Weltschmerz encounters Psalm 90

6 Oct

There are times when I have to kick back and let the world do its thing without my worrying. The Germans have a word for this feeling of anxiety caused by the ills of the world, Weltschmerz. It is often translated as world-weariness.

At such times, I often take refuge in a piece of literature—let its sounds and ideas flow over me as if anointing me—I see the Old Testament image of Aaron, the oil flowing over his head and beard—for a return to the fray.

Reading the 90th psalm is a good way to reflect on things. It starts out reminding us that we do have a haven, a refuge, that is truly home for us, a God who knows us.

You have been our haven, Lord, 
from generation to generation. 
Before the mountains existed, 
before the earth was born, 
from age to age you are God.

Mainly, the psalm focuses on “passing away” as a basic feature of earthly life, our passing away.

You return us to dust, 
children of earth back to earth.
For in your days a thousand years 
are like a single day: 
they pass with the swiftness of sleep.

You sweep away the years 
as sleep passes at dawn, 
like grass that springs up in the day 
and is withered by evening.
For we perish at your wrath, 
your anger strikes terror.
You lay bare our sins 
in the piercing light of your presence.
All our days wither beneath your glance, 
our lives vanish like a breath.
Our life is a mere seventy years, 
eighty with good health, 
and all it gives us is 
toil and distress, 
then the thread breaks 
and we are gone.

We are transients on this earth, our tenure here is not indefinite, and we are vulnerable while we are here. Furthermore, this is all God’s doing. We are in God’s hands all the while. We may be like grass that springs up in the day and is withered by evening, but we are grass planted by God.

This is the way it is supposed to be—it’s not happenstance that we are given a mere seventy years, eighty with good health, and it gives us is toil and distress, and then the thread breaks and we are gone. We may push back and live way past 70 or 80, but the toil and distress don’t disappear. And sooner or later, the thread does break.

These words bring anger and despair when we don’t accept our conditions and push back against the constraints. Much of human life is lived in rebellion. In fact, such rebellion may be a basic mark of being human. But even though some of our greatest human achievements may be enabled by our efforts to surpass our passing-away-ness, the psalmist reminds us we can never escape our situation. Our massive medical system, for example, works hard to put us past 80 years. It is remarkable, when you think about it, that one-seventh of the American economy, health care, is dedicated to counteracting our very nature, our natural passing-away-ness. Our brilliance is embodied in such efforts, but they are finally unsuccessful.

Who can know the force of your anger?
Your fury matches our fear. 
Teach us to make use of our days 
and bring wisdom to our hearts.
How long, O Lord, before you return?
Pity your servants, 
shine your love on us each dawn, 
and gladden our hearts.

I think of the movie, “Blade Runner”—biological robots have been programmed to self-destruct at a certain age. They threaten the bioengineer who created them, until he re-programs them so they can live longer. He tells them the bad news—in the process of reprogramming, they will die. That applies to us humans, in a metaphorical sense, not literally.

When God finishes the work of creation with the words, “It is good,” that includes our finite, passing-away lives. Understanding this is one of our major spiritual challenges. The psalm ends on this note:

Balance our past sorrows 
with present joys 
and let your servants, young and old, 
see the splendor of your work.
Let your loveliness shine on us, 
and bless the work we do, 
bless the work of our hands.

When we reach this point, we are still creatures of passing-away-ness, but we can be at peace. We are ready to re-enter the world that will weary us, again and again. We re-enter as transient conquerors.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/6/2017

Psalm translation, Liturgical Psalter 1974, Liturgical Press.

4 Responses to “Weltschmerz encounters Psalm 90”

  1. Barbara Whittaker-Johns October 7, 2017 at 2:50 am #

    Thank you Phil. It would take many lines at this late hour to tell you why your reflection means so much to me on this very day, at this very moment (and yes, two days before reaching another notch in the mere seventy years). The same has been true of many of your blog entries – their blessings in my life. This one reminds me how the hymn based on this Psalm, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”, turns my heart inside out. It’s not widely appreciated in UU circles which is one of many reasons I no longer am sure in what faith community I am at home. Have to settle for being “at home in the universe” I guess. Often I imagine that one day I might get to talk with you, and Neva, in person again. Missing you.

    • Liftthescreen October 8, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

      Thanks, Barbara—your welcome note recalls the community that My disability has separated me from. For more than twenty years, you were very much part of my world. Living in a retirement community as I do, I have more time to connect through writing and the internet. I shall now keep in mind that you are reading my blog. As we sang hymns in church this morning, I thought of your reference to “O God our help…” we sang a different hymn, but the music and voices are always bracing. Wishing you peace, always.

  2. Liftthescreen October 8, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

    Exchange with Stewart Herman—

    Hi, Phil –

    Sounds like a koan to me….you inviting us to respond to what you don’t receive. I assume your tongue was firmly lodged in cheek….

    On to the substance. Psalm 90–very reassuring, in reminding us of our limits. It sounds like for you the dark night can be gone into in a gentle way. The passing away can be deferred but not finally resisted. This needs to be read by those ambitious souls who are bent freezing themselves cryogenically for future resuscitation!

    I admire your serenity, and you are kind to share it with the rest of us more anxious souls.

    Would your reading be different if you were persuaded by the emerging climate science that our species might be facing its demise before 2100, due to a planet become unlivable? That puts a different spin on passing away, I think.


    • Liftthescreen October 9, 2017 at 12:01 am #


      I thought I began by acknowledging my own anxiety. Climate demise can well be part of the picture. Think of my previous blog on wrath of God and destruction. Check out verses 4-7 of the psalm.

      The cryogenicists, to be sure, but I had in mind those older people, including here at !y retirement home, who may not refer to transhumanism, but do race to the doctors to keep them going in their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

      I think it’s a psalm for Everyman/Woman.

      Thanks for your provoking—I cherish it.

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