Weltschmerz (“world pain”)

posted in: America, Iraq War, Journal, Musings | 6
Windbreaks Holland
Alders lined up along fields to protect against the constant winds in Holland, 1995.

In the past two weeks a lot of discussions have arisen around me focusing on our spiritual and psychological conditions in the world today. My father and I discussed, on the phone, the necessity of reorienting our attitudes and expectations. At Ecotone there is a very interesting discussion going on about mobility and identification with place. At Cassandra Pages a discussion has ensued about the necessity of individual expressions of relating to a place. And Fujiko Suda and I have been exchanging e-mails about the disorientation of growing up in disparate cultures. Her post about such a small thing as riding a crowded train in Japan stimulated many thoughts in me about individual versus collective consciousness and how we, in this burgeoning, 6 billion-plus, human tide we tumble within, must learn to change our minds.

Beth writes “Somehow I feel that the past two years have been one continuous episode, starting with September 11th. I’ve been unable to escape the sense of being surrounded by suffering, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s personal or on a world scale.” These words struck with particular poignancy because they express much of how I have been feeling these past two years. A worldwide despondency has overcome us all, a sense that something might be coming to an end. When I told my father about how I’ve become reluctant to write about all that has happened in the last two years because I inevitably feel that my words remain helpless, he responded by saying, “It is talking about it that will bring about changes and understanding. I am not angry about the New York tragedy, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but profoundly sad. All that is happening is as human as we can be and it is utterly sad to see us so unable to come to terms with our natures when, supposedly, we should know better in the modern world.”

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk in Canada, in her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” writes,
“Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
“To stay with that shakiness––to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–– that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–– this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation–– harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.
“Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere. All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?” Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to go to war?”

I resolved two months ago to do the best I can to take the fork in the road toward practicing peace, down to the very tips of my fingers when I would do my best to refrain for lashing out even at a spider on the table or a mosquito biting me. Perhaps not everyone would see things this way, but for myself that is the discipline I need to follow if I am to truly understand peace. And to take people as they come, no matter how distasteful or frightening they might be. My biggest challenge might perhaps be to stop myself for a moment and truly see Bush as a fellow human being. Just thinking about this makes my stomach churn, but if I am serious, I will practice the exercise, for there is no other way to come to terms with the aggression and the fight or flight response within me.

At the same time I’ve been attempting to follow a path of simplicity and have found it remarkably difficult to implement. So many requirements around us, and temptations, chip away at what could so easily be accomplished with a minimum of fuss and equipment. Just attempting to throw belongings that I don’t need away is like a pack rat’s nightmare; I seem to panic at the onslaught of emptiness.

At the heart of the matter lies the willingness to confront the mirror and perceive that wraith that is our personal identity. It resides in the places we dwell in, shuttles back and forth between self and world around us. If we can only recognize that each and every individual in the whole world ripples with the winds of perception and awareness, that the little flame might so easily be snuffed out, and that every person holds the sight of their present position as precious, perhaps we might understand one another with more compassion and empathy.

Beth writes: “In fact, I sometimes think we are the aberrant ones, thinking that technology and money can fix every problem or deficiency, and losing the ability to find solace in nature, realtionship, and simple living.” Few of us in the ultra-developed world have any inkling of what real poverty and deprivation and basic survival (real survival, where you have no choice and the wrong turn means death) are like. When I traveled to the Philippines in 1992 I went armed with 10 years of university, studying third world development, and the arrogance of someone who thought he knew what should be done. What I saw and learned shocked me to my very core. A friend, Francisco Sionil Jose, the well-known Filipino social novelist, there took me to visit and get to know people who live in Tondo, Manila’s huge ghetto, and Smoky Mountain, the__ now removed by the Philippine government for publicity reasons (but replaced by another)__ literal mountain of garbage that scavengers built their homes upon. It’s beyond words to describe the clash of perplexity in my mind, arising from the juxtaposition of that awful, awful smell, the sight of little children rummaging in the filth, and such unforgettable scenes as ramshackle piles of cardboard shacks in which people live, hanging over the banks of a river so cluttered with human debris and dead animals that the water could not be seen, while a little girl sits with her bottom poised over the bank, shitting into the drinking water, while at the same time meeting these children who never tired of smiling and laughing and singing, while mothers sat at the edge of smoke blasted highways proudly washing clothes and their husbands stood beside them washing from basins, and there was always someone beside you who cheerfully asked how you were and where you were from. The confusion of emotions and ideas that developed from these enigmas forever changed my views of poverty and hope, and left me little sympathy for the aloof elitists of the Filipino rich, and no sympathy whatsoever for people who whine about conditions in America, a place so sickeningly wealthy that there is absolutely no excuse for the poverty and violence and ignorance that does exist in America.

What happened on September 11, 2003, in New York (yes, other things did happen in other places in the world on that day) was an awful, awful tragedy. Anyone who saw those indelible images will always feel the tremor of horror that they invoke. And for any people who were in proximity to the catastrophe (yes, there were people other than Americans who watched in terror and afterwards felt the deep grief), especially Americans, even two years of distancing from the event has still failed to soften the pain of what happened. So much anger and denial and obfuscation has followed that it is now difficult to disentangle from the morass and see the pain for what it is.

And yet the pain and confusion and sense of loss are something that perhaps Americans need to go through. It is an awakening, and awakenings are often limned in pain. What showed its ugly head in New York was the telltale heart of an identical pain that people in other places have carried in silence for a much longer time. The news and those who would choose violence for solutions to any complicated, social dilemma prefers to paint the faces of those who committed the crime as monsters, inhuman agents of that obscure term “evil”. But painting monsters as an adult carries no less penalties than a child hiding from nightmares under the covers: monsters cannot be understood or defeated unless you choose to turn around and face them, talk to them as being the same as you are.

Perhaps part of the initiation into adulthood requires some kind of immersion into pain. Almost every rite of passage ceremony in the world employs some kind of painful act that awakens the individual into an awareness of the responsibilities of being part of that world that surrounds them. In many ways America has been dreaming an adolescent dream for so long that it has almost forgotten that it is part of the world as a whole and that its often oblivious, bull-like infancy has come to an end. Americans still talk of the “Forefathers” as if waiting for a berating, unable to forge ahead and think for themselves, preferring to indulge in old dogma and to languish in something that amounts to idolatry. So many of them take something like the New York tragedy and fail to see it in its worldwide, social context, taking no time to comprehend that nothing happens in a vacuum, that what others do is all human, no matter how awful it is, that men flying planes into buildings in New York is exactly the same thing as men dropping mega-bombs on a residential area in Iraq, that all these human foibles are all forged upon the past and on the attitudes that one people decided to adopt. Most Americans still haven’t taken responsibility for their own past actions towards people in other countries, even those Americans who react with knee jerks to criticism of “all” Americans… thinking that holding peaceful convictions and marching in rallies makes an iota of difference to an Iraqi mother whose baby was just blown to bits by an American bomb.

Perhaps it is that Americans are learning what it is to live in the world and that the world is full of pain, Weltschmerz. That America’s idyll existed only because of insulation from the real world, both geographically and in their not being required to socially interact with people of other nations. That Rambo and the Terminator are inappropriate models for living in a world community and that in the modern world there are no more remote islands to escape to and all people must learn to participate in a world community. If anything, the proximity and familiarity of the pain of New York ought to teach people in the most decisive terms what it feels like to be wronged, to have death visit even your most undeserved innocents, and just what exactly others in other places feel like when you inflict pain and wrongs on them. Everyone is responsible; that is the cost of true, untwisted democracy.

As much as song, pain can cross borders to give its message. If approached with an open heart and an attitude of reception, pain can teach us to see. And if the message gets through, then the world as one place, shared by all, a teardrop in the Void, will recognize itself as a living being, subject to death and sorrow, open to the perception of beauty wherever we may find it.

6 Responses

  1. Pica

    So much to think about, here. I wish I could agree with you that the effect of the September 11 attacks on New York City would lead to a greater understanding in the United States of Weltschmerz. I think in some cases it has–Beth’s recent words on the subject are a perfect example.

    But California just elected the Terminator for Governor. The sad thing is that the overwhelming of the people who voted for him–and the map of how the recall election went is far more eloquent than I could ever be–are uneducated. Unsophisticated. Seeking easy solutions. They want to turn on their TV when they get home from work if they are still working and hear that there is no more budget crisis, no more unemployment, no more traffic, no more illegal immigrant workers, no more no more no more… life. This is the problem as I see it. Life is complicated, and we are hounded every day from every corner to resist seeing it as complicated.

    So I need to return to reading Gandhi, whose writing is maddeningly complicated, disorganized, difficult. And so full of life. To meet the challenge is to be alive. Thank you for reminding me of this, Butuki.

  2. butuki

    But at least you are thinking and talking about it. It doesn’t matter, I think, if two people disagree or bristle over a topic that moves them each deeply. What is important is that the avenues of communication remain open for recognition of one another and a willingness to listen to one another. The moment the listening, and the evaluation that follows, stops, we are lost, because it means that the community has died and is replaced by a collection of chaotic individuals. A society cannot function that way and survive.

  3. beth

    I think this is exactly what we need to do – acknowledge our pain, share it, and together find ways through. The fact that you feel the way I do, and are willign to admit it, lessens my own burden – it is like a light in the dark forest I am trudging through alone. We need each other in times like these, even as we struggle on in our own individual ways and individual lives. I have good days and bad days, more good han bad, but still, I succumb to depression and hopelessness at times. Pema is helpful, so are people like Jack Kornfeld (see Whiskey River of late). Today I did some drawings for the first time in ages – that’s life-affirming; I need to do more. So we go on, a little less alone.

  4. Coup de Vent

    This is one of those things which I feel I need to print out and read a few times and at different times.

    I think you are (all) exploring in some detail that crisis of “how-to-go-on” having witnessed such a terrifying set of shifts in world politics (narratives and actions).

    I think I have been feeling recently that I need to live my life differently. I can’t put my finger on it – maybe it’s ethics, perspective, it’s a relational thing, spiritual? It’s quite a big thing and needs sorting out. It’s as if I feel so angered and helpless, I have to find a way of living with even more coherence….

  5. butuki

    Perhaps that is one good thing that has come out of all this madness the last two years… it is making people rethink their lifestyles and attitudes more than ever before, simply because of the sense of everything possibly being lost. And perhaps more than I realized before I read your comment, Coup de Vent, it is this sense of loss that I have been so angry and sad about. The anger is giving way to something…new. Just like you. I know that I am spending a lot of time paring down the details of my daily life, trying to see if it is possible to actually live that simple life that I’ve eyed for so long.

  6. Lisa Thompson

    Coup de Vent directed me over here today since I wrote yesterday on a similar topic.
    I like what you’re saying about pain. I’m looking at it (today) not politically but spiritually, or humanistically. Growing the soul requires going deep, knowing pain and sadness as well as knowing the heights of feeling that beauty inspires. Don’t we need all of it in order to be truly human?
    These are dark times, but they require a turning inward. They are drawing us down and in to places within ourselves that need our attention so that we can truly evolve (or realize).

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