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It is easy to get overwhelmed by the multitude of world problems, which is why allowing oneself to be apathetic from time to time is an important coping strategy. Graphic by Sarah Nove.

Mindful apathy: How to cope with emotional burnout

The world we live in is overwhelming. We are constantly bombarded with bad news — headline after headline, day after day. As students, it is our job to educate ourselves on the problems that plague humanity. Our professors assign us texts about the Earth’s inevitable destruction, and, at home, our TVs run ads about the latest based-on-a-true-story crime shows. Confronting the Earth’s ugliness all the time is exhausting. It is easy to get burned out and apathetic. But is apathy really a bad thing?

Merriam-Webster defines apathy as “a lack of feeling or emotion” or “a lack of interest or concern.” However, there is another kind of apathy that is less straightforward. Apathy (with a capital A) is an active effort. It is choosing which issues to invest energy in and which issues to save for later. The lowercase-A apathy can lead to complacency, which hinders positive progress.

But capital-A Apathy is necessary, at least in small doses. Without it, we would be paralyzed by the world’s problems. It is impossible for one person to put the same level of passion and effort into every issue that afflicts humanity. After all, the problems are infinite: rising sea levels, civilian deaths, cancer, hunger, bullying, homophobia… the list goes on forever.

It is a depressing list, and thinking about it for too long can send a person into a tailspin that ends in a nihilistic crisis. Trying to solve even one of those problems by oneself is enough weight to crush a person.

Gina Khan, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County freshman studying Modern Languages, Linguistics & Intercultural Communications, explained a conflict most people can relate to: “the shock impact of all of these events …  goes down every time you see a new one. I don’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to feel like I have to be numb to protect myself, but what else am I supposed to do? Get all worked up every single time something happens? I do that, but there comes a point when you have to just deal with it or you’re going to have a hard time getting through your daily life.”

Apathy protects us from crumbling under the weight of the world’s problems, but it is a slippery slope.

“I don’t think this is healthy, but I’ve honestly become numb to many things,” said Maria Yiannouris, a UMBC freshman Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies double major. “That doesn’t mean I don’t care [about important issues], it just means I can’t care as deeply as I should.” 

Social media, particularly among young, well-intentioned socially conscious individuals, applies an instant negative connotation to apathy. There is a culture of shame surrounding not speaking out enough or in the right ways. But no one person has the time or energy to dedicate to awareness and coming up with solutions for all current issues; school, work and just living take so much of the most valuable resource: time.

This does not mean that people do not care. Apathy is different from neglect or disinterest. Apathy is natural. It is a coping mechanism, a method of self-preservation. Apathy is an acknowledgment of our human limitations. We do not have infinite time and energy to dedicate to fixing the world, so we have to prioritize.

When practiced with purpose, apathy can be used to reallocate energy to places where it is most needed — that is Apathy

Full disclosure: I am not a psychologist, and capital-A Apathy is not, as far as I know, a formal or scientific concept. But, in my experience, Apathy, that is, conscious apathy, can help prevent emotional burnout. On days when bad news piles up and becomes overwhelming, acknowledging one’s limitations and deciding to take life one challenge at a time is healthy.

Apathy is self-care, it is accepting that we are all human, and that one individual cannot fix all of the world’s problems. And it also allows us to better care for the world around us by promoting focused attention that can lead to more meaningful change.