April 8

How Do We Turn Our Apathy To Action

The following is a synopsis of the iLumn8 Open House Discussion hosted on April 8th, 2022, with founder Anne Peterson and her co-creative partner in the upcoming Imagining in Action Summit.  In this discussion they looked into the experience of Apathy.  As life long difference makers, apathy can be both a relief and the death of possibility. Read on to discover more!

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing”

- John Stuart Mill

Why good people sometimes do nothing

The above quote leads to this question. Why do good people sometimes do nothing? Right now, that question may not feel difficult to answer - events of the past few years make it easy to see why anyone might want to embrace apathy - even “good people”. 

One way we can see apathy at the societal level, is to look at the percentage of the voting age population in highly developed democratic nations who actually vote. Looking at the most recent nationwide elections in each OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nation, many may be surprised to learn that the U.S. placed 30th out of 35 nations with only 56% of the voting age population casting a vote. This is an example of “good people” doing nothing.

What is apathy

Apathy is defined as a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. It includes a lack of motivation or not caring about what is going on around you. Many of us have experienced apathy at one time or another in specific areas of life.

Sometimes, it can go as far as a lack of desire to do anything that involves thinking or feeling your emotions. It is important to say here, total apathy in life can be a sign of a medical condition, so please see a doctor if this is you or someone you know. *WebMD

Attendees shared about their own experiences of apathy. They expressed what many of us feel about a world that is so out of whack in so many different ways right now. Sometimes it’s hard to care about so much amiss, so we try to convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter that we don’t care. We feel helpless in the vastness and the multitude of problems. We feel too small and insignificant to impact them. Yet, we are still bothered by it all.

Apathy, freedom or foe

It may seem contradictory that we can care so much about a problem, yet still feel apathetic towards it. In fact, the origin of apathy comes from the prefix “a”—meaning "without," and the Greek pathos meaning "emotion, feeling, suffering." Thus, apathy can be interpreted as freedom from feeling or suffering.

So when we feel like giving up or we feel overwhelmed by what’s bothering us and by what is going on around us in our community or the world, it’s a natural inclination to seek apathy, or wishing that we could “not care”.  We long for the numbness that comes with apathy instead of the angst that goes with caring about the inequities that we feel we cannot change or fix. It makes sense that apathy can feel like freedom from suffering and a relief from those emotions.

Feel the Feels  

We know it can be tempting to sink into apathy and numbness.  The problem with that is, it doesn’t go well for us at any level. We have learned that suppressed stress and emotions lead to physical distress and ailments.

SO … one of the first steps to counteract apathy is to allow ourselves to feel the emotions. Anne shared that she once believed a lack of suffering equaled true enlightenment, and a state she could reach if she grew enough, if she did enough personal development, or had a regular spiritual practice. Unfortunately, stifling the emotions we feel in our own suffering, or when observing the suffering around us, negatively impacts our health. 

Actually, enlightenment includes having these emotions, experiencing our suffering, and moving through it with grace and without judgment. 

By the way, experiencing our feelings is not something we can only do mentally, they need to physically move through our body - through tears, through physical movement etc. Stress shows up in your body if you are not able to move through it.

Having these emotions with awareness can look like physical movement, such as gardening, crafting, going out into nature or even yelling at the TV. These aren’t things that we are doing to escape those feelings, but to allow ourselves to feel our emotions and move through it.

Part of what leads to our suffering and subsequent apathy, both individually and at the “we” level, is that we can imagine better.  We can only imagine what we have seen, so part of the reason we are frustrated is because we have seen better.  Even if it’s a fantasy, or something we have seen on a tiny scale, we have seen it.  When we recognize the contradiction between what we see in the current reality VS what we imagine, we feel the suffering and a sense of cognitive dissonance. Those feelings can be heartbreaking, and we seek apathy - relief from that.

We can recognize these feelings, and give space and grace to the heartbreak. Allow ourselves the freedom to experience that. The reason we feel this way is that we are seeing something that is bothering us and it’s important to us, while we also see what is possible.

Apathy to ACTION

The way forward from apathy is ACTION!. Once we have felt those feelings and allowed them to move through us and be expressed in whatever way works for us, we can move to action in service of something, such as our purpose or vision that all the angst was pointing to anyway. That’s what that angst and pain is guiding us towards … what we REALLY care about. 

It doesn’t have to be a BIG action - any action will do. From picking up trash around your neighborhood or on the beach, to serving large organizations with big visions of ending hunger, taking positive action can push back our longing for and ultimately giving in to apathy.


However, it’s SUPER important that our actions be connected to our visions of a BETTER life and living for ourselves and others. What Yonder Star vision does the action serve? For example, the action of picking up trash in your neighborhood serves a healthy environment everywhere. Or an action of self-care keeps you healthy so you can advocate for your community.

In Summary - Action repels apathy.

Apathy is a natural and normal experience, both for individuals and society. It is a natural defense mechanism, a way to deal with the heartbreak that comes with watching events that seem out of our control. Experiencing apathy can even be part of the cycle of taking action, we just don’t want to get stuck there. It starts with giving grace.

Finding natural and healthy ways to deal with the strong emotions that lead to apathy, we can then take action consistent with our purpose and in service of our vision. Let what’s bothering us bother us, and be a guide to the kinds of actions we can take right now and experience making a difference.

Where are you imagining better? And what action can you take today in service of this vision? Small actions as well as large ones. And don’t forget to celebrate all the wins, big and small.

Newton’s first law states - a body at rest remains at rest, a body in motion remains in motion unless acted on by a force.

How can you use your apathy to get into action? 

What is your Yonder Star vision, the force that can move you into action?

Synopsis written by iLumn8 contributing author Safiya Robinson, in-house copy editor Susan Bouet and founder Anne Peterson.