A Strange Indifference

andrew E. Barniskis is an aerospace engineer and consultant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

An unusual thing happened to me one night several months ago. I had worked late in my home office, and my wife had fallen asleep with the bedroom television on. As I prepared for bed, a late-night talk-show was being broadcast.

The talk-show guest was a well-known consumer advocate, who was crowing about his success at having a certain controversial but otherwise harmless product outlawed in many cities and tightly regulated in a few states. I watched for a few minutes with no particular interest, and then it struck me how strange that was—that I had no particular interest.

My “arguments with the television” are somewhat of a family joke. Indeed, it had been unusual for me to get through a newscast without becoming livid over the course of local and national events. Yet there I was, listening to a recital of how one more freedom of choice was being eliminated, and I really didn’t care. That startled me.

It wasn’t fatigue. I’m a night person, and usually have to force myself to bed. It wasn’t preoccupation. I had completed the task I had been working on, and felt satisfied with my accomplishment. Perhaps, i thought, I had been emotionally drained by recent months, and the increasing attacks on our liberties.

I had been angered at having to obtain a Social Security number for my ten-year-old son. I was depressed by calls for tighter regulation of financial markets. I was frightened by the efforts to increase my already oppressive tax load, and calls for the creation of vast new bureaucracies. And, nearly every day, I was shocked by the indifference of my neighbors to the tightening controls on their lives. As I turned off the TV it seemed the topic being discussed was trivial compared to some things—yet I couldn’t stop wondering at my own apathy.

As I lay in the dark, an odd, out-of-place memory came to mind. I recalled the two years I had lived in Europe. It occurred to me that I could remember almost nothing of the events that had gone on around me at the time. The reason for this was fairly obvious. While I had been in Europe, I had not been of Europe. To me, “the world” had been America, several thousand miles away. I had felt as removed from the culture around me as I would have been were I observing a tribe of aborigines. European affairs had aroused not the slightest emotion in me.

My mind went off on other strange tangents. I thought of my grandfather, who had come to America at the turn of the century, leaving a comparatively prosperous life in Europe to live in a strange land where he couldn’t speak the language, and had to work as a common laborer. Despite stories of oppression by the czar’s armies, it was never clear to me why he had thrown up his hands and given up on his native country, when thousands of others, including his own brother, chose to remain. When and why had the idea to leave first played across his mind, and what was he feeling when the idea became a decision?

My thoughts turned to John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the desperate flight of the Okies from the dust bowl of the Midwest to seek work in California. Several times in the book Steinbeck wrote that, when the migrant men got mad, their women felt relieved, because they knew that men who still could get mad, and shout, and curse had not reached a breaking point.

I wondered—was my current, momentary apathy a passing mood, or was it a symptom that, in my heart, I was giving up on America? Did I now feel as alienated from my neighbors as I once had from the Germans who had bus-fled about me on the streets of Frankfurt? I had daydreamed about expanding my business to some emerging country, but had passed the idea off as merely a mid-life adventure fantasy—was I actually repeating a thought process that had brought my grandfather to abandon his roots, ninety years before?

As I drifted off to sleep, I reflected that men will get mad, and shout, and curse—even at television sets—when they see hope being stolen from them. It’s when they think that all hope for the future is gone that they fall silent, and no one can be sure what they’ll do then.