The word “indifference” has a bad reputation. It’s difficult, in fact, to think of any context where the word is used positively, or of any situation where someone would be happy to be described as indifferent.
An exception might be in those situations where we must choose between things of little consequence. If it’s a choice about which movie to watch and we are indifferent, well that’s no big deal. But if we are indifferent to something meaningful happening in the world around us, our indifference will invariably be perceived as problematic.
It’s a steep hill to climb, but let me briefly make the case for something called “holy indifference.” It’s a phrase I picked up from my dad, and it means that we sometimes need a good dose of indifference in relation to the things happening around us. If we need a biblical model for this, think of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. When the wine had run out (to the shame of the host family), Jesus replies with these words, to his mother’s appeal for help: “Woman, why do you involve me?”
We are finite
We live in a social context in which the demands placed on our energy, time and attention are almost unceasing. If you are on social media, you cannot spend more than a few minutes scrolling before coming across some appeal for an emotional response or for indignant engagement. Or if you still like to get your fingers inky with a print newspaper, you hardly need to turn a page before some story or opinion piece demands your attention. This is to say nothing of the appeals from family members, the church, political parties or neighbourhood organizations. “Look here!” “Pay attention to this” “Can you believe that!?”
To cultivate holy indifference is not to be uncaring about the world. It is to say, rather, that we as human beings have limited emotional bandwidth, limited resources and limited time. To the extent that we are limited human beings, there is no shame in saying that we cannot give the same attention to every question. There is no shame in saying that the scope of most problems is beyond our capacity for full or meaningful engagement.
The right attention
But holy indifference isn’t simply about ignoring things around us. We need to cultivate holy indifference toward many things precisely so that we can give our careful and loving attention to some things. Which are the relationships in which God has called you to invest yourself? Which are the issues you can learn about and commit yourself to? Which community concerns will you take action about? We must be indifferent about many things in order to be faithful to God’s call and to give attention to our life and community in their particularity.
It may be that the word “indifferent” simply can’t be redeemed in the way I’m suggesting, since it carries a sense of not caring. But if we are to give ourselves diligently and meaningfully to the things around us that matter, it’s difficult to see how we will be able to do so without cultivating something very much like holy indifference. Because we care!