weltschmerz-other-wordlyI am generally a very optimistic person…in fact, I can be somewhat of a “Pollyanna”…seeing the world through my rose-colored glasses despite evidence to the contrary.  I usually can find the good in any situation and cheerfulness is my mood of default.  Some might say that I am idealistic to the point of naivety.  However, somedays the world intervenes in such a way that it is impossible to stay upbeat.  Somedays, there is too much outside evidence that things are falling apart…too many signs that the darkness is blotting out the light.  Just this last Thursday, I learned the word for my mood on days like that.

On Thursday evening, we watched the last several rounds of the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee on television.  It was on a major network during prime time…that in itself a triumph in a society that rewards Paris Hilton with unending TV coverage just for being rich and skinny.  These kids were fabulous…smart and confident.  In the last 4 or 5 rounds, I recognized only one of the words that they spelled and then only because it was a yoga word.  The bee finally came down to two final contestants, two young ladies of 13 locked in intense competition for the big prize.  Finally, Finola stumbled on the word weltschmerz and Katherine held firm on her final two words.  As Finola mulled over this word with which she was clearly struggling, we got to hear the definition several times.  Here are several versions of the definition of weltschmerz:

(from the German meaning world-pain or world-weariness)  World weariness; pessimism, apathy, or sadness felt at the difference between physical reality and the ideal state.

Denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that the physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

It is also used to denote the feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world; a kind of romantic pessimism.

Isn’t that a great word?  So descriptive and so guttural sounding…go ahead, stop and say it several times (don’t forget that the W sounds like V in German.)  It sounds like what it means, doesn’t it?  Here are  a few of the things that contribute to a feeling of weltschmerz for me:

— the stories Dateline is running about the number of sexual predators on the internet and the fact that some of them are rabbis and school teachers

— the horrific stories and pictures from Indonesia where almost 6,000 people died in another natural disaster and thousands more are left behind to re-construct their lives from the rubble…this all in an area that is still recovering from a tsunami less than 2 years ago

— the sad fact that I keep forgetting to pray for those poor folks in Indonesia because I am becoming numb to pictures of people suffering on the other side of the world

— the fact that Congress continues to waste time arguing about a bill that they know they can’t get passed about a subject like gay marriage (possibly all for political reasons) when 1 in 5 children in this country live in poverty, children around the world are starving to death every day while we throw away food, many people can’t afford to buy gas to get to work, people working 50 hours a week can’t afford to go to the doctor because they don’t have access to affordable health insurance, our kids are still dying in Iraq, etc. etc. etc.

— a troubled 18 year old somehow has access to 6 different guns including an automatic weapon and opens fire on a police station killing two people

— that ANYONE has access to an automatic weapon in this country

— my 4 year old friend died of cancer

— more votes were cast for American Idol than for our last president

— my disappointment that real politicians are rarely as noble as the ones on West Wing

— the fact that West Wing is no longer on the air 🙂 (just kidding, kind of!)

Ok, I could go on and on.  Clearly, some of my examples above are evidences of my own personal fantasies about how the world should be.  I could probably do another list of disappointments that some people, including me, often find in how the church ought to be versus the way the church really is.  I know many of the older generation often experience weltschmerz as they remember the “good ole days.”   Somedays…days like September 11th or the morning after Katrina hit, for instance…the weltschmerz is experienced equally by all of us and it seems that it might consume us.  The weight of the sadness seems to be more than we can bear and we fear we may finally be crushed beneath it.

I think God puts that capacity for weltschmerz within us…that sense within us that says that what we see before us is just not right…that part of us that cries out “this is not the way it is supposed to be.”  Jesus tells us over and over again that the the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now…and we know, deep within us, that this does not look like the Kingdom of Heaven…this does not look like the dreams that God has for His world.  That part of us that says “NO! This is not right!” is the part of us, in my opinion, that God wants to use to make the world we see at least a little bit “righter”…not by our own power, but by His power within us.  Christ in me, the hope of glory.

Here is the Message version of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10: 5-8…perhaps the divine prescription for weltschmerz?

5-8Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.