Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Everybody Hurts - aka Weltschmertz

By Pritish Nandy in the Times of India

We all live with weltschmerz in these difficult times. There's no exact translation of this charming word coined by Jean Paul Richter in 1810. What it suggests is a kind of world weariness that has entered our lives. What you can call a universal pain. Everyone lives with it and yet everyone is in denial of it. That's why we have this great love affair with the entertainment business. Movies. Broadway. Vegas. The IPL. Formula One. We are living in the greatest era of escapism simply because we live in the greatest era of pain.

This pain is not always personal. It's not just about you and me and those who we love. You see it in the eyes of the urchin who comes begging to you at a street corner. She has lost her childhood, her innocence. You see it in the eyes of those who work for you at home, cooking, cleaning, washing your clothes, or taking your well groomed dogs out for a walk. Each one of them, however well you may take care of them, dreams that one day they will walk away to be their own master. You see it in the eyes of your colleagues at work, however enthusiastic they may be about what they do. The long travel to work, the pitiable condition of public transportation, the missing footpaths, the growing pollution, the problems with putting kids through school and college, the frequent confrontations over rent, power, water, tax: everything contributes to this weltschmerz. It's everywhere.

I see it in parties and film premieres too. There's something very tragic in watching middle aged men and women dressed in absurd designer togs, their hair dyed and faces botoxed, prancing around like teenagers and pretending to have a great time. There are more sad-eyed drunks and dope heads there than in the dance bars of suburban Mumbai or the glitzy discotheques of five star hotels. While the real youngsters of this generation, equally sad-eyed, shot and lonely, are racing down empty Mumbai roads late at night on rented souped up bikes trying to prove their machismo. They challenge danger because they find it tougher to challenge life. They hide their pain by escaping it. So do their parents who helplessly watch them suffer, knowing that sermons don't help.

The day we all realise this, that the rich is in as much pain as the poor, that the employer is having as tough a time as the employee, that the cop who asks you for a bribe lives as sad a life as you, the pickpocket you catch has risked being lynched because he has no other alternative means of livelihood, that the movie star you idolise is as lonely as you are, that the one who brutalises you is perhaps as brutalised by life as you are, the less we will seek to blame others for our fate. You will feel less anger against that guy in the tax office who asks you for a bribe when you realise he is still paying back, after ten years on his job, his father's debt for getting him the job. We are lucky. The Americans are consuming today what their next 13 generations will have to pay for. The Greeks will be lucky if their next generation can survive their current crisis.

We have, all of us, mortgaged our futures to pay for being around. No, I am not saying this. Ask anyone who understands economics or the environment and they will tell you this. Yet man bravely strides ahead. As we flirt with more pain, more danger, we discover more and more ways to seek gratification, more technology to flaunt, more entertainment to excite us and, most important, more dreams to chase. So we pursue new ways to earn more money, grow more food, hunt down more pleasures, seek to extend our life spans. British scientists recently declared that by 2050 we will find a way to overcome mortality.
This is the miracle of our times. Even as most things go wrong, man's ingenuity to seek hope and happiness keeps improving. But where we fail most is in sustaining relationships. The best companies collapse, as do the best marriages, the best rock groups, the most intense relationships because our weltschmerz makes us lonely islands of pain. That's why last week, when R.E.M broke up after 31 years, I remembered their most popular song, which became the anthem of our times. Everybody hurts. Yes, everybody hurts. And that is why we hurt each other so much.

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