A reprieve from the ‘weltschmerz’ | AspenTimes.com
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A reprieve from the ‘weltschmerz’

Paul Andersen

It was peaceful in the kiva last weekend. The static roar of industrial civilization could hardly penetrate the thick stone walls and mud thatch roof. Except for the occasional thunder of a commercial jet, all was serene.A kiva is an underground ceremonial chamber with a geometric log roof covered with willow sticks and adobe mud. The one I visited was high on a ledge under a broad overhang of sandstone in a wilderness canyon.Even in the 100-degree heat of the day the kiva felt air-conditioned because of the radiant coolness of a billion tons of sandstone. I climbed down into the darkness on a rickety wooden ladder and found relief for my conscience.Escaping from contemporary life may not be why the Anasazi Indians built this kiva a thousand years ago, but this room of transcendence still serves as a vital grounding place far from the noise and tumult of the world.The allure of remote, quiet places grows stronger in me with each increment of disappointment. A knowing friend suggested that I’m stricken with “weltschmerz,” a German word that has no succinct English equivalent.Weltschmerz translates to pessimism, hopelessness, depression. It means world pain, global angst, a feeling of universal gloom.What a joy I must be around the house bearing my mantle of weltschmerz. What pleasant company I must provide while eulogizing mankind and despairing the state of the world. Surely it’s nothing that a stiff drink and a few hours of sitcoms wouldn’t cure.I would rather stew in it, attributing my weltschmerz to an aggregate of feelings about things over which I have little or no influence, issues for which there are no appeals, no higher courts, no just solutions. Weltschmerz reflects my sense of life’s tragedies.The impact of these tragedies is cumulative. Each grim revelation gnaws into my soul. I’m not crying in my beer every night, or taking Prozac. My weltschmerz provides a subtle emotional release, a coping mechanism for inner truths that are difficult to bear. My weltschmerz comes from Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany, Armenia and the grim specter of history. It is contemporized in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Guantanamo “gulag,” Israel, Palestine, and wherever the blatant erosion of the rule of law and human rights damns us all.A bumper sticker reads: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Anyone who comprehends war, poverty and the ruthless exploitation of human beings and nature must feel a pang of conscience, must feel something.Weltschmerz is outrage dulled by futility and passivity, a forlorn tolerance for wrongs that have gone un-righted. Weltschmerz lives in the realization that fatal flaws underlie human brilliance, creativity and productivity.This deep sorrow for human failure, this pained regret of the shadow side rises from a holistic conscience that implies compassion. Weltschmerz is a life-force, a pure emotion that touches something universal and sympathetic. Weltschmerz acknowledges universality.Martin Luther King said: “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.”That destiny determines our worth as a people. When that destiny turns tragic, an outpouring of weltschmerz seeps into the common conscience like the dull roar of a jet finding its way into the cool sandstone of the kiva. Paul Andersen thinks mutuality is the ultimate cause. His column appears on Mondays.


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