Care about Stuff

It’s time to put apathy to bed.

By Head of School Tim Richards


At Opening School Chapel, the entire school community came together for the first time in almost eighteen months. About two-thirds of the student body and almost twenty faculty members had never experienced a full in-person chapel. At the end of the talk, everyone left inspired to make a difference and care deeply.

 

Did you know that one million water bottles are purchased every minute of every day across the world? That’s about one and a half billion bottles per day or almost 500 billion bottles per year. About 90 percent of these bottles are not recycled, and some will take 1000 years to biodegrade in landfills. One thousand years. According to Global Citizen, single-use water bottles contribute to the killing of more than one million animals and seabirds every year, and nearly 700 species of marine life are facing extinction due to the increase of plastic pollution. This is pretty sobering.

But this is likely not news to you. And yet this particular problem is getting worse. If things don’t change, some scientists believe that by the year 2050 — just twenty-nine years from now — there will be more plastic in the world's oceans than fish, at least by volume.

I have been vaguely aware of the problems caused by plastic water bottles for some time. And yet for years, even with this awareness, I still grabbed plastic bottles of water without a second thought. I have supported student initiatives to install new water stations on campus, but my effort to help chip away at this global environmental threat could best be described as apathetic. 

Both the scale of this threat and my apathy toward it trouble me. I now happily and proudly use a swell Swell bottle that Mrs. Richards gave me as a gift, but that hasn’t exactly eliminated the problem. 

The plastic water bottle issue is but one example of countless crises our world faces every day. Consider just a few other issues that demand our attention:

  • There are approximately 168 million child laborers in the world engaged in forced labor
  • 690 million people go to bed hungry every night
  • About 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water — which may help explain the glut of water bottles

But you don’t have to look globally to find significant problems that need addressing. Here in Connecticut:

  • About 3,000 people are homeless
  • Over 400,000 are food insecure, including 15 percent of children in Windham County — which is where Pomfret is
  • Women in this state still make only 78 cents on the dollar compared to men
  • Babies born to Black mothers in Connecticut are more than four times as likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to white mothers

Some of those problems are literally a world away and are therefore perhaps out of sight, out of mind. Others are in our own backyard, yet may simply not be visible to us as we hustle through our daily lives. And who can blame us for not taking on these or other urgent matters? Beginning tomorrow, you students will be taking classes; playing on athletic teams; performing on the stage; leading QUEST sessions; and serving as prefects, deans' assistants, and Key Heads. You have SATs to prepare for, homework to do, college essays to write, and oh, by the way, we think it’s really important for you to give your bodies and brains a break from time to time. Committing to taking action to address other problems requires squeezing one more thing into our already busy lives.

I go through much of my own life aware of, yet still mostly disengaged from, these threats. And — perhaps presumptuously — I sense that this may be true for many of us in this Chapel tonight. 

And this worries me. Because what if nobody cared enough to do something about these issues? What if everyone were either too busy or indifferent to the problems that threaten the world and that also surround us on a daily basis? 

Eminent anthropologist Jane Goodall once said, “The greatest threat to our future is apathy.”
 


“The greatest threat to our future is apathy.”

Jane Goodall, eminent anthropologist



Many problems in our world — and even in our communities and on this campus — persist because not enough people care enough to do something about them. There are, of course, often complex political, economic, religious, and social reasons why this is the case, but it is too often widespread apathy that allows these problems to persist and to grow.

As I mentioned just a moment ago, the list of problems that demand action — that require a conscious move away from apathy — is really long. And no single person — no politician on the biggest global stage, no billionaire philanthropist — has the power to fix even one of these major issues alone. So perhaps some of our apathy can be explained in part by the belief that if really powerful people can’t make a serious impact, if entire governments can’t effect change, why should we even bother trying?

We should bother trying, we should care, because individuals caring about things matters. Because apathy feeds the problems we are facing, whether they are global or local. I want to acknowledge that I know many of you do act, that you are engaged in the work of solving problems and making positive changes. But one of my hopes for this year is that all Pomfret students will get involved, will care enough to act. And there are certainly good role models out there.

Malala Yousafzai was only 11 when she took up her activism, seeking educational equity for girls and women. What started small became something global, and at the age of just 17 — the same age as many of you sitting in this Chapel tonight — she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. 

Greta Thunberg was just 16 when she was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year — the youngest ever recipient of that prestigious award. Just 18 now, she has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times for her outspoken challenge to global leaders to address climate change.

Jazz Jennings was interviewed on national TV by the great Barbara Walters about her personal experience as a transgender person when she was only six years old. She has since become a national LGBTQ advocate and founded the Purple Rainbow Foundation to spread awareness for transgender children and teenagers.

These extraordinary young people all subscribe to English Theologian John Stott’s assertion that “Apathy is the acceptance of the unacceptable.”
 


“Apathy is the acceptance of the unacceptable.”

— John Stott, English theologian 



They reject the idea that any problem is too big to fix. And because of their passion and engagement, real and lasting change is happening.

But you don’t have to be Malala or Greta or Jazz to make a profound and meaningful difference in the world; nobody is expecting a Nobel Peace Prize — or even a nomination — from any of you. There are plenty of excellent role models to learn from in our own community — students and faculty alike — people who work to make Pomfret School better every day.

What your teachers, coaches, advisors, and I are expecting is that you won’t be apathetic, that you will choose to make a constructive difference this year, if not on a global scale, then certainly in this community.

Our vision for you students is to become the next generation of changemakers and problem solvers. And rejecting apathy is how change begins, how problems both large and small get solved. In short, we need you to make yourselves heard, to care, and to make a difference. 

And by the way, caring about stuff — not being apathetic — is cool. Though I could not find a reliable attribution, I found this quote from street artist and activist Banksy’s Twitter feed that speaks to what I am hoping for you all. The tweet read, “Our generation thinks it’s cool not to care. It’s not. Effort is cool. Caring is cool. Staying loyal is cool. Try it out.”
 


“Our generation thinks it’s cool not to care. It’s not.
Effort is cool. Caring is cool. Staying loyal is cool. Try it out.”

Banksy, street artist and activist



If you try out caring, others will surely follow, and that infectious spirit can be powerful. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is famous for saying, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

You don’t have to care about everything. You don’t have the time or energy to do it all. And don’t worry if what you care about isn’t the same as what your best friend or roommate cares about; your passions and theirs may not align, and that’s okay. But I’m asking you to care about something. You need to want to make a positive difference somehow. Even if it’s a small difference. 

Jane Goodall’s words resonate here again. She said, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."

So what difference do you want to make this year? Whether you are new to Pomfret or back for your fourth year on the Hilltop, I want to think about at least one way in which you want to contribute to constructive change this year. What problems do you want to solve to make this School a better place? How might you let apathy give way to action?

  • Will you wear your school spirit on your sleeve, or will you be “too cool for school,” like I was at your age?
  • Will you help reduce massive food waste in our dining hall?
  • Will you pick up trash around campus, even when it’s not yours?
  • Will you clear your table in the Main House after meals so somebody else doesn’t have to? 
  • Will you actually attend meetings of those clubs you sign up for?
  • Will you get over your fear of a tiny little needle stick and give blood, if you are able?

Even these small things demand that we care enough to take action. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide what other improvements on this campus are simply waiting for you to take charge. But the lazy days of summer are now officially over and, starting tomorrow, it’s time to put apathy to bed. It’s time to care, and care deeply.

I want to wish you all a safe and healthy school year full of joy, laughter, growth . . . and caring. As we set off on this new year for us all, I hope that you share my excitement for what lies ahead. 

And I hope each and every one of you has your own personal water bottle ready and waiting.


 

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