The American diplomat George F. Kennan straddled the 20th century in more ways than one. Born in 1904, he was the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, warned that the Russians would seize control of Eastern Europe after World War II and became the principal architect of America’s containment policy toward the Communist bloc during the Cold War. He lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and then some, dying at age 101. He was in many ways a consummate establishment figure, yet he remained profoundly disaffected by the era in which he lived. “Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible,” he complained in his diary. “We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, . . . too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them.”
Kennan lived to an age when he might be expected to succumb to a bit of world-weariness. But this particular diary entry was written in 1927, when he was all of 23. “I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner,” he confessed at the time – a regret that only intensified as the 20th century progressed. And yet I suspect someone of Kennan’s temperament would have felt out of place in any age. Consider Wordsworth’s lament that “the world is too much with us,” written in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution a century or so before Kennan’s birth. Or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the soliloquy in which he cries, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” Or even the author of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, who griped, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”
The Germans have a word for Kennan’s particular malady, and like much Teutonic nomenclature it is a mouthful: Weltschmerz. The term is derived from welt, meaning “world” and schmerz, or “pain.” Yes, the world can be a painful place, and our growing up inevitably involves coming to terms with things as they are rather than things as we might wish them to be. We become disenchanted. Our youthful enthusiasms give way to the melancholy realization that we have seen it all before, and this is all there is. In religious terms, Weltschmerz expresses our anguish over having been born into a fallen world, where the only prospect of paradise is paradise lost.
I have a way to go before I have been around as long as Kennan, but I have been around long enough to claim to have seen it all before, if I were so inclined. I remember when I started out in the business world more than 40 years ago, there were old-timers in my company who would scoff at every new initiative, claiming that it had been tried before and failed. I vowed that if I ever started thinking like those characters, I would know it was time to get out. Decades later, still working for the same company, I had seen management teams come and go, new buzzwords trotted out, operations centralized and decentralized in turn, boxes moved around on organization charts, high-powered management consultants brought in periodically to screw things up in the name of efficiency. I had sense enough not to tell people I had seen it all before. But once I started thinking that way, I knew it was time to get out, and I did.
My father-in-law, who lived even longer than Kennan, showed by example that it is possible not to succumb to world-weariness. As a veteran of World War II and a victim of the McCarthy-era witch hunts who waged a successful six-year legal battle to reclaim his teaching post, he had certainly seen a lot. But even in extreme old age, he never dwelt on the past or lamented the state of the world. His secret, I eventually realized, is that he simply sidestepped most of the distractions and vexations of modern life, concentrating on what nourished his soul and ignoring the rest. He was a poet and a scholar of romance languages who read Dante and Voltaire in the original. He rarely watched television, except for sports broadcasts, and did not own a computer or a cell phone. Thus, he was spared reality TV, Fox News, celebrity culture, cat videos, Facebook, tweeting, texting and constantly checking his e-mails. His portal to the world was a library card.
Herein lies an antidote for the world-weary. When you think you have seen it all before, recognize that you have gotten bogged down. You are meant to learn from your experience, to be sure, but then it is time to move on. Find something new – and there is always something new, provided you don’t dwell on the past or mourn its passing. The antidote you seek is called wisdom.
George F. Kennan, The Kennan Diaries, reviewed by Fareed Zakariafeb in the New York Times, February 21, 2014