Weltzschmertz: Fun word to say, terrible lifestyle choice. It translates directly from German as “world weariness,” and is defined here as “sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.” Egads. You know what that looks like? It’s a solemn kid who grows up without laughter in a grim, dust-coated house, who’s told that he shouldn’t even bother looking outside because it’s grim and dusty everywhere else, too, and that’s just how life is. It’s Eeyore, except less cute and purple and fuzzy. What a way to live.
In presenting a somewhat shinier alternative, I have to admit to a terribly embarrassing guilty pleasure: a couple of years ago I ran across the Disney movie Pollyanna (1960, Hayley Mills) while flicking through tv channels, and I was fairly horrified to discover that the more I watched it, the more I liked it. (My ego compels me to tell you here that Fight Club ranks high on my top-five favorite movie list, just to retain some semblance of credibility with you.) But there’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln in Pollyanna (though in truth actually written by director David Swift) that really struck me:
“If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”
And you know, I believe it. You’ll find it in yourself. You’ll find it in everyone around you. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for, and looking through grime-colored glasses is a choice. Yes, Pollyanna is a Disney movie. And I know the word “optimistic” is often considered a synonym for “ignorant.” But her good-seeking game didn’t stem from some loopy, mindless dementia that denied reality—her kind of optimism took guts. (You try finding a way to confront the political and religious leadership in your life, not to mention your own family, and just see if that doesn’t require guts, results notwithstanding.)
There is actually a very similar (and verified) quote of Lincoln’s, in which he says, “People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And so, for this new year, I wish you Pollyanna’s guts—to look purposely for the good in and around you. Not to pretend away the very real, terrible and tragic things that we keep doing to each other on varying scales. (And by all means, let’s try not to add to them.) But just don’t settle for only seeing those things.
Bah, weltschmertz. Who needs it?