Situational Indifference

When you’re writing fiction or poetry … it really comes down to this: indifference to everything except what you’re doing. — Raymond Carver

The word indifference is often used as a derogatory description for human behavior and generally indicates some measure of psychopathology when noted during clinical assessments. To be indifferent suggests an unsettling lack of passion, an incapacity for feeling joy, the absence of empathy, or being without concern. However, I would like to show how making use of situational indifference can be an effective method for avoiding compulsive quagmires. Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that we should no longer care about those things or those people that matter most to us. To be sure, life would be essentially meaningless without emotional attachments and the ethical convictions that accompany them. What I want to explore is how to best prevent emotional devastation by the careful selection and application of attentiveness. A significant amount of psychological energy is wasted on transitory stressors that are typically resolved retrospectively—given enough distance and time. For example, impulsive behavior may be mitigated most effectively by temporary distraction, and distraction can be achieved by engaging in substitute rituals while practicing applied insouciance in the face of temptation. Knowing what to avoid is just as important as knowing what to pursue.

The concept of a Ulysses Contract, in terms of behavior management, represents a preemptive decision to avoid responding to potentially consequential stimuli. For example, if you want to relinquish a problematic habit, being unresponsive to environments that trigger your habit can diminish temptations and associated behavior while deterring the development of craving responses. Likewise, avoiding situations that escalate impulsivity can be programmed once the aversive memories of former consequences are established and sufficient effort is dedicated to practicing learned indifference. After all, no matter how justified a person feels for being agitated or aroused, the most important variable is how to maintain composure—which sometimes means not responding. Likewise, for achieving optimum equanimity, learning to subdue a reactive mind in the grip of disruptive variables (i.e., Vipassana) will allow more energy and focus for what you really value.

The English poet William Blake once remarked, “If the sun and moon should ever doubt, they’d immediately go out.” Indeed, the sun and moon are incapable of doubt and will forever remain operationally indifferent on the outer edge of a galaxy that is equally indifferent. In a similar but more acerbic tone, the poet W. H. Auden tells us, “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well that, for all they care, I can go to hell.” To put it less poetically, we would do ourselves an existential favor by recognizing the aloofness of cosmological elements. It can sometimes be a refreshing perspective to realize that someone, somewhere, doesn’t care.

From addiction to anger management, focusing on something else becomes easier when situational indifference is devoted to the bêtes noires of compulsion.