The Haze of Apathy
If you are overcome by apathy, it is because you have filled your life with a lot of things that you don’t care about. The problem isn’t that you don’t care about anything. Rather, you have covered up what you care about with a bunch of things that you don’t care about. The stuff that matters has gotten lost at the bottom of the pile. All you can see is a mountain of meaninglessness. Underneath that mountain, however, is a goldmine.
To get to the stuff that matters, you’ll have to strip away. Strip away the layers of the meaningless mountain.
There may be many layers. For all you know, you’ve been carefully building up these layers for years.
The hardest layers to spot are the ones that used to be meaningful. Not caring much for a certain activity doesn’t mean that you never cared about it. You just don’t care about it now is all. There is nothing wrong with shifting your care elsewhere.
Priorities, desires, and assignments change. You shouldn’t expect yourself to care as much about something one year from now as you do now, whether the amount of care increases or decreases.
Where we tend to get hung up, however, is thinking that we should care as much now as we used to. To hold such a thought is to fight reality. You can do your best to try to remain enthusiastic and to keep plowing through, but your efforts will be a farce. You’ll fill yourself up with stories of vapid drivel, and you’ll look at people with fake smiles. You will only be kidding yourself.
Close the Loops
It is possible that you will hit a point where you feel apathetic toward many things at once. You’ll feel like there is a lot going on in your life. It will feel as though you have many open loops, and now it is time to close them.
It’s time to edit that book, clean up that website, quit that club, drop out of that class, finish out that semester, and say goodbye to evaluating your life by measures that don’t matter—all at once.
When you are engaged in a whole slew of loop-closing all at once, you will feel a bit worried. It’ll seem like you’re throwing away so much of your life at once: you will wonder whether you are dying.
Part of you, indeed, will be dying. The part of you that doesn’t matter.
That part of you has gotten itself caught up in things that don’t really matter—things that won’t make a dent in your life, that you won’t look back on fondly, that do little to energize you. Things that do not benefit anyone, including yourself. Perhaps all of this once was true of the thing in question, but now they are not. The thing- the activity, the person, the possession- no longer matters.
The problem is not with the thing itself. In fact, it was never the thing itself that mattered in the first place. What has happened is that what matters has been decoupled from the activity. Your reason for pursuing the activity no longer holds up. Perhaps you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish with the activity. Or maybe your worldview has changed, and you don’t care about that reason anymore. In other words, what you once thought matters no longer matters to you.
Losing touch with that reason doesn’t mean you can’t do the activity at all anymore. Sometimes you can find a new reason. However, you have to be careful not to force a new reason. There will be a temptation to tell yourself stories about why you should continue on with this activity. Some of those stories will not resonate with you, though you will try to force them to.
If you can find no strong, genuine reason for going on, quit.
Quit for the Mindset
When the premise of quitting feels liberating, it is wise. When the premise of quitting feels like stunting yourself, however- like leaving a painting incomplete- then it is unwise to quit.
A quit doesn’t have to be a complete, all-encompassing quit. Telling yourself that you quit will be helpful to your peace of mind—to figuring out how you would really like to relate to this activity you’ve partaken in.
Let the quit serve as a transitory phase. You are figuring out how to relate to this activity anew. You aren’t totally sure just yet. Take it day by day. Being firm that you quit will help to keep you from doing things in ways that don’t matter to you. Experiencing this new mindset will help you to re-formulate your value system, and get clear about what path is right for you now.
Quitting the Grind
Several days ago, I quit running. After 7 and half years, I decided that I am not a runner. That is not me.
I didn’t actually quit running completely. I’m still on the track team. I still will be racing a 10K this weekend. I still have ultramarathons to run.
That being said, my relationship with running is not the same now. I don’t identify as a runner or an athlete anymore. The pursuit of becoming faster and fitter, setting personal records, trying to outdo others, and qualify for certain events has become soulless. I can’t run because I think I have to. I can’t keep going out every day due to the sheer momentum of the past. I am too apathetic to it now.
I’ve felt this death coming for quite some time now. It was inevitable. Perhaps all deaths are, eh?
What really got to me was the pursuit of running faster. I’ve felt out of touch with this for a while, though the disconnect didn’t really hit home until a recent race. I had a track meet at a Division 1 four-year school. I run for a Division 3 two-year school. I think you can imagine how that resulted.
During the race, I was focused on trying to finish each lap in a certain time. The point, of course, was to finish the race as a whole in a certain time.
This seems like a logical approach—trying to ensure that you complete the race in a desired timeframe. It is also a taken-for-granted approach. Of course the point is to run faster than you did last time.
Yet, I’ve run into a couple of problems with this approach. In particular, I’ve felt that focusing on the times I run a certain distance in is a way of hiding. During a race, such a focus is a limiting factor. It sets a certain expectation of how fast I am to run. It may promote consistency, but it does not allow for anomalies—anomalies which may include a dramatic increase in speed, at any given point.
Additionally, thinking about times puts me into an analytical frame of mind—precisely the wrong frame of mind to be in while running as fast as you can. It makes me too focused on evaluating myself, when really I should just be focused on running. Does a cheetah think to itself while running, “Gee, I think that last 100 meters was a little too slow! My turnover must not be quick enough! I hope the other cheetahs don’t notice”?
The Race to the Bottom
It isn’t just these effects of the pursuit of running faster that bother me, though. It’s the pursuit in itself.
The thing is, a lot of other people are doing the very same thing. And a lot of people are much better at it than I am. Even if I fully devoted the next decade of my life to running faster, there would still be people who are faster than I am. There always will be.
Racing for a faster time is a race to the bottom. It holds a factory mentality: Who can do this the fastest and the cheapest? Factories market to the masses—to average people. Their goal is to sell as many products as possible. Similarly, running with the goal of running faster requires that you be average. You have to do the same thing the competition is doing—just more efficiently.
I get that that is the surface-level purpose of a race—to see who can finish in the fastest time. But for my own life, I can’t say I care about that purpose.
The hard sell I’ve been going over in my mind is that no one cares. No one cares if I run a little faster today than I did yesterday. No one cares about this numbers-game. It doesn’t benefit anyone in any tangible way. And if no one else cares, maybe I don’t need to care, either.
As I said, focusing on times feels like hiding behind something that doesn’t matter. It keeps me from really having to do work—from running with heart, rather than pre-boxed, easy-to-slide-into expectations.
Not only that, but I feel like running as a whole has become a way of hiding. It has often been, for me, a way of running away from things—of avoiding things that I don’t want to face. Additionally, I feel like running has a tendency to separate me from other people. Even if you’re part of a team, running is a rather solitary pursuit.
I’m glad that there are people interested in measurably pushing human limits, such as by breaking world records. I’m glad that there are people who devote themselves to running faster. But I’m not one of those people.
The question I’ve been asking myself is, What would I have to do if I quit? I realized I have plenty of other business to attend to—many other things that are asking for my undivided attention. I take that as a good sign that it’s time to throw in the towel.
One of the towels, anyway. Maybe I have two towels. One towel represents running for the sake of obligation and performance. I’ve used that towel to wipe off quite a lot of sweat, and it’s rather stanky now. I don’t want that towel hanging around anymore.
It’s not as clear just yet what the other towel represents, though I can tell you that this one smells nice and fresh. I’ve certainly used it, and this towel seems to become more pleasant with use. If only I could find an actual towel that works that way.
I think what I am trying to do here is tie in running more closely to the rest of my life, rather than make it its own separate pursuit. This means that running serves the same purpose that the rest of the activities of my life do—which, basically, is to grow.
Specifically, that purpose is to grow courageously, love fully, and live intelligently. This means that I take on challenging, meaningful work that will help me to see reality more clearly, accept reality as it is, and live in a way that resonates with me intellectually and emotionally.
The mechanical act of running in itself does not serve that purpose. At this point in my life, running for the sake of running faster or farther doesn’t, either. At the end of my life I just won’t care about how many miles I logged.
What I can do is pick up that second towel and start to run with purpose. The “love fully” piece of my purpose means that I shouldn’t have to force this activity on myself. Even if I can come up with a running-related project that sounds very challenging, if I don’t care to do it, then there is no need to do it. If I have to convince myself to do something, then it probably is not in line with my purpose, anyway.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been running solely for soulless reasons. Running is where I’ve experienced a lot of my growth as a human being. Running is where I implement a lot of the ideas I write about. It has basically served as my experimental-grounds for personal growth, and this is quite awesome.
What I would like to do is expand the growth-aspect of running. Boot out obligation, performance, and routine, because those things just don’t matter. I would like my running to be, henceforth, done for either one of two reasons (or both): 1) to grow, and 2) because I feel like it.
Considering I run for both of those reasons already, that shouldn’t be too difficult. The real challenge is making sure that I don’t confuse “thinking I should” for “feeling like it.” Same with the difference between “being impressive” and “becoming a different person.”
The opposite of “racing to the bottom” and becoming more efficient is creating art. Art is something that is given out of generosity, with the purpose of connecting to and emotionally touching another person (or, if not to another person, to life itself). Art is the work of a human being. It doesn’t care for the numbers game.
As time goes on, I see more and more the value in differentiating myself. In particular, I feel strongly about not doing things that other people could do just as easily and better than I can. Trying to get good at things everyone else does is to buy into a factory-based, employee-model: the person who gets the job, in the end, is the person who can do it the fastest and the cheapest. But they, too, may someday be replaced by someone who does the very same thing, only faster and cheaper.
Avoiding mediocrity doesn’t mean literally not-at-all doing things that other people do. It doesn’t mean that I can’t write a blog post, or go for a run, or even run a race that a bunch of other people are in, for that matter. The doing itself isn’t the main point.
The true differentiating factor between art and factory-work is why I do what I do. If I do what I do in order to grow, express myself, and to share generously with the world, then I have created art. On the other hand, if I do what I do for the sake of profit- to feed the numbers-game- then I have merely created a product. At the end of the day, I have no desire to create products.
There are basically two components to the work that you do: a core value (or set of values), and a medium.
The value and the medium exist independently of one another. This means that for any given means of expression, I can change the value I’m attempting to express while keeping the means (i.e. the medium) the same. Likewise, I can change the medium while keeping my core value the same.
What makes something a piece of art or a factory-product is dependent on the value behind it. If I run in order to run faster than everyone else, that’s from the factory. On the other hand, if I run as an expression of my love for life, to see the world differently, or to otherwise challenge myself, then that’s art.
Basically, what I am now trying to do is turn running from a factory-grind into a work of art. As I said before, the biggest challenge is making sure that I’m not bullshitting myself—that I’m not running due to a feigned interest in running.
The point is not to be a runner. Calling myself a runner will reinforce the mindset that the point is to run faster and farther, even though it’s not. Likewise, the point is not to be a writer, or a programmer, or an entrepreneur, either. Those are factory-driven pursuits that put out products. The point is to be an artist, who puts out love.
Overall, this is a rather raw and unresolved area of my life, and I don’t want to jump to any premature conclusions. While there are a couple of running-related things I still want to do, I can’t say what will happen aside from those. I might complete those projects and be done forever. Or I might just continue running every day as I normally do. I really can’t say at this point, nor should I try to.
I hope that this has brought some consolation and fresh insight into a similar challenge you have in your life. Maybe there are certain activities that are becoming dull and routine for you, and you would really like to change whether or why you do them.
Maybe you’ve become trapped under a mountain of meaninglessness, and you feel it’s time to dig your way out. I assure you that it can be done. You’ll have to ride your way through emotional storms—through lows, and through highs of anxiety. Quitting makes emotions come out. But they’re just emotions. They just indicate whether you are putting your attention on thoughts that empower you. Having those emotions doesn’t mean that you’ve failed in any way. They just show that you’re facing a challenge—the challenge of thinking differently.
Maybe you feel inspired to make art, and to create for the sake of love and growth, rather than some numbers-game. Your art is a craft that you will hone over time. Just keep creating, and keep tweaking your approach as you go.
For myself, I still am scared of this decision to quit. But if it allows me to live more consciously, then it is for the best.
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