(Image: Courtesy of Pixabay)
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
~ Elie Wiesel
My previous post, What Price, Freedom? probed the meaning of freedom within the context of a free, democratic society. How is it that the world stood by and witnessed the Nazis deprive thousands of people their freedom, their human dignity, and their very lives? Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, encapsulated the explanation in a single word, indifference.
Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was a Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He wrote 57 books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
I came upon this quote a few days ago, and I’ve been pondering the meaning ever since. As a high school History teacher, I taught my students about the Holocaust every semester, and I never became comfortable with this unit of human horror. Therefore, I’m listening to Wiesel’s words with my heart within this context. As I write these words, I am moved almost to tears.
He points out to us that indifference is the opposite or opposing position to love, art, faith, and life. I understand the dictionary definition of indifference as a lack of interest, or of concern, or of sympathy. We may also say that a state of indifference indicates that something is unimportant.
As I struggled with these concepts, I found these words by Anton Chekhov, the famous 19th Century Russian playwright, and author. “Indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death.” His words are actually saying the same thing that Wiesel expressed almost a century later.
I believe the human soul is the spiritual dimension of a person. It is the seat of our unique identity. It is also the source of our life energy and the repository of our deeply-held beliefs and moral guidelines. Chekhov’s words “paralysis of the soul” is truly a premature death. That paralysis snuffs out my spiritual energy. It blinds my belief system and moral compass. I cease to be a person in the fullest sense of the word.
I cannot love anyone in this state of paralysis. I become not only the center of my universe but my entire universe. There is no room for anyone else. Others may be useful – or not, but certainly not loved because they are unimportant. This allows me to turn my back on someone who needs help, or someone who is suffering. Because they are unimportant, so is their plight.
Art, no matter the format of its expression, is the outer manifestation of the artist’s soul. We can see reflections of our own souls in the many mirrors of artistic expressions, be they paintings, music, poetry, plays, novels, sculptures, films – the list can go on. If I am indifferent, the art is meaningless, and I am not moved spiritually, emotionally or intellectually. I am dead to art and all it can teach me. It cannot nourish me.
Faith can be understood as trust or confidence in something or someone. How often have we heard people say that they don’t trust anyone, or they have deeply-seated trust issues? Betrayals can make me wary about trusting others. The presence of evil in the world can make me question my faith in God. If I am indifferent, faith is irrelevant. I trust no one and become totally self-reliant. I have closed myself to the possibility of trust or confidence in anything or anyone.
Wiesel’s final analogy concerns life. If I have stilled my soul, there is no life even though my body still functions. There is no empathy for the feelings of others, so as the image above illustrates, I can walk right past a person lying still on a sidewalk or roadway. I can shrug when I read about the horrors of the holocaust and perhaps even call it a hoax.
I believe there are degrees of indifference and that it is within all of us. How else do I explain the fact that we still see and allow the evils of intolerance, prejudice, and discrimination to flourish around us? Why do we nod sagely that this is just a normal reaction to fear? Why do we continue to laugh heartily at jokes that are racial slurs or attacks upon a gender – or worse yet, upon those who suffer from a physical, mental or emotional impairment? Indifference. It renders the human spirit paralyzed or dead, but indifference is very much alive and well!