The Apathy of Civilized People

“As we sat by the camp-fire the brightness of the sky brought on a long talk with the Indians about the stars; and their eager, childlike attention was refreshing to see as compared with the decent, deathlike apathy of weary civilized people, in whom natural curiosity has been quenched in toil and care and poor shallow comfort.”[1]   John Muir

I have been mulling over this passage from John Muir in the couple of weeks since I read “Discovery of Glacier Bay.” My initial impression was that Muir was correct about civilized people. We lack a “natural curiosity” because we are simply too comfortable on our couch or at our desk.

However, Muir himself was once civilized. He grew up in Wisconsin and went to college. How exactly did the civilized Muir become curious in the first place? How did I ever grow curious having been raised in a civilized environment? I think we are all curious about something. The adventurous among us act on our curiosity and go explore.

I believe the apathy of weary civilized people is born when the urge to act on curiosity is squelched by comfort (or fear). I often worry about my finances when contemplating a new adventure. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but often I stop scheming before I look for cheaper alternatives. I like to take my son on hikes, but sometimes, I simply do not feel like packing up my toddler for a father/son hike. It is too much trouble.

If I let those feelings conquer me every time I had the urge to explore something new, then I do believe that apathy would set in. The fight against apathy is like climbing uphill with a heavy pack. You grin and bear it. You go slowly if needed, but you make forward progress up the hill. For example, I plan to go camping and fishing tomorrow, but I am fighting laziness in preparing for it. I desparately want to go, but I must trudge through the early stages.

However, I am only fighting the encroaching apathy because I am aware that it is there. How many of us simply do not recognize that we have slipped into apathy? Once curious, you now simply retire to your couch and TV out of habit; content with your sedentary lifestyle and general lack of purpose. Your curiosity was lost because you did not cultivate it.

I do not harbor grand delusions that I could live a life like Muir’s. I do not think that one needs to in order to avoid the deathlike apathy he describes. Many of my interests and curiosities coincide with Muir’s, but I do not think that I need to retreat to the high mountains and live a hermit’s existence to avoid apathy. However, I must not give in to comfort and/or fear and occasionally walk out of my comfortable house to indulge my curiosity or a part of me will die inside.

I believe that we are all curious about something. If it is art, then get up and go to a museum or gallery. If it is music, then learn to play an instrument or go see a concert. If you like working on cars, then buy a cheap fixer upper and try to restore it. I am preaching to myself here, and the point is that we should strive to indulge our curiosity, whatever it may be. I believe that the apathy Muir describes is real; however, I do not think that we have to live a life in the wilderness to avoid it. We simply need to feed the inborn curiosity that we all feel.

[1] John Muir, “Discovery of Glacier Bay”, in Wilderness Essays (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2015), 23.

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