Emotions for the new world

It’s very easy to think that human states of mind are universal, rather than a product of our environment; but they change between cultures and times. The concept of privacy, as we understand it now, is an example. It’s not something people would have felt driven to defend for most of history. To quote Wikipedia:

The concept of universal individual privacy is a modern construct primarily associated with Western culture, British and North American in particular, and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times

I found a few interesting links along these lines. A recent list of books about loneliness claimed that that concept was new:

The word comes into common usage around 1800, linked to social change – especially the secularity, alienation and competition produced by modernity. Before then it was solitude that interested writers and philosophers. Solitude could be problematic, but in a landscape forged by God, was one ever alone?

Going further back in time, to the period sometimes called ‘the Dark Ages’, we encounter fundamentally different ways of understanding the world. These were needed to survive in a world that was dangerous, unforgiving and ruled by chance. A recent Night Heron newsletter talked about this in relation to Beowulf, quoting from Tolkien’s writing on the poem:

 [Beowulf’s] author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night.

Night Heron goes on to say:

the worth of defeated valour” is a phrase that will stick with me for a long time, and you can make of it what you will… but i take it to mean… yes, you may be up against a monster that creeps in the night and eats people, you may be up against a dragon far stronger than you, you may be up against the bottomless pit of student debt and climate change anxiety, you may be up against whatever it is you’re up against… and truth be told, you may not overcome it, but the very attempt to overcome it is admirable beyond words. it’s the whole point of life. the life worth living is the one spent fighting against all the Grendels in the world.

It is possible that we will need new emotions to face the horrors of climate change. There have been articles written about the sense of doom people are feeling, and the psychological toll this is taking. A recent article on this subject, ‘If I have no hope for the planet, why am I so determined to have this baby? ‘, took such a grimly hopeful view, an example of this ‘defeated valour’.

When my mother had cancer there was 12 months between her diagnosis and her death. I knew she would die. But knowing that didn’t mean I didn’t spend time with her. Didn’t laugh with her. Find joy and beauty in our relationship. Enjoy the experiences we could have, while we had time. And so it is, we must reach for the pieces of beauty the world still offers us. The clear blue sky when we have it. A child watching a bee feeding in the garden. The sounds of a flock of native birds passing overhead. We, my child-to-be and I, will visit the world on its deathbed.

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