Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic Era and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is. In German philosophy it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz“
Back in late May/early June, I kept telling myself that I just had to get to the end of the school year, and I would be OK. I imagined that when I could get some relief from 2-hour Zoom meetings in which much was said but little done, tasks that seemed to produce offspring tasks at the same rate with which rabbits are known to procreate, and whole days in which my butt left my kitchen chair only to feed or pee my geriatric dogs, I would start to feel better, in spite of everything.
Yeah, that’s not really how it’s gone.
The day before the last official day of work, my state’s Department of Education released their initial set of guidelines for conducting school next year, and all of us Oregon educators (or at least the ones I know) pretty much lost our collective shit. Because we know–We. Know.–how it’s all going to go down and who it’s going to land on. Increasing demands and decreasing resources have been the rule rather than the exception for decades now, but we’re getting catapulted into a whole new level of that game and when I look ahead to the fall all I can see are turtles all the way down. Or apocalyptic monkeys. And I can feel my heart start to race and my jaw clench and and and….
I just wish we could all take a moment to
Tell the truth.
And then figure out what to do next.
I’d like a collective timeout, so we can get ourselves regulated and think about what we did to get here and what we’ll do differently moving forward and how we’ll make different happen. (I know. The spring shutdown was supposed to be that, and I guess it was in some parts of the world, but not so much here in the US.)
I am not just talking about education and the pandemic. There is so much that’s wrong and hard in the world right now, but–don’t throw anything at me, please–there is also opportunity. There is always opportunity in wrong/hard. The opportunity is the silver lining of the wrong/hard. It’s the thing that can make the wrong/hard endurable. So far, sadly, it feels like we are just blowing it.
So many things were broken before the pandemic pulverized them. Instead of trying to glue back together little powdery bits of what was, here’s a chance to make things new. This kind of opportunity doesn’t happen often! Let’s seize it!
OK, I get why that’s not happening and how hard making new things is. We’ve got a whole lot of people in pain, and a whole lot of brokenness we can no longer collectively deny, and we humans aren’t at our best in such circumstances. Making new things always means losing old things, and some people are gonna cling real, real hard to those old things (even if they aren’t really good for them) because change literally hurts our brains and a lot of us would rather accept the crappy we know than take a chance on a possibly worse new crappy. We’re all scared and worried and grieving, even those of us in the (relatively) best of circumstances. And some of us are just racist, sexist, ableist a-holes and dangerous AF in the best of circumstances, so there’s that, too.
And so: Damn, it’s wearying, accepting the world as it is right now, believing it could be different, and watching opportunities slip past us, on scales both small and large. As my friend Kari recently wrote, “I feel like I am wading through Jello.” Me, too, Kari. Me, too.
My feelings of not-OKness didn’t dissipate when the Zoom meetings ended. I’m nearing the end of the second week out of the school year, and the days still have a lot of slog to them. There is some ease (how can there not be?), and it’s not all grey skies and listlessness. It has been a fair amount of that, but there have also been laughs and kisses and beauty and sun. One warm night this week I sat under patio lights, surrounded by flowers, and drank sweet limoncello liqueur with my daughter and my dearest friend and we had a long, passionate conversation about pronouns (and the intersections of gender and identity and language and responsibility and love, because you can’t talk about pronouns without talking about all of those things). There is that, and I don’t want to overlook or discount that because I am profoundly grateful for such moments. But I just don’t feel like myself, especially my summer self.
You too, perhaps?
I would like to offer a remedy, but I can’t. Not really. Moving my body more has helped. Planting things in the ground has, too. Doing the dishes and making the bed and cooking real meals. Being purposefully grateful, living in the day I’m in (so future troubles can’t rob me of today’s joy), and striving for balance between work/play and exertion/rest are other strategies I can recommend. Naps are good, too, if you can swing them.
I’d also add: Accepting the feelings. I spent a few days in the first week beating up on myself for not feeling better, and then I decided to just accept the feelings, whatever they are. Not to wallow (and there’s a fine line, there), but to just let them be and go about my business, doing things I know are good for me and others. I give the feelings their due, as they demand, and then I get on with it as best I can (some days better than others). I “act as if” as much as I can.
But honestly, the problem isn’t within us as individuals (and so we can’t fix our feelings about them entirely through our individual actions), and shouldn’t living feel like a slog right now? The world is way, way too much with us these days. You know that old bumper sticker, the one about how if you’re not pissed off you’re not paying attention, or something along those lines? That. All of which is why one of the things I’ve been grateful for this week is learning that there’s a word for exactly what I’ve been feeling: Weltschmerz.
Isn’t that a grand word? It’s almost onomatopoeic, the way those syllables sort of crash into each other on their way out of your mouth, with that hard stop right in the middle of it and that sort of drunken-sounding raspy sibilant ending. You’ve got all the elements for a party in those letters and sounds–and you can see that–but they don’t arrange themselves into a party. They aren’t in the right order.
If you, too, have been wading through weltschmerz (aka jello, aka existential depression), isn’t it at least a little comforting to know that other people have felt exactly the same way–enough people that we have a word that captures the subtle nuances of this feeling, and of this maybe-apocalypse that we’re living through? (Hey, on top of pandemic, economic meltdown, institutional instability, and massive unrest, don’t forget the climate. It’s still melting.) It’s not boredom or depression or listlessness or ennui or anxiety or angst. It’s weltschmerz, baby. And if ever there was a moment for it, surely it’s now.
You’re not alone and you’re not broken or ungrateful or spoiled. Things are fairly terrible. Don’t let the toxic positivity crowd gaslight you into thinking the problem is you and your attitude. Maybe, instead, your feelings are a sign of your wholeness and your optimism and your hope, and of your positive vision and your love for the world. Maybe it’s all the very things we’ll need to get us through to some better other side. Somehow. Some day. One slog at a time, monkeys and turtles be damned.