Melissa from Mola coffee taught me the meaning of ‘Weltschmerz’ last week, which literally means “world-pain,” or as Miriam-Webster defines it: “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” According to Mel this was one of the words given to aspiring and intelligent young lads and lassies during the National Spelling Bee. Nevermind the fact that English, as a true world language, absorbs words that are clearly not English into its fold like butter onto bread, this is my new favorite concept.
We don’t have such a word in our own King’s English, so we’ve had to adopt one from German. The closest word I can think of is “world-weary,” a compound word that to me conveys only the sense of apathy. Weltschmerz means so much more, that the actual state of the world is painful to us, and what do people and animals do when they’re in pain? They try to relieve or remove the offending object causing the pain. Don’t we all pass through a state of young, idealistic fancies about the world only to discover, perhaps in our late 20s, that the world is much more complex than we realized, and that, in fact, it’s a whole lot shittier than we realized too? That’s when the Weltschmerz sets in.
For some, this emergence of the Weltschmerz is a time of activism and protest. For others it’s a time of religious contemplation. And for others, this is a time when racial hatred matures, because it’s much easier and simpler to place the blame for the evils of the world on one particular race or creed instead of realizing the abhorrent complexity of the human machine, and that no one race, creed, or nation is responsible for the state of the planet; we all are.
Yet for many people, maybe most people, the Weltschmerz never sets in. Instead we slip into world-weariness, the apathy, because the pain of the world is too great to let sit in our hearts for too long, and so we slowly find that it’s more comforting to slide into a little cocoon of television and sporting-events and consumer shopping, and there we hope we will never again have to confront our true Weltschmerz except perhaps in little snippets elicited by the nightly news. But we can always turn the TV off.
So what I am saying is that perhaps, as a global culture, we need to actively cultivate our Weltschmerz, our world-pain. Do you suffer when you see a homeless man lying in his own filth? Do you feel the sting as the last of a rare species is hunted from the planet? Do you hurt when you think of all the millions of the people in the world living in terrible poverty? It is only when an animal knows that it’s stuck will it do something to set itself free.