I love words – I am always on the lookout for a particularly elegant word or turn of phrase, and I like being able to use words well. So it sets my teeth on edge when I am unable to find the right word for something. I search and search my brain, but the word doesn’t come. I can get near it…oh, I want something like…but not quite…but until I find the word, I’m uneasy. It seems remarkable, how many words are in the English language, that sometimes I still can’t find the right word. But maybe it’s the wide variety that causes some problems.
English, after all, has a lot of words from a lot of language groups – Germanic, Latinate, Greek, African, Indo-European, Asian, indigenous American – English tells the history of humanity’s movement and ability to adapt. In his book The Ode Less Traveled, most excellent British person Stephen Fry has this to say:
The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful … Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.
To speakers of English, we want more words because the original Anglo-Saxon tongue just doesn’t have enough. Neither do the romance languages. Neither do Asian or indigenous American or African tongues. We’re always looking for some new way to describe things, and as we do, we learn some remarkable concepts to describe feelings, interpersonal relationships, and states of mind. We don’t have an elegant word for “I am because we are,” for example, so we borrow the word Ubuntu from the Xsosa.
Now when it comes to the feelings that arise when a good, hard look at the state of the world seems to reveal only negatives, English does have some good words, like Hopelessness, despair, depression, discouragement, melancholy, sorrow, worry, disconsolation, distress, anxiety. And we have some great idioms, like the title of this sermon, At Sixes and Sevens, which implies a sense of confusion, disarray, and a general, unidentifiable unrest. And still… there are subtleties that English words and idioms just can’t capture, so we turn to words from other languages to name what we’re feeling. This is important – because when we can name it, we can seek out remedies for it.
And I don’t know about you, but words like despair, distress, and anxiety don’t really get to where I am – or many of us might be are right now… we just can’t find the right words, and it’s contributing to that unsettled feeling. So let’s explore some of these foreign concepts and see if we can name what is bothering us.
We’ll start with ANGST.
The word comes from the Germanic languages. It has the same root as anguish, anxiety, and anger; in Danish, German, and Dutch, it connotes fear. But it also means something more. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard identified Angst as ‘anxiety in response to nothing or nothingness.’ It is a feeling that peace and contentment are disrupted.
As we’ve begun to incorporate the word ‘angst’ into our English vocabulary, its meaning has expanded to include inner turmoil and a sense of brooding. We often describe that certain stage of a child’s life as “teenage angst” – you know the stage I mean. My sister was the picture of teenage angst. at age 13, she was contrarian and obstinate and expressed her inner turmoil at being 13 by brooding and arguing. It was so bad, my mother refused to let me turn 13. In fact, on what should have been my 13th birthday, I was instead, according to my mother, 12½, and there I remained until I turned 14. My sister was dissatisfied with everything and nothing, and explicitly expressed her angst.
Angst reflects dissatisfaction. An existential….something…that things just aren’t right. In an article from Mental Floss, Arika Okrent asks, “are you dissatisfied in an introspective, overthinking, German way? Then you may be feeling angst.”
The problem with angst is that it can devolve quickly into anxiety – and anyone who has felt anxiety can tell you it can be paralyzing. There’s something wrong, I’m dissatisfied with it, I start overthinking it, and I can’t do anything.
Angst is a useful concept – and may be the right word for what you’re feeling, but not a useful state of mind when it comes to making a change.
From the French, we get ENNUI – which is a different sort of feeling – namely, boredom. But it is more than just plain old ‘there’s nothing good on tv and I don’t want to play with my toys’ boredom. Ennui is a sense of boredom from world weariness. To be filled with ennui is to imply a sense of spiritual depth and sensitivity.
But it also implies superiority and self-indulgence. It is, not surprisingly, a concept developed in artistic circles during the romantic period, in concert with a growing alienation because of industrialization and modern life. This sense of ennui seems to grow as the information age blossoms. But are we more bored because of the advances in technology, or just being more sensitive to the feeling? Bertrand Russell notes that “We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.”
And still, we feel ennui. Or at least some of us do, and it affects how we feel about the world. Okrent asks, “Are you tired, so tired of everything about the world and the way it is? Do you proclaim this, with a long, slow sigh, to everyone around you? Then you might have ennui.
But just like angst, ennui is not very useful as state of mind; its primary expression is listlessness, and leads quickly to a pessimism that nothing can be changed… and ultimately to apathy.
A bit more useful, perhaps, is the concept of WELTSCHMERZ. This is likely the least familiar of these words – I only discovered it fairly recently myself. Also from the German, it means “world pain.” In some ways, it is a German version of ennui, but it holds a different sort of feeling. Weltschmerz is about a mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be and how it really is. It may be more familiarly described as ‘compassion fatigue’. It’s a feeling we get in those weeks when everything seems wrong –the news is terrible, the fate of the world is at risk, and evil seems to be winning in the eternal wrestling match with good. We want to care about everything, and fix everything, and we just can’t do it. The world is an utter mess, and we feel the weight of it. We are weary of the world.
But weltschmerz isn’t just the pessimism of ennui, or the brooding of angst. The concept of weltschmerz contains a yearning in the sadness. As Okrent asks, “do you have sadness in your heart for the world that can never be, and sensitive shoes? Then you may be feeling weltschmerz.”
In weltschmerz, there is room for action. We are sad, we are disappointed, we feel the pain of the world. But as Unitarian Universalists, we know we are on the side of love and life, and we know that our faith in humanity’s goodness is a motivating power to help us heal a hurting world.
But how do we do it? We’re tired. How can we turn our exhaustion into movement? How can we turn up the inner pilot light that burns inside us? How can we go from brooding, listless, and weary to open-hearted, life-affirming, and alive?
Let’s look at one more foreign concept – this time from the happiest place on earth. It’s a concept we experience, in our homes, amongst friends, and in our religious communities, that helps us put the world aright… and now we have a word for it.
That concept is HYGGE – from the Danish. And yes, they are considered the happiest people in the world; despite the long hard winters, they have a small, well educated population, gender equality, good health care, and government policies that promote the general welfare of its citizens.
Loosely translated, hygge is coziness and togetherness. But it’s more than that. Hygge is more of a mental coziness, an effect of how we are together. Blogger Louise Thomsen Brits describes hygge as
The art of building sanctuary and community, of inviting closeness and paying attention to what makes us feel open hearted and alive, to create well-being, connection and warmth, a feeling of belonging to the moment and to each other, celebrating the everyday.
In our overstretched, complex, modern lives, hygge is a resourceful, tangible way to find deeper connection to our families, our communities, and our earth. It’s an uncomplicated, practical method of weaving the stuff of spirit and heart into daily life without sentimentality then taking time to celebrate it on a human scale.
Hygge is about appreciation. It’s about how we give and receive. Hygge is about being, not having.
In our personal lives, we know the power of hygge – gathering around the table for a shared meal, reading in a comfortable chair, wrapping up in blankets at the end of a day on the beach, seeking shelter from the rain under a shop awning, baking pie in a warm kitchen, watching a favorite movie with a cat on your lap, watching the sunset with someone you care for. The things that keep us alert and aware and anxious – the phone, the newspaper, Facebook – are distinctly absent in these moments of personal hygge.
But hygge is not just an absence of things that might be overwhelming. It is in fact a very practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life. It is “a kind of enchantment – inviting in warmth, simplicity, connection – making space for the heart and the imagination.” Hygge acknowledges the sacred in the secular – that there is something extraordinary in the ordinary.
Hygge provides space for us to rejuvenate and reclaim what we know is true. We are so busy – and as people committed to justice, equity, and compassion, it is easy for us to get overextended. We tend be constantly driven to do and achieve, so much so that overdoing becomes our undoing. Mystic Thomas Merton wonders if our modern rush to constantly do is a bit of self-violence. And when our modern rush meets our angst, ennui, and weltschmerz, we are caught in the conundrum between needing to do something …when nothing can be done, between the realities of the world …and how we experience it.
One of my favorite stories in the Christian scriptures is that of Mary and Martha, from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus and his disciples stopped by the home of Mary and Martha – and while Martha busied herself preparing a meal, providing a comfortable space, attending to every need, Mary simply sat and listened to the stories this band of travelers told. Martha, of course, was annoyed, and even asked Jesus why it would be okay for her sister to do nothing. Jesus suggested that “Mary has chosen the better part.”
Now to be clear, there are a lot of interpretations that make Martha the villain of the piece. It doesn’t help that there’s a bit of snarkniness on the part of Jesus. But I believe Martha is actually to be praised; she made sure that the physical environment was prepared – food for eating, comfortable spaces for relaxing, clean water for washing. But hygge is more than the stuff, it’s an experience. Together, Mary and Martha create hygge for Jesus and his disciples – a space between their loads and their limits – a space between vitality and exhaustion. Martha offers the tools and the means, and Mary offers the emotional space, and between them they create an environment for rest and rejuvenation to happen by being present, together, in a comforting space. In the sanctuary of hygge.
There is much to do to heal the world. We can’t step outside without noticing hunger, homelessness, climate change, racism, and other injustices that color our community. That is why this religious community is so important – or can be, if we are intentional about what kind of space it is. At its best, religious community is a shelter from the storm. It is a space set apart where we can release our angst, ennui, and weltschmerz, and breathe into the present moment. And yet it isn’t a place that simply holds the holy for us; rather, it helps us integrate our faith into the rhythm of our daily lives. It makes space for restoring loving and intimate connections with each other. It is the small rituals and gestures we undertake with each other in this sacred space that give everyday life its value and meaning, that comfort us, make us feel at home, rooted and generous. It is the ever-present invitation to stop, be still, and give thanks.
And it is intentional. Hygge doesn’t happen by accident; as Brits says, “it’s an attitude, a considered practice. It takes effort to hygge.” As author and former monk Thomas Moore writes, it is “a theme that can be lived amid all the other dimensions of an engaged human life.” It doesn’t seek to hide the darkness but rather provide a light that reminds us the darkness of pain, sorrows, and troubles is not all there is.
When we are anxious, listless, and world worn, we can return to our faith community, where the sanctuary of hygge holds us and rejuvenates us, giving us space to put down our burdens and shift our perspectives from alienation to interdependence, from anxiety to open-heartedness, from weariness to welcome.
Let this be our house of peace, of comfort, of light, of love, of hygge.