctively. Your trembling fingers get to tapping. You tweet some quick cries for help – #I’mgonnadie! # sharkattack # Ishouldreallyleave – You post your terrified status on Facebook, but no one is liking it, and that really scares you. Frustrated and afraid, you suddenly feel all alone. Even apathy abandons you; boredom and bravado go bye-bye as well. And sarcasm, your last front hiding your fear, yields to real screams for help. #It’sover.
Some people like to blame technology for other people’s pervasive apathy and related inability to handle the hardships of life. It is true that we are a people easily distracted and driven by the need to be entertained; we easily lose sight of and stop caring about the deep things of life. So when we find ourselves in the depths of life’s traumas, no longer shielded from ever-encircling, menacing reminders of our mortality and no longer able to be numbed by digital diversions, we have so little wherewithal to react well and wisely. But technology is not to blame. Tech is merely an outlet for what’s within us; tech only amplifies what’s already in our hearts.
Instead of simply lamenting our obsession with electronic toys, we ought to ask about the irritable indifference to the big issues of life which those toys are meant to pacify. Why do we have such a desperate need to play in the world of what used to be called virtual reality? What is it about real reality which makes us look away, even from its beauties? For example, why is it that we are not fascinated with big scenes from nature until they appear on the small screens of our phones? Have you ever noticed that many people at the beach have their sunglasses aimed straight at their cellphones? The ocean in front of them interests them less than their Facebook feed. The same can be observed at big cultural events. People who pay for front row seats at the big game spend their time texting instead of watching the contest unfolding only a few feet from them. Those turn out to be expensive texts!
The reasons we act apathetic to big, obvious realities are many and complex, but here, perhaps, is a start. Generation after generation of people rising within Western pop philosophy and culture have been taught that they have no access to big reality, to absolutes, to things as they really are, to life as it really is. Naturally, then, students of this school of thought begin to ignore the big matters of life, and they also begin to feel quite entitled within life. If there is no knowable, higher, ultimate something above them and superior to them, who can blame them for acting like little gods? Is it really any wonder that narcissism flourishes in a culture which posits self (or community) as the ultimate arbiter of truth and meaning?
Thus the irritable indifference prevalent in our culture. Little gods care little for that which does not immediately please them, and their wrath is easily provoked by people who fail to do the same. But when we little gods are confronted with life circumstances which do not flinch in the face of our demands that they move; when we are beset by situations which thoroughly discredit our deity; when the Plexiglas wall protecting us from absolutes is cracking all around us, we lose it.
Impending death shows us whether or not we have an anchor in anything absolute to steady us in the flood of life’s big issues, a captain’s log to tell us their true significance and a compass pointing the way through them. Our digital distractions delay our recognition of the fact that for each and every one of us, death is always impending.
This is why the biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us that it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Better to be at a funeral than a frat party. Why? Because nothing shatters our false shelters like the death of someone we know. The death of another person reminds us that death is an absolute of life and that we will personally face it. Funerals force us to reckon with the big questions about which conventional wisdom says we have no access to answers. But deep down, we know differently.
God has hardwired our hearts with thoughts of eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Keeping these thoughts constantly at bay is an exercise in frustration and futility. The notion that we have no access to life’s ultimates is a self-refuting, self-serving, pathetic Plexiglas tunnel that cannot protect us when those ultimates close in. The sharks are always circling, and the glass is always cracked, ever threatening to collapse completely. It is a mercy to be reminded of that constant menace.
The real separation between humanity and God is not an inability to access absolutes and ultimates; the real separation results from our sin. Human sin has created between us and God a moral chasm we cannot cross. But God gave us the Bible to tell us of the one who would defeat death itself, removing its sting. The Word of God is itself proof that God has crossed this chasm and wants us to know it, and that he wants us to know that death is not the definitive word on sinful humanity. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, lived a sinless life, took upon himself the full flood of God’s wrath in the place of all who would ever be brought to him for salvation, and rose again so that those repentant mortals would never truly die (John 11).
This truth, when truly taken in, annihilates apathy. It allows us to face life as it is, to feel the depths and the heights, to see the inherent bigness of all of life’s scenes, in such a way that can never be captured on the small screen. So away with apathy! In the risen Christ, we have constant access to and full family status with the One who is absolute, who IS and whom to know is life everlasting.