Weltschmerz to my world

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

Stop.

Breathe.

Tell the truth.

Get real.

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.

Highly recommend planting things. It’s like firewood and warms you twice. Or a million.

11 thoughts on “Weltschmerz to my world

  1. Marian says:

    I want to write an essay in response to this post, Rita, but I can’t even figure out where to begin. Weltschmerz? Oh yes. Existential depression? Yup. Overwhelm? So much overwhelm. Seeing that some people are dangerous AF? God, yes. Scared? Sometimes nearly out of my wits, tbh.

    I’m so grateful to you for continuing to show up here, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      I’m grateful for you, too. I hope you write that essay. Just begin. You don’t have to figure out where, just begin. That’s the hardest part.

  2. Kate says:

    Oh yes. Yes to this. Though I wish I was wading through jello. Chest deep mud here. I see so so so so much potential in the time and place we are in (so I won’t throw things at you) and I’m so so so so frustrated with people who just want to go back to “normal”. Normal sucks. Normal made my whole body shake with rage. Normal left so many people out.

    I need these posts, Rita. I need them as the balm I’m not finding in my every day real life because it took 4 years of utter calamity for me to realize – I am NOT surrounded by the right people. I want to be with people who shake with anger at injustice but smile at the extra time to plant a garden and bake bread. I want to share lists of books and podcasts and art projects and talk about how we can collectively change our society RIGHT NOW.

    Thank you. I needed to feel less alone today and you delivered.

    • Rita says:

      You are welcome. I want to learn how to be that kind of person you’re seeking. I’m having a real hard time caring about gardens and bread and art while I am shaking with anger. I want to learn how to do both, simultaneously. I think of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, and her essays about Black women and creativity, and I know that I just haven’t yet developed the muscles I need to both stay engaged with the world and see and make beauty in and from it. I come from women who were able to do that, but my own life has been much softer than theirs were. I haven’t read the book in more than 30 years, but I’m thinking it’s time to revisit it.

      (I’m thinking about the idea of rating days by viscosity. Yesterday was a jello day, but this morning is deep mud for me, too. What I wouldn’t give for some clear water.)

  3. Kathy says:

    So many times while reading your posts I hear myself say in my head or sometimes out loud, “yep, me too, I know, exactly”.

    So many things, opportunities, people – squandered over and over and over and over over again.

    No toxic positivity, no nihilistic pessimism, but Weltschmerz. That sounds doable right now. Along with reading, and voting and listening and changing — and maybe also enjoying watching our little garden grow.

    • Rita says:

      Yeah, that’s how I felt when I stumbled across “weltschmerz,” too. Figuring out what things aren’t is a kind of progress.

  4. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    OMG YES TO ALL OF THIS. Thank you for making me feel less alone, I type as I am sobbing.
    I am so grateful for your words during all of this. I wish more people would write about how they are feeling too because we need all of the words right now.

    Our state just announced that they will be going back to school in the fall and the parents in all the land heaved a varied sigh. Because some are happy to be rid of them and some are glad to no longer be e-learning and some are saying HOW WILL THEY SOCIAL DISTANCE and I am saying, well, I am still homeschooling so no change for me.

    I have no idea how this will look for schools in the fall but my heart is with the educators who never asked for this huge task and with the parents who are fearful. It is such a mess right now. My head is dizzy with all of the daily changes, the president who isn’t leading us, and with a country completely divided. It is frightening.

    Sending you so much love.
    KEEP WRITING.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…My FAQ Post Means I Never Get Asked Anything FrequentlyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I don’t think I can really write about schools in any meaningful, specific way. I have lots to say, but I think it would all come out angry. Schools are always a microcosm of the worlds in which they exist. Everything you see out in the community is what we see inside our public schools. I wish we could all get real about what’s happening and admit that it’s a shitshow right now and stop pretending that we can somehow do what it is we usually do. I wish we were talking more about what it is that our kids really need right now. Not that there wasn’t a whole lot of pretending before March. I wish we could admit that, too. I wish we would all be honest about what functions of schools really matter to us. I can tell you that for many of us educators, it’s becoming clear that what seems to really matter to a lot of people is that we provide daycare. People want schools to open so that someone else can take care of their kids so that they can go to work. I get that–truly, I do; most parents are in a really hard place–but I wish we’d all be more honest about it and adjust our practices and expectations accordingly. (See? Pretty sure that reads angry, but heartbroken is really what it is.)

      I’m glad you are able to homeschool your daughter. I know it’s hard for you, but I am glad for her that you are able to do that.

      • Kate says:

        Before our county first decided to close, I called the city/county health department and asked what would need to happen o close schools (I was getting ready to pull my kids out anyway). They explained that for many kids it’s actually more dangerous to not be in schools because 1) they either gather in a place with less supervision 2) don’t have access to basic needs such as food or a safe environment. I mean, I “knew” it before but I didn’t KNOW it. Even V, when heard about the schools closing immediately said, “so and so won’t have anything to eat” and it just…broke me. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? Why aren’t I? I think about you and all your doing IN the school as an educator and I don’t blame you for not knowing how to juggled joy in bread and garden and the rage at a society that isn’t doing better!

        Now our schools have said the same things about opening this fall (though without addressing how) but Jesse and I are talking about homeschooling for the next year so I have more control over the delivery of curriculum. (Abram was given about four/five hours worth of work per day which was just ridiculous.) I’m not there yet as both of my children REALLY miss school and I’m not the kind of mom cut out for all day every day with my kids. BUT…I’m also already home so it seems silly to risk it? Anyway…lots of thinking aloud. I appreciate your two voices immensely.

        • Rita says:

          We have a problem in schools that is not unlike the one we have with police: Schools are being tasked with things that have nothing to do with our stated mission. I mean, they do: We feed kids breakfast and lunch because we know they can’t learn if they are hungry. Police respond to calls about mentally ill people because sometimes mentally ill people pose a threat to public safety. But providing food to those who need it really isn’t what we are about, just as responding to a health crisis isn’t really what police are about.

          This, of course, is all theoretical. I’m writing as if we live in some ideal state. The reality is that if we don’t feed kids, they will go hungry. In some communities, there is no one but police to call in the face of a mental health crisis.

          I became a teacher to teach. I want my job to be about teaching. I want decisions about whether or not we have to risk our health and the health of our families to be based upon science and our mission to educate. If I wanted to serve capitalism (and more greatly enjoy its potential benefits) by providing daycare or other social services, I would have chosen a different career. When economic times are good (which has happened a few times in the course of my career), we don’t benefit by getting paid more. There are no bonuses. We get status quo or maybe a tiny bit of increase in funding and we are thankful for the lack of cuts. When times are bad, we are asked to shoulder more of the burden than other citizens–we take furlough days, we take cuts to our pensions, we take pay freezes or cuts. People seem to forget that we pay taxes, too, so in essence we are paying more for the services of schools than other taxpayers. We are subsidizing it with cuts to our own compensation.

          I have sucked all of this up for years and years. I did it because I believe so much in the importance of educating everyone. I did it because I believed education was the only way we can level the playing field. (Now seeing all the systemic barriers and better understanding what the field is, I’ve lost that faith. Or, at least, it’s changed.) I did it because I love kids and I love learning and it was work I could feel (mostly) ethically good about. I did it because it was just money, and I still had enough, and it’s the only system we’ve got. So much of what education is really about has been revealed in this pandemic, and I am not willing to risk my life for it. I mean, I will. I don’t really have a choice. (Thanks, capitalism, my own ignorance, and our inept/corrupt federal government.) But I’m not willing to and I will be so deeply, profoundly angry if my colleagues and I have to. Kids won’t die if they have a lesser educational experience in the next school year. But if we return to school in conditions that we know are unsafe and that will spread C-19, people will die. Kids’ family members will die. Educators will die. And that’s not theoretical. That’s real, concrete truth. That our families can’t cope with childcare needs AND work is a systematic problem that educators shouldn’t be asked to solve with their health and lives. Especially when people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have more wealth than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes or more, built on the backs of people who don’t make enough to provide for their families’ basic needs.

          • Kate says:

            I agree with this all, Rita. A friend and I were talking just yesterday about how we feel like teachers are being asked to sacrifice their health and possibly their lives to keep the economy afloat. You all sure don’t make enough for that.

            Violet’s school hasn’t posted their plan yet, but Abram’s Catholic school sent an email from the bishop saying that we will have school, five days a week, as planned. In the mean time, our new cases are almost triple what they were a week ago.

            Gen Z might not be wrong with the whole burn it all down. As for me, I’m ready to go back to the days subsistence farming. (That’s hyperbole. Slightly.)

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