Understanding indifferent people

How can some people be nonchalant and indifferent ? They appear to be cool and can easily shrug off most things, behaviors of people and so on. Is this being wise? Or are they setting themselves up for misery?

Let us begin by understanding the birth of indifference. Babies and little children are typically not indifferent. They respond to external stimuli. They reciprocate a smile and get startled at a frown. They are sensitive. Sensitivity simply means, that one can register the impacts of the external environment in one’s internal state of being. Sensitivity is crucial to survive. It enables all species to better adapt to the environment by quickly making changes in themselves. Think of sensitivity as a sort of an advanced sensor mechanism.

Indifference begins, when sensitivity has caused consistent and intolerable pain. Think of a child that grows up listening to a nagging mother or parents that constantly yell at each other. Initially, the child begins to react to the unpleasant situation at home. She may cry or retreat into her room. But if this persists, the child needs to build up an inner emotional wall to protect itself from a continued unpleasant atmosphere. This is the birth of the emotional wall. It is a protection against pain. The person grows up with a “shrug it off” attitude. Some become overly sarcastic (again a defense mechanism). Some become escapists – always abandoning ship when the going gets tough. Others simply shut down in a grim silence. Some others develop a false cheerful countenance. Whatever the mechanism, the essential fact remains the same. This person is running away from pain.

You may ask, Isn’t this better than having an emotional breakdown? Yes. But the wall comes at a cost. When we destroy sensitivity, we not only block out painful things in us, but we also block out the beautiful things. It takes great sensitivity to appreciate a beautiful sunset or a mountaintop. It requires great perception to appreciate a beautiful painting. Gangsters who are involved in violent and often dehumanizing activities can never appreciate beauty. Their minds are far too desensitized. Closer to home, we see so many of our uncles, aunts, friends or colleagues who appear to be overly practical. They are known to “just get the job done”. “Stoic like” or “Army Men” or worse “Strong”. These people are very functional. But in most cases, they just cannot appreciate the softer parts of life.

Such an existence results in a great inner vacuum. One feels perfectly functional. One may have wealth, position, power and appreciation. But one feels empty within. We have severed the link between what makes us human – great sensitivity. This is akin to tasting a very fine wine, without having the taste buds to enjoy the flavour. It’s an empty life.

The other downside of such indifference is an inability to pick up on social cues. Man is a social animal and while we may have moved away from tribes and large families, our social lives have gotten far more complex and diverse. Today we have the possibility of being in touch with hundreds, if not thousands of people. Our workplaces are getting far more complex, diverse and multi ethnic. We need much more collaboration to get our work done. In such a complex interconnected human world, reading subtle emotions such as change in voice tone, shift in body language and gestures become paramount. Understanding what the supplier did not say, makes you guess if you need a backup. This emotional intelligence also comes in handy while handling diverse teams. While people are different in terms of color, sex, preferences, language and so on – at the emotional level, people are fairly constant. Everybody experiences the same anxiety. There isn’t a hispanic anxiety and an Indian one. This universality of human emotions, is an important unifying factor for a good leader. She empathizes with you, because she feels those emotions herself and knows how tough it can be.

Reading social cues, depends on how deeply acquainted you are to your own emotions. When you badly want to decline the offer, yet still have to say yes, can you sense that energy block just behind the mouth? Do you notice how the energy shifts within yourself when you have to lie? When you can perceive this in yourself, picking such cues in others become extremely easy. To others you seem magician like – in reading minds. This is a critical social skill to possess in today’s world.

People with walls, fail to understand these subtle contexts. And this confuses them. Always feeling left out. Busy and social – but terribly isolated. Not able to connect to anyone deeply on the emotional level, because they themselves do not open up. Such people may have shut out pain. But they have also shut out everything beautiful in life.

What to do? Can we be sensitive and also avoid pain?

The short answer: No.

We need to accept pain as a part of life. We need to befriend it. When we come close to pain. When we sit with it. When we truly, deeply accept it. We come to realize that it is not so bad after all. It’s just an emotion. And we can face it. There is no need to desensitize oneself from feeling this emotion. Yes, our childhood might have been terrible. But that in in the past. We need to begin integrating the pain of the past into the present. To realize that the past is past – and now, I am a fresh, new soul. This time healing must happen in order to move on.

If we can sit down with ourselves and bring the emotions close to us, over time we gain the ability to allow the emotions to ‘simply be’. I have written extensively on how to do this is several of the previous posts. Once we gain this precious perspective – we become truly open and free. Yes, we feel the pangs of a loss, but we also become open to the tenderness of beauty, love and truth. And this is the beginning of a meaningful life.

Amaryllis. Bangalore. 2021.

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