Fatalism and Indifference to Your Self

How do some people reach a point of not caring about themselves?

Posted Nov 26, 2018

Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

Have you ever met a person who, in the face of a bad event, has a weary resignation and usually says something along the lines of, "This was bound to happen"? Sometimes he might claim, “There’s nothing I could do about it.” The person may make an even broader claim, “There’s nothing anyone could have done.” This person is a fatalist, someone who is resigned in the face of events taken to be inevitable.

Acceptance and resignation are often mistaken for each other. Acceptance involves activity and agency. For example, I accept the fact that I may not get the job for which I apply. My acceptance, however, is active. I make sure I prepare fully by studying the department’s curriculum, creating an interesting teaching demonstration, and giving an engaging job talk. Acceptance requires that I act in ways that are responsive to a changing reality, and that I do so with the recognition that my actions will not guarantee the outcome. I cannot control external factors (better candidates, budget constraints, etc.), but I can control my attitude. This, too, involves choice. By acting in deliberate and responsive ways to my reality, I may change some of my reality. I am exercising my agency when I make choices, act on them, and manage my attitude.

The hallmark of resignation is putting a care or concern down. In its benign form, resignation involves a change in attitude toward something without any loss of agency. In its more troubling form, resignation involves surrendering agency. I am resigned to the fact that I will never play tennis professionally or travel to Antarctica. These two things are well beyond my control; nothing I could do in the normal course of events would make a difference. Resignation is appropriate when I clearly grasp what is in my control and for what I am responsible — and what I am not. I have changed my attitude toward these two things; I no longer care about them in the same way I did when I was younger. My experience reflects an important claim of Epictetus, a philosopher who was born a slave in 50 A.C.E. He said,

     "Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices..."

When I recognize that distinction and live in accordance with it, I may experience resignation about some particular things in my life, but I still very much see myself as having choices and shaping some of my reality. I remain active in what I do and feel.

Resignation becomes troubling when it results from a lack of clarity about what is in our control and what is not. When we lose sight of what is up to us, we tend to assume we have no choices and little to no control over what happens. Continuing the example above, if I applied for the job when I had a burst of optimism, but then become resigned to my not getting it, I might not prepare for the interview to the best of my ability. Even if I did get an interview, my resignation would seep through and probably be apparent to members of the department. I may tell myself that no matter what I do, I won’t get the job. I shrink my realm of choice and become more passive. Put another way, choice seems illusory to me, because I believe no matter what I do, the outcome is inevitable. This is fatalism.

We humans tend to take greater care for and place more value on matters where our actions make a contribution. In the absence of contribution, why bother and why care? This is where indifference enters the frame. A person is indifferent to her own self when she has a complete lack of interest and concern about herself. Indifference to self is a consequence of fatalistic resignation. Indifference to self is a process that may move slowly at first, but then rapidly accelerate. It does not have an immediate onset unless something truly catastrophic happens, such as an existential concussion. How might a person start to recognize this in her own self or in others? It is often easier to recognize a trait or worldview in another than it is to see it in yourself. And there may even be a paradox here: One needs to care at least a bit about not caring for her own self.

William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) recognizes some people have sunk so low and nearly fallen out of regular human traffic that they need help or even rescue. James says the first thing that must happen is “making them feel some decent human being cares enough for them to take an interest in the question whether they are to rise or sink.” A person who is indifferent to herself no longer cares whether she rises or sinks. Such a person cannot generate the care for herself and instead needs to draw some energy and concern from someone else. I describe this as the moral equivalent of a jump start. Each of us may provide that jump start for someone else and not even know it. In other cases, it will be more obvious.

If reaching indifference to oneself is a process, so too is reaching states of non-total misery, some happiness, and tranquility. Starting to have a tiny shard of concern for your own self — even if you are borrowing it from someone else — will be a significant achievement. In feeling that concern, a person exercises her agency, which may change her attitude toward herself. 


Epictetus. Enchiridion. Available online: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

James, William. 2012. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.