By Sangeetha Bhaskaran Feb. 06, 2020
From the rise of open bigotry in India to the devastating images of the Coronavirus crisis emerging from China, I struggle to cope with how the world is breaking – physically and in spirit. Sometimes I feel too much for matters that are beyond my control. And this debilitating inclination to push empathy on overdrive isn’t easy to live with.
I stare at the picture on the screen: A shop with red walls on the street, a man wearing a mask and cycling and, at the bottom, left corner is another man lying on the pavement, presumably dead. It is a powerful photograph that shows the impact of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China. No one ventures close by to see who he is or check if he is indeed dead. I can’t get the photograph and the horrors of this growing epidemic out of my mind.
I shut the laptop and rush to get my daughter ready for school, trying to toss this feeling out of my head. It’s come again, the gloom that awakens in me every time our collective carelessness fruitions into such disasters. I know that I am far away from China and there is little I can do. But it isn’t just the virus – it is the bundle of humanity’s failings that seem to be growing with greed and intolerance. From the rise of open bigotry based on religion, caste and class in India to the struggle of students leading the anti-CAA protests, from the despair of isolated Kashmiris to the heartbreaking bushfires in Australia, I struggle to cope with how the world is breaking – physically and in spirit. Sometimes I find myself more distressed than those around me. But it wasn’t always like this.
There was a simpler time, when being sad was a more selfish emotion. My first memory of it was when I was six or seven years old. An older boisterous boy who came over to play with me took my favourite brown teddy bear and plucked one of its glassy eyes out. Tears sprung as I stared at the gaping hole with wisps of thin polyester cotton peeking out like a hovering cloud. I held the teddy close to my chest and sat in a cardboard carton stationed in the nook between two sofas and wept quietly. There was no wailing or tantrum or demand for retribution from the boy who was oblivious to my pain – just a quiet mourning.
It was my first experience with loss coupled with confusion over a destructive act. As I grew, I’d build a pantone of blues and find words for each of them – grief when my beloved 20-year old cousin passed away, misery when the boy I pined for got expelled from school, melancholy from hearing Bob Dylan sing “Blowing in the wind”. But there was another kind of unnameable hue that I’d struggle with, a vague colour that would spread like an animated Rorschach blot inside me. It came from feeling too much for matters that were beyond my control.
The gloom that awakens in me every time our collective carelessness fruitions into such disasters.
When our maid told me about how her parents gave her away as a baby to be raised by an aunt, I wept for her. At the community service programmes organised by my school, I discovered worlds of poverty, shelved away neatly from daily existence, that quaked my conscience. Troubled faces of children living on the streets stayed in my mind.
These deep aches created by despair in the world and people sat like pebbles in my belly, not hurting me directly but rarely granting me peace. At night I could never sleep unless pushed to complete exhaustion. Frozen fragments of suffering danced in my mind and at times overwhelmed me to the extent of emotional paralysis. On one hand I was giving in to all the experiences wholeheartedly, having fun and learning, falling in and out of love, meandering through the mayhem between existing and living. But the strange sadness never left. It dragged itself with me everywhere, behaving well enough to stay out of my way and let me bustle about, peeping from its burrow only when certain that I could give it my attention.
And then one day I would discover the word that perfectly draped this sensation. It came unexpectedly from the book Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes where one of the female protagonists confesses, “All I can see is the sad stuff. And it’s everywhere. We’re the walking wounded, the entire human race.” I read the sentence repeatedly like it was a revelation. Maybe I wasn’t alone.
This debilitating inclination to push empathy on overdrive isn’t easy to live with.
Weltschmerz is a German word for world-weariness. On a spectrum, it falls somewhere between angst and depression. The word was born in the Romantic era in the 1800s as a simple meaning of being disappointed with life and the world and would expand in its meaning in the 19th century after the two World Wars. My tendency to feel disillusioned by how people continued to fail as a society connected me with this concept. I wasn’t pessimistic or depressed, just a sponge that absorbed too much pain while bearing the constant disappointment that the world could do/be better
I found Weltschmerz in people and stories around me; someone who never visits certain parts of the city because of the hordes of emaciated cats that live there, someone who takes the time to listen to the struggles of a labourer toiling in the heat only to realise the extent of their own privilege, someone who participates in every single protest they possibly can to feel part of a throng that cares enough to try.
This debilitating inclination to push empathy on overdrive isn’t easy to live with. While the world that is struggling with climate change, divisive politics, growing inequality demands our collective concern, it isn’t fair that a few must bear the weight of humanity’s tragic truths.
My own efforts to renounce Weltschmerz have been in vain. No matter how often the people I love remind me that “This is life baby”, I cannot stop feeling tired by the agonies I encounter. The triggers are everywhere – the news, documentaries, certain kinds of films and even just a walk outside my home.
As much as I wish I could fall asleep easily or have a tougher armour, I am better for it in certain ways. Despair makes me a better observer and writer. When you’re constantly looking for things to hope for, the slightest joys are amplified like an auto ride with the wind slapping your face or a stray puppy slobbering all over you, reminding you that life can be spectacular in moments, even if not in its entirety.
Of course, I miss the time when I was sad about things that could have been fixed instead of the wreckages that I amble through now that are beyond repair. But I have decided to brave it all, wipe my cheeks clean, fill myself with courage that will leak out soon enough, and see how far this all takes me. The world will keep breaking and if caring about it enough to cry and indulge in little acts of kindness and rebellion just might help, so be it. I shall continue to hold on to my Weltschmerz like an unborn child and feed it with days that can always be made better.
I will wake up each day and breathe in and out, indulge in reality and fantasy in equal parts, make merriment where I can and cry into pillows when my defence mechanisms fail briefly. Yes, this is life – mysterious, wonderful, and oh so damn painful.
An accountant turned writer who hoards handmade soaps and notebooks. Author of No time to moisturize, a parenting page & Half Boiled Indian, a collection of stories from the returning NRI perspective. Dogs complete me.