Emily Articulated: Political apathy and the old sugar maple tree

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Do you remember the first thing you really cared about? Not the thing you sort-of cared about, like securing the pink Starbursts from the grubby clutches of your siblings, or protecting the swing next to yours on the playground for only your best of friends (because being in swing-proximity with a near-stranger was an absolute travesty). Not the act of saving all the marshmallows for the end of your Lucky Charms cereal bowl like the little investment protege you were, or even picking out the perfect lunch box with your favorite Ninja Turtle on the front (Donatello, obviously). No. Do you remember the thing that kept you up at night; the first thing to spark fiery passion inside of you?

Emily Erickson.

For me, it was the big tree in my childhood backyard. It was an old sugar maple, with a thick, knotted trunk, tall branches, and foliage that would turn vibrantly red and orange in the fall. If I stretched my arms as high as they’d go, my fingers could just barely grab the tree’s lowest limbs, and with a swift hop, I’d be happily swinging from the branches in my rural Wisconsin rendition of the Jungle Book. The tree provided shade, solace, and the most fantastic pile of fallen leaves, primed for jumping in crisp, autumn air.

Under a gibbous moon in the summer before my ninth birthday, my dad’s woodshop, which was nestled between the house and our backyard, caught fire. The flames quickly engulfed the building, starting with low crackles and eventually licking their way along the sawdust-ridden floor to the partially filled buckets of varnish at the back of the space.

After the fire subsided, when the engines drove away and the embers turned from red to black, we approached the charred pile of boards and broken tools that bore little resemblance to the building they comprised mere hours before. 

With the sour smell of campfire and chemicals hanging in my nostrils, I skirted around the ashes and turned to inspect my favorite tree. It had been only a few feet from the burning building, and although still standing, was charred from the base of its right side to its highest, now leafless, branches.

After a formal inspection, the tree was deemed unsavable. Standing in the door frame, I watched as each limb was removed from the old sugar maple. I thought about all the times I’d hung from those branches, now being loaded, lifeless, into the back of a truck bed, and felt a different kind of fire build inside my belly. Tears welled in my eyes, blurring the images of the final chunks of plummeting tree trunk, and I struggled to decipher the emotions I was feeling. They were anger and sadness, mixed with helplessness and a bursting sensation of wanting to make it stop. I cared about the old tree, and was feeling passion for its well being.

Passion, like the kind I felt for my favorite tree, is the force that drives action. It’s the version that’s often fueled by emotion and empathy, and is one of the fundamental elements of being human. Apathy, on the other hand, is a mechanism either strategically adopted or inherently psychological, in which we remove ourselves from the opportunity to feel passionately.

As the United States encroaches on the state of highest political polarization since the Civil War, many people, especially young people, are at risk of adopting political apathy as a way to cope with the fact that, even if they care about something deeply, fewer and fewer options to effect actual change on those things feel viable. So instead of allowing ourselves to experience passion with the potential for exacting the opposite of our intended outcomes, we protect ourselves through political disengagement.

More simply, if we don’t allow ourselves to care, or busy ourselves with things that don’t matter quite so much because it feels like we can’t effect change, then when the things about which we could have cared don’t work out, it doesn’t hurt as badly.

The trouble is, if everyone adopts political apathy, then the systems we have in place to represent the values of the citizens become obsolete.

Instead of getting bogged down by and consequently apathetic toward macropolitics that can feel wildly out of our control, we should seek more opportunities in our communities and our everyday lives that ignite the fires of our passions. We should allow ourselves to tap into the childlike rawness of emotion and drive at the local level and become active participants in the systems shaping our worlds. Because everyone engaging, even in small ways, inevitably lends itself to large-scale change.

So, let’s grab a ballot, find somewhere to volunteer, read the newspaper and maybe even find an old tree to swing from, all in the pursuit of inspiration and passion. I’ll save a branch for you.

Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.

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