Weltschmerz

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I received an email from a friend a while ago saying:

“Whoops. A student cried in my lecture today because the world is so unfair and we can’t change it. We were only doing the media representation of crime but we started talking about politics and the effects of everything on everything else. She’d NEVER realised that media is biased. She hadn’t questioned stuff. Her whole understanding of the world just shattered in my lecture. She got so totally overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know what’s right and also how dangerous irresponsible media is that she literally sobbed out loud.”

My friend wasn’t sure how to feel about the effect her lecture had had on this student, and nor am I. The part of me that still believes in education as a liberating force thought, ‘that was a powerful, eye-opening lesson. That’s what education is for – to make people more aware of the world around them and then to hopefully give them the wherewithal to make wise choices.’ This was the leftover idealist in me speaking – the tiny bit of me that still hasn’t been smashed to splinters on the shipwreck that is our current education system.

But the thought of this student sobbing for her lost certainty is actually a very sad one. It’s been rubbing like a pebble in my welly ever since I received the email because I had a sore spot there anyway. Part of what had been bugging me for a while was the question: what has knowledge ever done for me? When I was young I read a lot. I read about the slave trade, the (then) nuclear threat, the world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam… and I took it seriously, that knowledge. I absorbed and pondered it. I let it affect me emotionally. And if you take this stuff seriously it does affect you. It probably should affect you.

So what then are you supposed to do with the emotional detritus this kind of knowledge creates? How do you cope with the monumental sense of powerlessness you’re left with when you finally understand that most things are a bit insane? It seems there are three ways to deal with it. The first way is to go into politics or education or whatever is your particular interest and try to change things from within. The second way is to ‘drop out’ and try to change things from without by attempting to build a life outside the mainstream and engaging with protest movements. The third way,  (the way my friend took when she boycotted all forms of news because it made her sob to the point of meltdown), is to hide from it all and try to spend your life in your happy place (or just live your life perpetually off your face on drugs/alcohol).

I tried the second method for many years until I finally realised there really is no way to build a life truly outside the mainstream in the UK if you have no resources. I also realised that protests have very little effect unless they are gigantic and relentless and, again, you have resources. Nobody listens to the truly powerless. So I decided I’d join the education system and try to help things from within. Ten years later I, along with many wonderful colleagues, am battered, broken, disillusioned and exhausted. I have never developed the capacity to turn my mind away from things I think are wrong and just get on with life. I’ve never developed the capacity to shut my gob, either. And you can’t just live in your happy place when you have to go out into the wrong every day and earn a living. So that’s where I am now: stymied. I can’t change things, I can’t run away from things, and I don’t have it in me to ignore things.

So I UNDERSTAND my friend’s student’s response to the horrible realisation that the world is not as manageable as she first thought, and I hope she finds somewhere in her brain to file this stuff so she can walk the tightrope between unhappy knowledge and ignorant bliss much more confidently than I do.

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4 Responses to Weltschmerz

  1. I can identify with your despair, truly. The options you list have in common the goal/expectation of pressing hard against what is, and either trying to change or to simply block. Another option would be to accept. Accept what is. Discover your own talent, work at it, and make choices that support it in yourself and your friends. In such small ways is the world changed. Is it a bad thing for the student to discover how little control she has in the world? Now she can let go of her illusion of control.

    • My initial response was that it was a good thing she discovered some reality, and it probably is. I think accepting might be the only thing, but I don’t think I really know how to do that. Especially while I’m working in the education system and trying to deal with the wrongness every single day.

      I genuinely wish someone could teach me to accept.

  2. Miscellaneous arbitrary pseudonym from Bristol says:

    I think the feeling is more important than the response. That applies to you as much as to her. As long as you are still feeling despair, discomfort or even defeat you haven’t become an automaton. The world is full of people who are utterly indifferent to things that should provoke thought, or that should cause discomfort. That would be far worse than feeling the despair of a frustrated and disillusioned teacher.

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