“We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice.”— Albert Camus
Many of us are feeling an ongoing sense of dread about the world, aptly expressed in the German word Weltschmerz, which has been described as “a mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering.”
In an unbalanced world, it is no wonder that we are feeling this way, too; in fact the opposite would be more worrying. This is not a new sentiment, however, it appears whenever the world goes through tumultuous times and increased suffering. One of Buddha’s contemporaries, Vimalakirti, once said “I am sick because the world is sick.”
The important question is: how do we respond?
The advice given then, as with today, is not to turn away from the pain, but to turn towards it. While some of us might want to remain in denial or distract ourselves, we know this doesn’t help. World events, including climate breakdown, war, COVID and many other less visible fissures in society are negatively impacting our mental health, whether we are distant from them, or more directly affected. We might not be aware of it but this, in turn, affects our daily behaviours towards each other.
Research in 204 countries and territories by the Lancet medical journal found an increase of 27·6% cases of major depressive disorder globally in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19 alone. Women, who are also at a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence, and young people, are much more likely to be affected.
Another recent study of adolescent mental health by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that one in seven 10-19 year-olds experience a mental disorder. Depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds.
So what can we do? What does turning towards the pain actually mean? Many wise thinkers and activists advise that the best thing we can do is to find a sense of agency, and perhaps to use our suffering or difficulties as creative fuel.
Speaking to a conference of social scientists in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr said he understood their profession’s aim of helping people get well-adjusted, but, he suggested, there were things in this world to which one must be maladjusted.
“We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence,” he said. What we needed was creative maladjustment as the path out of the bleakness we see in the world.
However, whatever action we choose, we must seek to act wisely and ensure we do not simply add more chaos and suffering. Thich Nhat Hahn said the quality of our actions depends on the quality of our being, so we have to find a way to “face our suffering and transform it into happiness and compassion, just as we use the place where we fall to stand up.”
This means, for example, that we should not project our own pain and fear into the world, something we tend to do on social media, because, he said, “even in ourselves, we also have the seeds of discrimination, anger, craving, violence and unskillfulness.”
Perhaps one simple place to start is to stop reading – and re-sharing – the news. This doesn’t mean we do not stay informed, obviously, but “doomscrolling,” (excessively scrolling through bad news) is a health hazard. Hahn suggested we should see everything we read, watch and listen to as food.
It also doesn’t mean we have to run out into the world, take matters into our own hands and seek to become heroes, something we often see when new emergencies unfold. Hahn explained there are people who don’t appear to be doing much, but their presence in the world is crucial, and there are others who keep trying to do things but the more they do, the more troubled society becomes.
An off-balance world invites our flexibility and creativity. This means that there are a lot of different ways to respond or act and the point is to find our own expression of action, whether that is through civil disobedience, finding and working with what King referred to as our ‘beloved community,’ or simply being a crucial presence to people around us.
As King said, through such creative maladjustment, “we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”
Words, Veronica Yates, illustration, Miriam Sugranyes