Apathy – Who Cares?

Shaina Slavin, Sydney, Australia
Essays 2019 / Hopelessness

The feeling of love cannot be explained, it must be experienced. The same is true about the feeling of emptiness. This essay will first explore the metaphysics of Chassidus as explained in “Chassidim v’anshei maaseh Eter[1] authored by R’ Sholom Dov Ber the fifth Chabad Rebbe. We will then explore ideas drawn from select Chassidic discourses including the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discourse “veloh yekanef oid morecha”[2] (tof shin chof alef) which delves into the function of a physical mitzvah, namely the intrinsic unity which it reveals. We will be guided toward a practical and lasting method to fill the void in our lives.

The Void

The lazy afternoons spent on the couch aimlessly scrolling through your phone, attempting to block out the noise in your head and the to do list lurking somewhere in the back of your mind. Unfinished tasks beg for your attention, but you have no interest. You feel like a lump of matter searching for comfort. Any attempt to relieve this feeling is met with defeat. The daily grind is uninspiring, it is a flat routine that seems to have no end.

We get caught up in a paradoxically perpetuating cycle of self-absorption and detachment from ourselves. We gradually become further and further removed from feeling any sense of life. We become deplete of passion and excitement, filled instead with dullness and cynicism.

Life turns into a show of passing, drifting apparitions and we become spectators.

Whilst the world whirls around us, we remain aloof and detached.

We become critics instead of a participants and contributors.

The most basic and mundane tasks in life seem daunting. Our goals and aspirations haunt and paralyze us.

We crave an escape from our reality, an outlet, a stimulant.

Perhaps a way in which we can once again feel and experience life.

A way to re-engage on some level.

Yet re-engaging is so daunting and we lack the inspiration we once knew.

Still, we want to feel, we want to engage.

The core issue is: when we feel anxious and overwhelmed, we try escaping by disengaging. Feelings are generated by our actions. We stop doing and thereby we stop feeling. A gaping hole of emptiness begins to gore at our being.

Apathy can be a breeding ground for a multitude of negative mental and emotional states. Here will employ the profundity of Torah as illuminated by Chassidus, to recognise and heal our feelings of apathy in their infancy. [3]

  1. Traditional Approaches

Traditional Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry have formed various systems to help us overcome feelings of anxiety, to re-engage with life and break the vicious cycle of apathy and disconnection.

These are the general systems which have developed to improve our mental wellbeing, based on observing the human brain and it complexities.

Psychiatry:

(Psychiatry) sees mental illness as a cognitive expression of an unbalanced neurochemical make-up, in a mechanistic, cause and effect scheme.

Medication is employed to rebalance the brain’s chemical makeup, and thereby restoring healthy psychological functioning.

Psychology:

(Psychology) taps into a person’s mental processes by studying the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context. It analyzes our thinking patterns, and in a variety of cognitive based ways attempts to change our thinking habits.

Psychoanalysis:

(Psychoanalysis) is a system of psychological theory and therapy which aims to treat mental disorders by investigating the interactions between the conscious and subconscious elements of the mind, bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind by techniques such as dream interpretation and free association.

  1. Understanding Our Ontology: The Metaphysical Presuppositions Underlying Traditional Therapy

    17th century French philosopher René Descartes revolutionised Western thought, giving birth to modern philosophy as we know it today. Descartes was deeply dissatisfied with the philosophy of his predecessors, the Scholastics, who under the towering influence of Aristotle attempted to answer the perennial questions of human existence.

His dissatisfaction led him to believe that philosophy was in need of a fundamental reboot. He wanted new, firm foundations, certain and unshakable beliefs to build his philosophy upon, leading to the birth of Radical Doubt Theory.

As described in his First Meditations[4], he began his method by doubting literally everything, including his very own existence. What Descartes was left with, after throwing out all his faulty apples, was that there was only one thing that he couldn’t doubt- this that he was doubting – and if he was doubting then there must be someone who was doing the doubting. He summarised this in his famous Latin aphorism: “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”.

Descartes did a favour to Western philosophy by granting it a radically rational and firm foundation, without the need to make constant appeal to the authority of the ancients (namely Plato and Aristotle). However, along with pioneering this new era, Descartes bequeathed modern philosophy with a 200 year enduring issue, the infamous mind-body problem. Essentially; how do the mind and body interact? Now that we’ve secured the existence of the mind (“cogito”) how do we affirm the existence of the body, and even if we can assume the existence of the body, how does mind, which is fundamentally intangible, relate to the body which is fundamentally physical and corporeal?

This philosophical position is known as Cartesian Dualism.

Dualism posits a rigid distinction between the realms of mind/spirit and body/matter.

It is this dualistic conception of reality which grounds the aforementioned therapeutic approaches.[5] The divide between the mind and body, spirit and matter was bridged mechanistically and hydraulically. Observing that alternations and treatments applied to the physical/chemical structure of the brain and body had the capacity to somehow affect one’s conscious experience led to the assurance that the human mind was an emergent property of physical/chemical phenomenon, and therefore if one wanted to change the human mind, all one had to do was alter its neurochemical balance. The causal chain ran predictably and invariably in that direction, from matter to mind.

The alternative metaphysical position to Dualism is Monism, which posits one unifying reality and substance beneath all phenomena, psychical, mental and spiritual. It is this philosophical position which is opined by Chassidus, which we will next explore. We will see how this philosophical foundation leads to a radically different approach to psychotherapy.

  1. The Chassidic Metaphysics

Judaism teaches that there is body and soul, matter and spirit, with a clear hierarchy and interdependency between the two. Chassidus presents multiple conceptual paradigms to perceive this relationship.

The first position states that spirit is the only true reality and existence, matter is merely transient. Our role is to value soul over body and spirit over matter. With practise we become sensitive and elevate our perception to desire only the soul and the spiritual, the lasting and true existence of all of creation.[6]

Secondly we have the messianic perspective of Chassidus: On a deeper level of truth, it is the body which gives energy to the soul[7][8]. It is our physical world which gives ultimate meaning to the higher realms of existence.[9] This idea is fully expressed in the messianic era.

The third and final radical destination of Chassidic Metaphysics is Monism. It is a state in which all binaries and dichotomies disintegrate in the presence of G-d’s oneness.[10] There is no duality between body and soul, mind and spirit. Matter is simply a condensation of spirit, just as rain is merely a condensation of air, matter is a form of energy, purely two parts of the same process.[11] There exists no opposition, only a state of harmony and unity.

  1. Chassidic Psychology Applied: From Chassidic Metaphysics to Psychotherapy/Psychology

This Monistic philosophy lays the foundations to heal the ailments of the mind, and feelings of emptiness.

When bifurcation lies at the bedrock of one’s thinking, the spirit and body, G-d and His world, G-d and mankind all appear to exist in isolation. This leads one to perceive oneself as a separate existence from the Divine. One then attempts to sustain this false and fragmented sense of self, perpetuating ones existence into an aimless cycle of void and numbness.

The cure to becoming re-engaged, is simply to engage with our true selves.[12]

Our true identity is brought to life through performing a mitzvah. When our being is imbued with the Divine Will – a mitzvah, we reveal the intrinsic and absolute unity between G-d, Mitzvos, Torah, and ourselves.[13] By performing a mitzvah, we are re-engaged with our ultimate self.

We have found alignment and discovered the mechanism to satisfy our yearning. We are aware of our true identity which is oneness with the G-d.

  1. Parallels with Modern Psychology/CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, developed by Aaron Temkin Beck (1963) is centred on the relationship between cognition and behavior, in which cognitive process can influence behavior, and behavioural change can influence cognition[14]

As we have explored, these insights are preempted by Chassidus. However these concepts are not an approach in Judaism, rather hardwired into its very fabric.

Our Sages teach us a profound psychological insight “‏אחר המעשים ‏נמשכים הלבבות” lit. The hearts are drawn after the actions, a person’s heart and thoughts follow one’s actions. [15] Chassidus interprets this insight on a deeper level. Its not simply because there is an open channel of influence, that our actions have the power to change our mental and emotional state, rather excavate beneath that channel, and find an uninterrupted unity between our actions and our emotions, our body and soul. Positive actions will spiral into further positive action. With every action that is in line with our true selves – our G-dly selves, we uncover our identity. Our entire being becomes infused with oneness and purpose.[16]

  1. Bechira Chofshis (Free Choice)[17]: The Ultimate Cure To Apathy

Autonomy and free choice are G-dly functions. By exercising our free choice, despite the fact that we are finite human beings, we are expressing our fundamental unity with the Divine, the Infinite.[18]

Our life is a series of moments in which we are presented with the luxury of choice. The ability to make conscious decisions that control the direction of our thoughts and behaviors. The awareness of our own capacity to self govern empowers us to feel that change is possible.

The mind, body and soul are interlinked, physical and spiritual are one. Therefore a positive choice, a spiritual act namely engagement with our true selves, generates an automatic infusion of vitality into every fibre of our physical being. This serves as evidence of the synergy between mind and body, spirit and matter.

A moment of bechira is a moment of divine power to break the negative cycle. Emerge from the thick haze of dreariness, seize the moment, carpe diem, grab the reins and feel the wind again.

  1. The Rebbe’s call to action

A young woman once came to the Lubavitch World Headquarters “770”. Like hundreds and thousands of individuals before her, she was here to seek the Rebbe’s guidance. In a private audience with the Rebbe the woman broke down in tears, her mind was constantly filled with troubling thoughts, she felt downtrodden and trapped in a constant state of negativity. With immense wisdom and compassion, the Rebbe provided her with a simple yet deeply profound solution. The Rebbe directed her to “do positive actions and you will become positive”.

Now it’s your turn, change this moment and it will change you. If you’re feeling apathetic, disengaged, self absorbed and devoid of passion, then latch onto a mitzvah, grab hold of the infinite, and allow it to pull you into your true self.

The beauty of truth is its simplistic nature. At times the truth seems too obvious to notice, too quiet to seem significant. Listen closely and it will open your heart. All it really takes is one deed, one seed. Perceive the choice to do a single positive action as the ultimate sense of empowerment. It’s not a far-away dream or unreachable goal, it’s one choice in this moment. Soon enough your entire being will be entangled in a spiral of goodness[19]. Each action is a candle that will illuminate your life with unity, clarity, purpose and feeling.

Act now, so simple yet so profound.


[1] Lit. Pious men and men of action

[2] Lit. And your teacher will no longer cloak himself

[3] Please note, this essay is merely an observation. Seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder.

[4]Descartes, René, 1596- 1650. Discourse on method; and, Meditations on first philosophy. Indianapolis :Hackett pub. Co., 1993

[5] Particularly in the cases of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Psychology’s philosophical underpinnings are slightly more difficult to pinpoint because of its non-monolithic nature.

[6] Rebbe Shneur Zalman. Likutei Amarim Tanya, Sefer Shel Benonim; Chapter 32

[7] The Rebbe, As explained at the end of the mamer (ויאמר ליהונתן” (תשכ ח”

[8]it is malchus (lit. sovereignty – the last of the seven Divine emotive middos, or attributes) which gives purpose and substance to z’a (zair anpin, lit. short faces – the six preceding attributes).

[9]שיחה כח סיון תשנ״א

[10] לקוטי שיחות חלק טו פרשת נח

[11]Rebbe Rashab, Hemshech Eter- Chassidim v’anshei maaseh Eter

[12] Mamer Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha( tof shin beis)

[13] Araissa v’Yisrael v’Kudsha Brich Hu chad huThe Torah and Yisrael and Hashem are all one (Zohar, Acharei Mos) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Chapter 5

[14] Dobson and Block 1988

[15] Ahron Halevi of Barcelona, Sefer Hachinuch: 16

[16] The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chassidic discourse, Velo yekonef oid morecha (tof shin chof aleph)

[17] Maimonides states “a fundamental principle [of the Jewish faith] and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments”-the concept that man possesses the capacity to freely choose his path through life.

[18] ליקוטי שיחות חלק י״ט פרשת ניצבים

[19] habitude becomes nature – hergal na’aseh teva

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya Chapter 14