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Are You a Little Weltschmerz?

Even for the most optimistic among us, the events of the past few weeks have been difficult: Social unrest, ideological clashes, political turmoil, nuclear threats, and to top it off, one of the most devastating storms in American history. Any one of these is capable of producing a knot of anxiety. But all of them at once is enough to make you more than a little weltschmerz.

Wait, what? What is weltschmerz? Not exactly a household word, weltschmerz is in fact a useful and appropriate way to describe the state many people are in right now. Coined by the German Romantic writer Jean Paul at the turn of the 19th century, it literally means “world pain” or “world weariness.” The word has been used from time to time to describe the anxiety many feel because of all the troubles in the world.

I’m not suggesting that we begin saying “weltschmerz” every time we feel anxiety over something in the news. People will think we’re sneezing and might offer another German word in response. But I do think we should confront our weltschmerz and ask ourselves, “What should we do about it?”

Even the publishing world where I work seems to be in a bit of a funk. The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece on the lack of any breakout bestsellers over the last 18 months, attributing this literary drought to world turmoil. Apparently people are too distracted and discouraged to read good books.

“People are indeed distracted, and there’s no sign of it letting up,” says Paul Bogaards, an executive with Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. “Many are weary from their social feeds.”

Is it possible our “social feeds” are in large part responsible for our weltschmerz? How can they not be? Those screens we carry in our pockets and purses demand our attention and drain us of hope, making us world weary in the process. May I suggest a way out of our weltschmerz? Actually, my suggestion has two parts. First, what if we spent less time feeding off our social feeds and more time ingesting great books? I speak from personal experience here, so before you yawn, here me out.

At the beginning of the summer, when I was feeling a little weltschmerzy, I decided to spend less time on my phone and more time with some good books. I’ve always been a pretty active reader, but over the last three months I dedicated my self and read 29 books—including titles on leadership, memoirs, novels, books by Christian though leaders, and theological books. Admittedly, it took some effort, but the more I read, the easier it became (I think it has something to do with retraining the brain to enjoy long-form reading).

As a result my world-weariness has abated. I still know what’s going on in the world, and the hurt I see still has an effect, but it’s more like a temporary pang—a sharp stab—than a prolonged pain. Despite the seemingly unsolvable troubles all around us, I am hopeful.

Part of this hope comes from a realistic view of the world. As a Christian, I know we live in a fallen world where sinful people do horrible things to one another, where even nature groans from time to time. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.

Rather than despairing over the way things are, I have hope that God is in the process of redeeming a wrecked and ruined world.

Another part of my hope comes from the books I read this summer. Here are just three examples.

  • You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This book challenged me to rethink how I worship God and how I approach my work.
  • The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr. This new book on the Trinity helped me better understand the mystery of the tri-personal God and what that means as I relate to others.
  • Break Open the Sky by Stephan Bauman. The former president of World Relief challenged me with this question: “Will we surrender the heart of our faith to the vulture of fear…or will we reject fear as our organizing principle and rediscover the bold faith delivered to us by Jesus himself, a faith that expresses itself with extravagant love?”

I suppose I could have accessed snippets from these three writers online, but there was no substitute for enveloping myself in their books. I was not just drawn in, but also profoundly affected.

My dad, a lifelong bookseller, used to tell me, “Books change lives.” I believe it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it happen to others. That’s why I can say with complete certainty that reading good books will not only snap you out of whatever weltschmerz you are feeling right now, but will also help you become a conduit of extravagant love for others.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.