The prevalence of indifference

I learned that the notion of having “goodwill towards men” is a very extraordinary, high and noble sort of thing. Perhaps so extraordinary, so noble, mere humans shouldn’t even strive for it. Maybe we should settle for ‘indifference towards men’. This just seems more doable.

Imagine this movie scene …the Earthling, played by Kevin Costner … approaches the alien spacecraft that has just crash landed in the field behind the bowling alley. He calls to the alien inside, also played by Kevin Costner, “I come in peace. I mean you no harm.” But the Earthling’s laser beam pistol is in his hand, locked and loaded, just in case.

Inside the spacecraft the alien Kevin Costner, who is also armed with a laser beam pistol and only speaks alien, runs these words and a few notes concerning context through his computer and gets a translation, “I’m really indifferent concerning you but I’m slightly less indifferent concerning the notion of peace as exemplified by the absence of hostilities and would prefer not to blast you with my laser beam pistol. Besides, these laser beam bullets cost money”

And the alien Kevin Costner thinks, “OK … I can work with that.”

So the alien Costner comes out of the ship. He and the Earthling Costner shake hands. They don’t blast each other with their laser beam pistols. The alien takes a job at the Walmart. Begins to pay rent to the bowling alley for use of the field where he lives out of his crashed spaceship in much the way some Earthlings live out of their RVs and 15 years later comes up with the down payment to buy that field and then eventually retires, builds a patio and installs a retractable canopy over the front door of his spacecraft and lives his final days among Earthlings. And all it required to facilitate this symbiotic state of pragmatic co-existence, the same state in which Earthlings live with one another, was the proper application of … indifference.

Indifference works not because of what it is, but because what it isn’t. It isn’t goodwill but it isn’t ill-will either. It’s just…indifference. It’s not a charitable thing. It’s not long-suffering. It doesn’t necessarily rejoice in iniquity though neither does it seek truth. Indifference doesn’t bear all things, believe all things, hope all things or endure all things … but it doesn’t blast others with laser beams either. It doesn’t hate. It doesn’t war. It merely lives and let lives … or lets die … whichever…I’m indifferent. Even though indifference falls far short of the lofty ideals of goodwill, it hovers above the maleficent proclivities of ill-will. This strangely, if one lives in or with ill-will, makes the mediocrity of indifference the least we should strive for … a thing good enough.

The problem with indifference is that it has no strength … it has no grounding other than situational pragmatism. It’s fragile. It is a mere hands-breath away from being something else. One little misunderstanding, one twitch of an itchy trigger finger, one little famine or oil shortage, one little unfounded fear and indifference easily devolves into suspicion, then into fear, then into hate and ill-will, and galactic laser beam wars begin.

But indifference, when compared to goodwill, is easy, it’s achievable … doable. It is sufficient and offers a semblance of peace, a shallow semblance of peace but a semblance of peace never-the-less. So … hurray for indifference … I guess.

Goodwill on the other hand is a hard thing. Sort of like dieting or exercise…just not a thing that comes immediately naturally. Goodwill is such a hard thing it requires a push, an external force, an impetus from something outside us…something greater than ourselves. But when goodwill is realized, so much more than a fragile, shallow semblance of peace is realized. It is a true peace, a durable peace, a peace that surpasses our understanding.

The argument for indifference is one of quantity over quality. Many, many of us are indifferent about so many different things. And the prevalence of our indifference creates a stable though mediocre place to live. Goodwill would be tantamount to tossing a monkey wrench into the works.

Imagine the Earthling Kevin Costner leaving his laser beam pistol at home and saying to the alien Kevin Costner, “I come with goodwill.” Why such a thing would snowball into a lifelong and burdensome commitment, a real slippery slope. I mean really, having to always be ready to forgive and to seek truth, to wake every morning, eat breakfast and go into the world ready to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things or endure all things, Sheesh! Who has time for such stuff? Indifference is just so convenient. It works with our schedules.

So … indifference works … if we keep our expectations low. But 2,000 years ago our expectations were irrevocably raised. We were given a glimpse of hope. We were shown long-long suffering. We were taught to believe, to hope and strengthened to bear and endure. We were given the gift of goodwill toward men. We were empowered with abilities of goodwill.

Indifference is easy. And it works. But it is far from inspiring, even further from being noble. It’s not even pretty. It does not enhance. But … it is easy …and doable.

We humans have achieved great things. Especially when we do a thing “…not because it is easy, but because it is hard…” When we were shown goodwill we were endowed with the obligation to sow goodwill. And this is why I do not say to you … semblance of peace and indifference toward men. I say to you, Peace and Goodwill … because it was said to me. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at