I know I am not alone in wishing this could be a simpler time, a time when yes, we saw where racism, homophobia, misogyny, and greed were harming others but where we also knew the ground we were standing on was firm.
I know I am not alone in wishing for time to contemplate the fullness and richness of life, to enjoy our families, friends, hobbies, occupations, nature – as a nourishing respite from the hard work of justice and compassion.
Alas, this is not a simpler time. Not only has hate and greed won, it’s bombarding us with its vitriol and violence, threatening our good sense, our moral centers, our principles, and our very lives. The ground we stood on is no longer firm.
Americans are watching a constitutional crisis unfold. We are watching the very principles we stake our lives on be compromised at every turn – from the inherent worth and dignity all the way through the interdependent web of all existence.
Every day, we are bombarded with story after story, crisis after crisis, and it’s got us on shaky ground. It’s demanding action from us in ways we never realized we would be called to act, our heads spinning to figure out what to do next, no less how to feel about it. We know we’re scared, and angry, but also more that we are probably struggling to find words for, which then gets us feeling shakier.
I suspect I am not alone in that frustration – not finding the right word can leave us feeling uneasy – incomplete. It seems remarkable, given how many words are in the English language. But maybe it’s the wide variety that causes some problems… and if you’ll allow me this detour into linguistics…
It useful to remember that English has a lot of words from a lot of language groups – Germanic, Latinate, Greek, Indo-European, even some Asian words have seeped in – 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,” Fry writes, “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 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 really have a word for “I am because we are,” for example, so we borrow the word Ubuntu.
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 – things many of us are feeling. 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.
Now under different circumstances, I would say something like “these foreign concepts might help us name what is bothering us,” and devolve into a sermon from a simpler time that gave us space to reflect solely on language. That was my plan, actually, when I first came up with the idea for this sermon. But now, having watched all that’s been happening, watching our principles, our democracy, and, frankly, human decency, be directly threatened, we know what it is bothering us. We know there’s sadness, despair, distress, anger, and anxiety. It’s so real, we can almost taste it.
And still… concepts from other languages will be helpful here – if for nothing else, to remind us we’re not alone in feeling like this. So let’s breathe and take a look:
Some might use the word angst to describe their state of mind. Angst, a Germanic word, 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.
Angst reflects dissatisfaction. An existential… something… that things just aren’t right. In an article from the magazine Mental Floss, Arika Okrent suggests you may be feeling angst if you are “dissatisfied in an introspective, overthinking, German way.”
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. And when there is a real, tangible crisis, becoming paralyzed by anxiety isn’t helpful. 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.
A more helpful concept might be weltschmerz. Also from the German, it means “world pain.” 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 – like now – when everything is 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 pessimism, anxiety, or brooding. The concept of weltschmerz contains a yearning in the midst of the fear, anger, and weariness – a sadness in your heart for the world that can never be.
In weltschmerz, there is room for action. We are sad, we are scared, we are angry, we feel the pain of the world and our nation. 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 in the call to resistance.
But how do we do it? We can easily get overwhelmed by the hundreds of ways to resist – from protests and marches to phone calls and letter writing to workshops and classes. But we’re a little paralyzed and a lot 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 active?
This is where one more concept we don’t have in English might have – 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 on a blustery afternoon, 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, hard, complicated 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 these very complex times meet our angst and weltschmerz, we get caught in the conundrum between needing to do something …and how we experience it.
There is much to do to resist the hatred and discrimination already barreling down on us. We can’t turn around without noticing the direct threats – to individuals’ lives, to human rights, to democracy, to the separation of church and state, to truth and facts, to world peace, to the very planet we call home.
Every day, there is something else to set us on edge. And every day, we need that space to gear up again for the fight, or these things will continue.
We know this is true from our travel – if you’ve ever been on an airplane, the safety instructions include a directive about the oxygen masks that might deploy – “put our own mask on first, and then help others.”
Hygge helps us put on our own masks. But hygge is intangible – it’s not just a comfortable space, it’s a comfortable experience. It’s freshly baked pie and the smells that evoke memories. It’s a warm fire and time to read. It’s a snuggly quilt and someone to cuddle with. In hygge, the stuff and the space create a sanctuary for our bodies and our spirits.
But it’s not enough to create hygge in our homes – with all that we face, it is VITAL that we create hygge in our religious communities. This space 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 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 safe space for learning and discussion that prepares us lovingly for the task ahead. 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.” Hygge is, as author and former monk Thomas Moore writes, “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.
We need this reminder more than ever. It can be so easy to get caught up in the 24/7 news cycle and remain shocked, hurt, angry, scared, almost to the point of being inured to the horrors so that we lose sight of the acts of resistance we must take up – and lose sight of our souls – the very reason this matters in the first place.
When we are anxious 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.