Mar 19 2021

What I Mean When I Say I’m Indifferent

I no longer subscribe to many daily email newsletters, but I’ve kept a few. My favorite to wake up to is Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.

Today’s headline was It’s Possible to Tune These Things Out but it linked to an older post titled The True Power Behind Stoic “Indifference”.

At morning coffee a while ago, Amy and I had a long conversation about the phrase “I don’t care.” I struggled to explain what I was trying to say and how it was often misunderstood when I said it. Through her reaction and feedback, she helped me better understand what people heard when I said “I don’t care.”

I tried shifting to the phrase “I’m indifferent” instead of “I don’t care.” I continued to feel that I was being misunderstood when I said this. I’d often provide strengths and weaknesses of each option presented but then end with “I’m indifferent.” I knew that this was confusing to some, but I didn’t know why until I read The True Power Behind Stoic “Indifference”.

Of all the loaded words in Stoic philosophy, “indifferent” is one of the most provocative. Marcus AureliusSeneca, and Epictetus each tell us that the Stoic is indifferent to external things, indifferent to wealth, indifferent to pain, indifferent to winning, indifferent to hope and dreams and everything else. You hear it enough times and it starts to sound like these people don’t care about anything. Especially since the modern definition of the word means precisely that. But this is a dangerous misreading.

Recently, I got feedback from several people that I was profoundly unhelpful in a particular situation by saying, “I’m indifferent.” I thought about it on a run, which is unusual for me as I rarely focus on one thing during a run but prefer to let my brain go all over the place. In this particular situation, my brain seemed to lock down on the dissonance around this phrase.

The situation in question had two paths: A and B. I had a modest preference for A, but I was good with either A and B. I had explained this, but when asked which I preferred, I said, “I’m indifferent.”

After my run, I explained this more clearly, reiterating that I had a modest preference for A but was good with either A or B. Instead of “indifference,” I stated that I was “tranquil.” After even more reflection, I think a better concept would have been “equanimity.”

Back to the The True Power Behind Stoic “Indifference”.

The Stoics were not indifferent in that sense at all, it’s that they were good either way. It’s not that they didn’t care, it’s that they were good either way. Does that make sense? The point was to be strong enough that there wasn’t a need to need things to go in a particular direction. Seneca for his part would say that obviously it’s better to be rich than poor, tall than short, but the Stoic was indifferent when fate actually dealt out its hand on the matter. Because the Stoic was strong enough to make good of it—whatever it was.

Boom. After reading this, I got the disconnect people were having, which was reinforced by the contemporary view of equating “I’m indifferent” to “I don’t care,” which is very different from “I’m good either way.”

Think of that today, that it’s not about apathy or even a lack of expectation. It’s simply the quiet strength of not needing a preference, because you’re that strong.

Ryan – thanks again for helping me understand myself a little better.