Describing ‘Passionate Indifference’


My sister died about 14 months ago. On some days, I am gutted by this reality. I picture her not just gone but gone for good, gone forever — I’ll never hear her sweet, cheerful little voice, see her face, hug her close. On days like this, I spiral into a pit of horror and malaise. I am a weeping, screaming, inconsolable mess.

And then there are days when I don’t think about her at all. I’m almost ashamed to write this but it’s true and perhaps inevitable. I forget that she was alive and that she’s dead. I simply go about my day with all its triviality and drama. Maybe I think of her somewhere deep down in there but it doesn’t matter: I am indifferent.

And then there are other days when I feel something else completely, when I feel neither totally distraught nor casually indifferent. On these days, while I know her body is gone forever, I know she is not. Even if I can’t call her on the phone, I can still hear her voice. I can sense her. She lives in everyone who met her — in her parents, in my brother, in me, in her kids. But she also just lives on as the world will never be the same after her; she shaped it all just so, like everything and everyone does. I don’t feel devastated or indifferent. I feel enormous, unbounded love. And I feel the beauty, the inevitability, of her passing.

OK, OK. This is an extreme example. Let’s take it down a notch or two. Let’s say one day, a woman breaks up with me. And let’s say that I have loved her or, in any case, been quite close to her, leaned on her, counted on her, cried with and for her. She has been the focus of my attention — emotionally, physically, practically. Suddenly, there is a chasm — no more activity partner, no more lover, no more friend. I am devastated. Distraught. Heartbroken.

And yet, to state the obvious, life goes on. Everywhere around me, things proceed as they will: the sun rises, dogs bark, ants swarm, cars collide. The world is in flux, relentlessly and necessarily. Everything gives way, even love, even life. So, if that’s the case, how can I be so devastated? How can I have this one tiny moment rock my world? Isn’t it, finally, truly irrelevant?

There’s something about watching a person get so worked up by worldly shenanigans. We see it all the time — the guy cursing in the traffic jam he’s in every day; the idiot on line at the airport, irate because a storm has delayed his flight; the parent who snaps at his kid’s badgering. It’s embarrassing to see and even more embarrassing to be that person. How could this someone — that version of me — not know that this is irrelevant?

At the same time, there’s something disturbing about the person who feels nothing — who doesn’t cry when his girlfriend breaks up with him, who doesn’t love, who’s detached from the everydayness of life. I know I’ve often felt this way, seen the world from a remove, felt equally incapable of love and hate. I’ve been numb and blind.

Day to day, I’m often blown away by how much we face, how much we negotiate — the demands of work, lovers, children, parents; the promise and temptation of imagined futures seen in glances, the gestures of strangers, in dreams; the often unbearable burden of what’s come before; all the anguish, violence, fear, and guilt of childhood, college, marriage. So much has gone into bringing us to this moment, this state of affairs, this mood, this body, this condition. Sometimes, for me at least, it all seems so overwhelming. It’s as if I’m drowning, being smothered to death by life.

And then I get a glimpse of the transience and infinite expanse of it all. How can I get stressed about some client when the universe is in relentless flux? How can I get worried about whether some girl likes me when it’s just one microscopic moment within a cosmos that is both eternal and infinite? If I am more than just this skinny, bald, hebe — if I am an integral part of this universe, as necessary as any sun, pebble, or flea — then all my worrying, all my intellectual and existential attention, suddenly seems so absurd.

Kierkegaard says we live in two worlds at once: the finite world of the social, the ethical, the human-all-too-human (to borrow from Nietzsche); and the infinite, eternal world of divinity. For Kierkegaard, this is what Jesus presents us with — the simultaneity and, alas, incompatibility of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the eternal, the human and the divine co-existing within us. They don’t need to be reconciled or united, as they are in Hegel. It is our task to live as humans and gods at the same time, with every step, every breath, every word. This is why Kierkegaard relied so much on irony (the topic of his dissertation): it lets us speak in two registers at the same time, to express our human selves while, in the same breath, effacing our human selves as we point to the divine.

As I try to live in the infinite, I often find myself leaning away from the human world. I don’t care, is what I utter to my kid, my lovers, my mother. Why and how could care about all this silliness? After all, we are stardust, billion year old carbon. Who cares about an infidelity, a fight, a client presentation?

But not caring is equally absurd. After all, I am human. I live in this world. I want the love and attention of my girlfriend and when she dumps me, it hurts me. When my boy is feeling bad, sick, anxious sad, what else could matter? I am his father and this is our life, right here right now. And sure, work is just work, but I need my clients to like me, to think I do good work so they’ll hire me again, so I can get paid in order to buy food, pay rent, drink gin, support my boy. To dismiss it all as human nonsense seems negligent and, well, just plain wrong.


I’ve returned to this phrase — passionate indifference — over and over for the past 20-odd years. I think I first uttered it after seeing Pulp Fiction. Here is a film that seems so detached from its characters, that’s willing to inflict such cruelty on them. And yet, at the same time, it is a film of tremendous love — love of film, of life, of the audience. It is at once passionate and indifferent. I don’t know much about Buddhism but this is how I read that fat, laughing version: thoroughly engaged, thoroughly detached.

This, I believe, is our challenge: to be at once passionate about life and indifferent to its silliness or, in any case, its transience. This means not just being indifferent, not caring, but being passionately indifferent, engagingly indifferent, embracing the exquisite indifferent becoming of life (and death). It means being passionate about this life, about women and children and books, about art, ideas, and words while, at the same time, not binding all of ourselves to these human-all-too-human concerns. I want to be lit up by life but not tethered to it.

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