Spirit Quest on Weltschmerz

Spirit Quest

Forget weltschmerz

'We are truly never alone'

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

A cartoon, not from Charlie Hebdo, depicts a figure reclining on a hospital bed. A clipboard dangling from the headboard bears witnesses to disturbing vital signs of the patient. The face on the pillow is familiar not in any personal way, indeed it is a picture of the globe with all the meridial lines formed into a sad frown. Obviously the patient isn’t happy. The caption of the cartoon, as is this blog, is “Weltschmerz.”

“Weltschmerz” (world pain) is one of those German terms that is difficult to interpret with any exactness. Like “heilgeschichte” (salvation history), “voelkerwanderung” (mass migration) the attempt to convey the meaning in another language does not quite cut it. Thus the German term persists particularly in academia.

“Weltschmerz” is a kind of psychological malaise caused by observing helplessly as the world goes to hell in a hand basket. The daily news brings on a sense of world weariness, even depression. I am well familiar with this disease.

The New Year is usually hailed with a sense of happy expectation for the time ahead, but as in this year, few hours go by without countering that optimism. The dateline of January First is artificial. The problems of the past do not dissolve at midnight or even present a hiatus in the events of the days gone by. Wars, famine, disease and global warming continue as before. Only a few hours had elapsed before fresh reports of homicides and other tragedies hit our TV screens.

Evangelical Christians have a hymn that asks the question “Is there any balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole?” Its scriptural reference is to the writings of the prophet Jeremiah. His time, the 6th century BCE was a troubled era in Israel. Jeremiah's sole purpose was to reveal the sins of the people and explain the reason for the impending disaster (destruction by the Babylonian army and captivity), and the end of the Northern Kingdom. Doubtless there was lots of “schmerz” about, even in the prophet who had a difficult message to proclaim to the people and the leadership of the country.

Gilead was a region of Israel that produced a scarce perfume that was believed to have medicinal qualities. When used in the hymn it referred to a cure for the sickness of sin.

Is there some kind of balm for Welrschmerz? Of course there are all kinds of palliatives and escapisms, ways of distracting minds from what is going on in the world and closer to home. Cruises are very popular not merely to escape the cold of winter but just a way of getting away from it all. Sport spectaculars such as gladiator contests on ice is a kind of balm of choice as is what nowadays passes for music. None of these resolve the political situation in the Middle East, the financial crisis threatening the world economy, the ecological disaster waiting in the wings.

I can sympathize with the patient in the cartoon. Weltschmerz is not a figment of the imagination, its pain is very real. Nor do I have any easy fix for the problems faced by the passengers of Spaceship Earth. Obviously the cure for Weltschmerz cannot reside in solving the world’s problems.

Weltschmerz is a pain of the spirit. My friends, many of them outspoken atheists, laugh at what is known as spiritual healing, that is praying to some divinity to intercede, to heal the sick, to right wrongs, even to end global warming. I prefer to think of the healing of the spirit, that is dealing with the sufferer.

Basking in Weltschmerz is of little help. What is needed in our world and time  is a willingness to face reality, to address the problems that beset us, to speak the truth to adversity and a willingness to make changes. Above all it rests in an awareness that we are not alone in this task , there are many involved in working for a better world though I admit that sometimes we feel very much alone. Weltschmerz is a solitary malaise and what is needed is the support of the like willed.

In my younger years my spouse and I participated in marches demonstrating against the production of bombs (“refuse the cruise”), apartheid in South Africa, free trade treaties etc. I was often criticized for wasting my time. Perhaps it was ineffectual in changing the course of events but it did give us a sense that we were not alone in our opposition. I learned that lesson early in life when with my parents we demonstrated against fascism.   

Therefore be aware that we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. We are truly never alone.