Won't You Share in My Weltschmerz?
June 3, 2011 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I used to write, draw, make funny things that I put out into the world to share with anyone who was interested. I liked forming connections with people, enjoying shared interests and talking about ideas. I liked creating online communities and seeing total strangers develop meaningful connections with each other. Now I just want to hide in my hovel and watch old Buffy episodes while the world burns. How can I regain my desire to engage with humanity?

As a maker of things I belong to what Jonathan Franzen would call the Contract model. I read and write in order to combat my existential loneliness and feel some connection with people. So it doesn't work for me to just hole myself up and write things for my own enjoyment. I really do want to be out in the world of humans.

At the same time, whenever I do venture out there, either virtually or physically, I'm repelled by what I find. Unbelievable selfishness, cruelty, indifference to others' existence, willful ignorance...I'm way too thin-skinned and sensitive to this stuff, and at the same time I can't seem to ignore it, wall it off, or process it in any way that doesn't produce impotent outrage.

All around me I see writers, artists, people of every occupation or interest who are able to reach out to others and engage with the world without being traumatized. They're able to connect with the few decent people out there, and aren't hindered by the horrible people. How do they do it? How can I?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Get a dog.
posted by orthogonality at 12:28 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Unbelievable selfishness, cruelty, indifference to others' existence, willful ignorance...

If someone asked me the easiest way to adopt those qualities, I'd recommend they just hide in their hovel and watch television while the world burns.

At the very least, think of creating and reaching out as a form of self-preservation.
posted by hermitosis at 12:31 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding orthogonality. Adopt a dog from a shelter, and make the dog happy. This will necessarily involve feeding, loving, petting and walking the dog. All these activities are good for both your souls, and the walking the dog will tend to put you in contact with people. The sorts of people who stop to ask if they can touch your dog are almost exactly the sort of people who will make you feel better about humanity.
posted by Mooski at 12:34 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I create almost entirely because of all the awful, awful shit out there. People are bad to each other and I truly believe that art is a powerful way to combat this.

But even so, it's easy to get overwhelmed by how much the world sucks. So build relationships with people you like and/or trust, and go from there. Because the world doesn't have to be perfect, but your own little corner of it can be close enough to it that you don't mind.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:36 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

You're losing the trees for the forest, friend. A dense forest is pretty dark. Singular trees... they're just... shady.

You need to connect with people on an individual level and reaffirm that folks are basically pretty decent while dispelling the myth that there are only a "few decent people out there."
posted by jph at 12:40 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

When did this feeling start? Did something trigger the withdrawal?
posted by infini at 12:41 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unbelievable selfishness, cruelty, indifference to others' existence, willful ignorance

Oh, I hear you. We're living in really bad times - not that the times are ever good, but they're singularly less than awesome right now. And the structures that produce the awful are strong and entrenched, and it's hard to see how they can be changed in the near future. Lately I've been trying to pull myself out of a slump too, and things keep knocking me right back into it.

That said, I feel happiest and most engaged when I'm with my friends/friendly acquaintances doing something that is both fun and (somewhat) meaningful - going for a bike ride, cooking, talking, planning a project. Right now I'm concentrating on small goals - seeing friends once a week, doing one activist thing a week, cooking my own lunches and dinners. These things tend to spill over and create more engagement - ie, the activist project generates hanging out and/or fun little projects like cooking for an event, cooking generates dinner invitations, etc etc.

Also, something I need to do and haven't been able to - turn off the computer, limit computer time to a set amount every day. It's way too easy to read the internet until it's too late in the evening to start a project, for example.
posted by Frowner at 12:41 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't watch the news. Don't read political threads or outrage filter on MeFi. Disengage from the negativity.

Although it does sound a bit like you are depressed.
posted by smackfu at 12:51 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

All I can say to you is that you are not alone. I could have pretty much written your post myself and am looking at the answers that you are being given to find an answer myself. For most of my life, until my thirties perhaps , I believed that people were inherently good. I would have told you back then that selfish , evil people account for maybe ten or twenty percent tops of everyone out there. For the last decade and a half it seems to me that I had that completely wrong and that the vast majority of the world is selfish and/or evil and that perhaps ten percent, twenty tops are decent sorts. It is depressing to live in such a world . It's not where I want to be.

I have no answer for you other than to say that you are not alone and if you want to talk about it, memail me and I'll keep your confidentiality.

Also I think that Frowner is right. Turn off the computer and go find that other 10 or 20 percent and try to hang with them. Ignorance is bliss. The more I learn about the world and it's people with the resources available to me - the less happy it makes me.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 12:54 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make a habit of asking other people for help. In addition to being full of people who are greedy and self-absorbed, the world is also full of people who love to help other people. They take up a much smaller portion of what passes for news coverage, but they're out there, everywhere. If you can train yourself to assume that everyone you encounter wants to help you, and you create opportunities for them to do so, some good things will happen. Some bad, too, but way fewer than you might think.

Also, it is not the case that x% of people are selfish louts and the rest are decent, like you and me. Even people whose conduct is dominated by loutishness have a kernel of decency. Try to direct your interactions to that part. Whatever you feed will grow.
posted by Corvid at 1:05 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I try to remember that everyone is fighting their own battles, and the person who seems selfish or indifferent is really a wounded soul looking to protect themselves. I also do lovingkindness meditation, which I outlined in this comment. It helps me feel compassionate towards myself and others.

It's a paradox that the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the less sensitive you become. The more you try to hang on to your sense of safety, the more sensitive you are to anything that threatens you. The cruel people are really, really scared. Don't be scared.
posted by desjardins at 1:05 PM on June 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

Do you attend writer's workshops or group drawing sessions? I find that the quickest way to discover humanity in others is to see something they've created.
posted by yaymukund at 1:41 PM on June 3, 2011

When you're out and about, look for beautiful things. And not just grand gestures or big sunsets or anything; use those creative skills and really observe. Watch people waiting on the sidewalk for the light to change, how that young couple is holding hands and smiling at each other with total googly eyes. Check out a group of young skateboarders, and how one of them is making the others laugh so hard they can hardly stand up. Even little things like a guy sitting alone in a coffee shop, reading his newspaper; think of how relaxing that time must be for him, what a gift free time can be.

I sometimes swing too far in this direction, and end up just completely overwhelmed by how interesting and lovely and achingly beautiful humanity can be. We are all doing our best, chugging along and making mistakes and breaking our hearts; we are never truly alone, as long as we are sharing in this journey of humanity.

Also, assume the best in your interactions with people. Smile first, give them the benefit of the doubt, be grateful for everything they share with you. True, some people will still just be flat-out heinous, but you can at least control your side of the interaction.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 1:49 PM on June 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

What's worked for me:

Quit eating sugar, corn syrup, & agave nectar. Eat fewer refined foods, like white flour.

Go for at least one walk around the block, as briskly as you're up for.

Don't watch or listen to the news. Seriously. I get all my news from the newspaper or internet (mostly metafilter) and it's made the world a lot more bearable.

Call people to ask how they're doing. Bonus if they like to go for a walk or something.

Do something that feels positive. For me it's gardening and volunteering a few hours a week.

Getting a dog or even a cat is great if you can pull it off, but for us renters it's tricky.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:55 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding sarahsynonymous' suggestion. My dad used to walk around with a camera when he was depressed in order to force him to find some little bit of beauty. It might be in a street sign or an abandoned shoe rather than another human, but you're going to find it. I know that sometimes it's hard just to walk around, but try to do it.

And get off Facebook if you're feeling fragile. I'm serious. I know you said you enjoyed being in online communities in the past, but my personal experience has been that online communities seemed to be a lot more supportive and less selfish than they are today. For every great interaction I have with a stranger these days, I feel like there are at least five people taking a crap on my head...
posted by queensissy at 2:06 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

nthing the photography+walking to fight the blues and find your breathe again. it truly can work magic. there is so much beauty and kindness in the world. sometimes you just need to reshift your personal lens, and i have found that a camera lens can really do the trick.
posted by anya32 at 2:10 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I often feel as you do and my first impulse was to wish I could meet you to share the experience and get some insight. It's interesting that Poet_Lariat, who also feels this way, wants to connect with you too.

What I take from that is that you (because you've posted), and we, really haven't lost the desire to connect but the fear of being hurt or menaced by others is greater than the desire to reach out. Probably because we have been hurt and menaced by others - plenty of others. I'm haunted almost daily by memories of really gratuitous cruelty from my past and unfortunately, often, my present. But I've always been told that I'm overly sensitive.

I think that all of the suggestions given here are good ones. The one I find that helps me most is exercise, - vigorous, regular exercise but even though I feel much better I still withdraw when the next person decides to take a swipe. The exercise doesn't help me want to reach out, it just helps me feel good in my own skin, no matter what.

It must have something to do with being an artist/writer/creative type; since we all are. I've assumed Poet-Lariat is a poet too. Maybe the sensitivity just comes with the territory, but I've also been wondering and reading lately about narcissistic personalities and trying to determine if I have one and if my isolation has increased that personality problem. I don't really see myself as narcissistic and the therapy I've done in the past has not indicated such but I wonder if it can develop because I spend so very much of my time alone and have for years.

Somehow being alone is less painful than having to deal with most other people - of course I have a full time job and have to interact directly with about 100 people a day, but when I leave work I hibernate.

I'm no psychologist and would love to hear from anyone out there who is and might shed light.
And I'd love to hear from you too as you sort this through. I will do same. Good Luck.
posted by ofelia at 3:51 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm also very thin-skinned. Hearing or reading nasty/racist/ignorant/cruel things sucks the energy right out of me. I've had to learn coping strategies. One of the best is to "blow away the chaff; keep the wheat"--just let the bad stuff roll on by; hold onto the good stuff. You might be surprised how much wheat there is.

(Sometimes it seems like there are more jerks out there than there used to be, but I think that is just because the internet has given them an outlet for their nastiness.)

Very important - If you think you're headed for clinical depression, find a councellor or psychiatrist before the dark clouds immobilize you. Memail me if you want.
posted by LauraJ at 3:57 PM on June 3, 2011

I read something powerful recently which was about something different, but may apply in your case. .....Go with me a sec.

What I was looking for was information about how to go from being re-active to being more pro-active. And mixed in with a bunch of sites with platitudes that didn't help much, I came across a very comforting piece of advice...that sometimes being re-active isn't a sign of failure. Sometimes, going through a period of being re-active when you used to be more pro-active, is a sign that you are tired and need a break. So, take it.

You say that you used to be able to engage more with the world, but now you just don't feel like it. Maybe that's a sign that you're just worn out and need to focus on yourself for a while, to re-fill that inner well of compassion. You need a break. So take it.

And don't worry about the fact that other people seem to be able to engage with the world while you can't right now. Maybe they were at home sulking last year while you were out and in the world, and they're the ones who are recharged now. And if you take a break and start getting out into the world again, some of those people will have run dry and started holing up because they need a break.

Maybe you wanting to take a break is just a sign that a break is what you need. Take it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:24 PM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

"Oh, I hear you. We're living in really bad times - not that the times are ever good, but they're singularly less than awesome right now. "

This is actually not true. By any measure. Try reading this interesting article.

That being said, I share the OP's dim assessment of humanity on the whole. My personal solution has been to create two children who are the most beautiful, wonderful beings on the planet, and who make up for everything else and then some. Of course, if you try this and have jerks for kids, then you're doubly screwed. :)
posted by zachawry at 6:41 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

People are just complicated. Everyone is a mixed bag, everyone is afraid of something, wants something, and everyone is on their way to something. Sometimes I've been cruel out of ignorance, sometimes out of fear, but only rarely out of true malice. I may go home and think long and hard about something I said or did that was unkind, but who's going to know that? Or if months later karma comes around to bite me, and it finally hits me that holy crap, I was a dick and I hurt someone - someone out there likely still thinks I was a complete dick and unless I track them down and apologize they may continue to think that forever.

When I pay attention to the people around me I find that (like me) they're mostly self-absorbed, they are (like me) very flawed, but those very same people can have astonishing tenderness and kindness - I just have to be watching for it. If I shut myself away from them the first time I was disappointed, I'd never see that.

I think if you take care of yourself and give it time (maybe find a therapist to talk to? you do sound as if you might be depressed) you'll rebound and find yourself wanting to create and reach out again. Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 8:05 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I am not busy being an insensitive asshole, I usually entertain myself by finding someone with a problem, and doing something unexpectedly helpful.

I make a little investment. Sometimes, it costs me a buck or two. Usually a lot of time. The reward, I figure, is in reducing world entropy and rejecting the dominant paradigm of "me first!".

You won't always get love for this. Sometimes, you'll be punished. Often, you'll feel good about yourself. Very infrequently, you'll plant a seed of goodness in the heart of someone you helped, and/or in the heart of an unknown observer. Not a bad thing, huh?

Within 100 yards of where you sit, probably, is someone who needs some help with something. Problems are really easy to find.

If you are at a loss for how to start, go visit someone promisingly undergoing a disaster and tell them you are looking for meaning and purpose in life and would like to help out. Be funny about it. Buy them something you know they need but they don't. A zillion ways out of this conundrum, OP. Good on you for wanting out.

Bad stuff gonna be here always, amigo. The human condition and all, you know? Rage against the machine.
posted by FauxScot at 11:01 PM on June 3, 2011

nthing the dog suggestion (if you have the time to train and care for it properly). Get a little one if you don't have much space. Then take it to obedience school, and then to the local dog park and watch it play with the other doggies. Your heart will swell, and you'll have a reason for some casual chitchat for the other owners, who will admire your dog and whose dogs you will admire in return. And you'll be in the world again.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:23 AM on June 4, 2011

You know the Buffy episode where she's complaining to Angel that they're not making a difference, that they're just barely holding any of it back?

You know the Buffy episode "The Wish", showing Sunnydale without Buffy in it?

I'm remembering an HBO documentary where a suicide helpline volunteer said that, in her opinion, the main reason people commit suicide is that people are just shitty to each other.

You're a person, every interaction you have with another person is an opportunity to be not-shitty to them. Even if it's just being basically polite. Every time you have a small choice and one option leads to more niceness in the world and one option leads to less, pick the option that leads to more niceness. Do sweat the small stuff.

Tell yourself that every time you write a thank-you note, a vampire dies.
posted by tel3path at 2:18 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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