I still remember the day when the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting spread across the country like a mind-numbing drug—the horror seeping into every vein. Though I was hundreds of miles away, I couldn’t keep from imagining what those children must have run from, what they must have pleaded and screamed in the face of such obdurate darkness. By the looks on the faces of those around me, it seemed we were all experiencing the same collective shock.
That afternoon, I was sitting in class at college, my fellow classmates subdued, all of us staring blankly at the desks in front of us. A silence in which we all asked Why? A silence in which the world’s gravity seemed to keep us tethered to the earth. To keep us from looking up to the sky for light.
Then my professor, Roger Lundin, began class, his worn copy of Brothers Karamazov laid bare in his hand. We had been reading through Dostoevsky’s novel and had come across the conversation brothers Ivan and Alyosha have in a tavern. Lundin had us flip back to this passage, to the moment where Ivan admits his belief in God and yet confesses his simultaneous rejection of that belief: “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.” Ivan then continues on to say that he can understand, even hope for, a positive outcome for adults’ suffering—they make mistakes, suffer consequences, yet even in pain he hopes an unnamed power redeems their suffering: “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed.” Though he acknowledges the foolishness of his logic, Ivan wonders if the hoped for reconciliation and redemption outweighs the suffering adults experience.
But it is the suffering of little children that causes Ivan Karamazov to withdraw from the divine. Little children, he says, “are not yet guilty of anything...It is impossible that a blameless one should suffer for another.” He cannot reconcile innocence with suffering; he cannot see a use or reason for the suffering of little children, and for this reason, he makes his demand of God: “I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself, and retribution not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth, so that I see it myself.” And because he does not see this retribution, this divine response to intervene and allay suffering and restore justice to its proper order, Ivan makes his final confession to his brother: “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”
That day we explored this passage in Brothers Karamazov, I saw in my professor a humbling acknowledgment—that there are things which belief fails to fully reconcile. That something like suffering and the weight we feel because of it seem, at times, incompatible with the love and reconciliation we so desperately seek in our horizontal and vertical lives. Dostoevsky’s words matched a struggle we were all failing to express in the face of tragedy.
The Germans have a great word, weltschmerz, which our English dictionaries fail to fully elucidate. Some call this word “world-weariness;” others a kind of melancholy we feel toward what happens around us or a kind of anxiety steeped in the suffering of the world, steeped in empathy we feel with our fellow human beings.
The temptation to avoid weltschmerz in our daily lives is completely understandable. Sometimes, for the sake of self-care and spiritual restoration, we have to step aside for a moment. To rest in only what is immediately around us.
However, I want to argue that “world-weariness” is a kind of virtue we can integrate into our writing lives if we let it, temper it, and explore it. If we don’t just stop at a kind of melancholic anxiety but rather turn our anxiety into love and empathy, our writing can transform into real stories, our characters into real people. I say this tenderly, with difficulty, to myself and to the reader because it is a hard lesson—to willfully submit yourself to the acknowledgment of the world’s pain around you. Difficult because it is so exhausting.
Yet, as a writer, I have found that I cannot escape this world-weariness. I have tried to soften the content of my poems and stories, tried to skirt what could be considered grotesque or depressing. But this exchange always results in a loss of realness. The writing is weakened because, for me, to see a world beyond or without suffering is to see an incomplete picture, the focus blurred.
The more I read what writers say about this, the more I realize weltschmerz can be and should be a virtue. Marilynne Robinson in her excellent essay “Imagination and Community” states that writing is fundamentally “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” The more one reads Robinson’s novels—from Gilead to Lila to Home—the more one experiences how Robinson loves her characters and takes it upon herself to engage the difficulties of human experience without restraint or avoidance.
In Carolyn Forché’s introduction to her anthology Poetry of Witness, she calls this attitude of witness “neither martyrdom nor the saying of a juridical truth, but the owning of one’s infinite responsibility for the other one.” She goes on to translate a passage of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who calls this approach not a curse but an “awakening” that signifies “a responsibility for the other, the other who must be fed and clothed—my substitution for the other, my expiation for the suffering...An expiation assigned to me without any possible avoidance, and by which my uniqueness as myself, instead of being alienated, is intensified by my irreplaceability.” As Levinas points out, to enter into this act of empathy is to also become more fully ourselves, intensified not only in our collective but in our individual identities.
I wonder in an age of cell phones and digital posturing and distraction if we get caught up so much in ourselves—or the image we create for ourselves—that we forget our neighbor. What if we began to see writing as a means of pushing us outward and upward rather than inward? What if the interior life was formed, shaped, and could not exist without the exterior?
What Dostoevsky and Lundin gave me that day was not a way out of human experience but a way in. Not an endless burden leading us to despair but rather, as C.S. Lewis puts it, a “weight of glory.” Let us not weary of seeing the world for what it is. Let us be fueled by the divine love that leads us to darkest corners of our earth, a love that, even then, shines a light we cannot resist gazing at in wonder, dark as our days may seem.
*All quotes from Brothers Karamazov are from the Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1990).
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