Cultivate Indifference

I know, it’s the holiday season, and you may have expected a blog post on gratitude, love, forgiveness, generosity or some other altruistic virtue. Which is precisely why I chose the timing. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be kind, accommodating, and loving — especially during the holidays. But in the bootcamp of love, I’ve learned a very hard lesson: real love cannot happen without equal measure of indifference.

In 1961 Joan Didion’s seminal essay ‘Self Respect: Its Source, Its Power’ graced the pages of Vogue magazine. She describes self respect as a discipline, ‘a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth’ unconditional upon failure or success. Then she turns the conversation slightly a few degrees, and aims it right to the heart, ‘To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.’

With self-respect emerges the imperative to be indifferent…an altogether under-celebrated capacity of the heart, and one that is essential to the authentic expression of fierce love and compassion. Indifference allows us to be liberated from our need to please, to be liked, to be a hero. It liberates others from our manipulation, fear and cowardice.

The Buddhist counterpart would be nonattachment. People talk about being ‘unattached’. But that word never really hit home to my inner Frieda Lawrence to D.H. She was too convinced that pleasing was some kind of Medal of Honor, validating her place in the world, evidence of her generosity and kindness. And besides, the spiritual overlay kept the concept inside some kind of theoretical, heady domain. Oh yes, I’m so unattached. Like it could be proudly claimed somehow, whilst sporting ochre robes and beads, with a pat on the head from the Dalai Lama himself.


Indifference is an altogether grittier word. It hangs out in the bone marrow of existence. It’s not something to be claimed but rather quietly, humbly understood. When I first read it in Didiot’s essay, my Frieda couldn’t argue.

Cloaked in adjectives such as coldcool, hostile and heartless, indifference remains an untapped and greatly misunderstood resource, especially to those who need it most…the sensitives, the pleasers, the overwhelmed among (and within) us. So allow me to lift that veil a little, and reveal its true face.

Indifference is spaciousness – for yourself and for others. It is freedom. It is clean. It allows others to truly be themselves, and live inside the dignity of their (and your) own choices and consequences. It wards away victimhood and martyrdom. It helps you to sleep at night. It extinguishes panic. It banishes anxiety.

When indifference is allowed to settle inside your being and take it’s rightful place next to authentic kindness, honest care and love, it ignites an alchemy forging the foundation of self respect, or as Didiot writes, ‘character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues’.

So, for this holiday season, I want to place a little something under your tree, wedge a small trinket in your stocking. For this holiday season I wish for you the permission to be indifferent.

You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.

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