Weltschmerz and the Lost Year of 2020

Image Credit: Rural Revolution
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Even getting a bonus day for leap year didn’t make 2020 any better.

Today, the first day of the last month of the year, is a notable milestone. One year ago – December 1, 2019 – the first confirmed case of an unknown novel coronavirus case was documented in a person in Wuhan, China. There’s a possibility that the first overall case may have been a couple of weeks earlier, but we know that December 1 of last year marked the first confirmed case in a person with no connection to the infamous Wuhan market. The case meant person-to-person transmission had occurred, the first whispered foreshadowing of what would become a worldwide catastrophe.

The year since then has been among the most globally challenging in most of our lifetimes, which speaks more to how generally decent much of our lives have been rather than to how horrendous 2020 was. But it’s still been a pretty grim year, all in all. So I set out trying to find a word, a phrase, a concept that really encapsulated my feelings about the year we’re about to wrap up. No surprise that I didn’t need to search much further than the German lexicon.

Those wily Germans have cooked up words for just about everything, including some of life’s more nuanced complexities. Find yourself feeling immensely cosy? Not just curled up on the couch, mind you, but deeply contented, metaphorically (or physically) swaddled in a soft blanket, with a perfect mug of hot cocoa and no cares in the world? The German word for this is gemütlichkeit, and it means not just physically, externally cosy, but emotionally and mentally so, as well.

Contentedness + cosiness = gemütlichkeit | Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you’ve ever known (and envied) someone who just has a natural knack for learning languages, yup, the Germans have a word for that, too: sprachgefühl, which roughly translates to “language feeling.”

Taking a naughty bit of pleasure in someone else’s misfortune? That’s schadenfreude, a word that’s quickly finding its way into the English lexicon, so familiar is this particular emotion. Perhaps its inverse is fremdscham, or “stranger shame,” which happens when, upon seeing someone make a humiliating mistake, you feel a cringe-inducing sense of embarrassment for them, just as keenly as if you had made the mistake yourself.

An especially appropriate German word for 2020, though, might be weltschmerz. This is best defined as the sense of depression or despair that arises from comparing the reality of the world to an imagined or idealised version of it. Watching and reading endless news about the coronavirus pandemic this year, and seeing the transformed nature of our world, all while not really being able to do much about it, has led to this sense of “world pain”… or weltschmerz.

The world in 2020 is probably not shaping up as most of us would prefer | Image Credit: Unsplash

The death tolls and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are the obvious global frontrunners when it comes to the challenges posed by 2020. But there’s much more, including devastating, record-breaking wildfires in Australia and California, plagues of locusts causing the widescale decimation of crops in East Africa, the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record (30 named storms compared to an average of 12, including two major hurricanes in the first half of November which made landfall in Nicaragua less than 25km apart), a massive chemical explosion that obliterated the port of Beirut and killed over 200 people, widespread civil unrest in the United States, religion-fuelled terrorism in France, an immensely stressful American election, a de facto government coup here in Malaysia, and more, all viewed through the various screens of almost non-stop news consumption. It’s easy to see how weltschmerz comes into play. Comparing the world as it is and the world as we wish it were is a recipe for despair.

Our ancestors, however, might take issue with our characterisation of 2020 as the ultimate annus horribilis. Economies may be struggling today, but there’s no comparison to the bleak years of the Great Depression. We are waging a global fight against a pandemic, but Covid-19 is neither the first nor the worst. The flu pandemic of 1918 killed over 50 million people worldwide. There are skirmishes and localised wars here and there, but that pales in contrast to the years-long horrors of World War II.

And the populist notion that our time is somehow marking the beginning of a decline is a hand-wringing concept as old as civilisation itself. After all, even the people of Athens in the fifth century BCE went on record complaining that their democracy just wasn’t what it used to be. We often view the present harshly and the past through an unwarranted rosy prism, twin psychological phenomena known as ‘decline bias’ and ‘nostalgia bias.’

Soup kitchens were common during the Great Depression, including this one in Chicago opened by infamous mobster Al Capone | Image Credit: Getty Images via History.com

It’s easy to look at 2020 and be consumed with weltschmerz, but hopefully most of us have not endured the utter despair and suffering felt by so many people throughout the incomprehensibly bad times of the past. We aren’t cowering in closets while a nightly firebombing campaign rages around us. We’re not standing in soup lines, desperate for any scrap of food we can get. We aren’t fleeing a brutal civil war or enduring an ethnic cleansing campaign.


Of course, some people truly have known tragedy and faced immense challenges in 2020, but for many of us, a lot of it just amounts to being temporarily inconvenienced… Deprived of the pre-pandemic lives that we now look back on with longing and fondness… Forced to pare back our usual indulgences. Realistically, however, most of the things which are fuelling our weltschmerz today are not permanent, and better days do lie ahead.

In many ways, with the cancellation of so many events, the parade of lockdowns, the ambitions unfulfilled, the promises unkept, the loved ones forced to be apart, 2020 seems like a lost year. And if we’re being honest, merely flipping the calendar from December to January isn’t going to magically usher in an immediately improved world. But there is comfort in hope, and there is value in perspective. And though challenges unquestionably lie ahead, there are signs to encourage us along the way.

Vaccines are being developed that show amazing promise. The world is finally getting serious about confronting climate change. Economic forecasts are largely positive. And the Americans have elected themselves a new president, which could signal a return to stability for one of the world’s most influential countries.

So take heart, soldier on, and raise a glass to a better 2021. And when those disconsolate feelings of weltschmerz inevitably arise, remember these wise words of counsel from author Robert Breault: “As you wait for better days, don’t forget to enjoy today… in case they’ve already started.”

For 2020, a one-star review is still probably overselling it | Image Credit: Adrian Brendel via Fine Art America

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