Feeling Disoriented by the Election, Pandemic and All the things Else? It’s Known as ‘zozobra,’ and Mexican Philosophers Have Some Recommendation
By Francisco Gallegos from Wake Forest University and Carlos Alberto Sánchez from San José State University
Have you ever had the feeling that you cannot understand what is happening? In a moment everything seems normal, then suddenly the frame shifts and reveals a world in flames struggling with pandemic, recession, climate change and political upheaval.
This is “Zozobra”, the peculiar form of fear that arises when one cannot take a single point of view and raise questions such as: is it a beautiful autumn day or an alarming moment of converging historical catastrophes?
On the eve of a general election where the outcome – and the consequences – are unknown, this is a state many Americans may experience.
As scientists of this phenomenon, we have determined how zozobra has spread through US society in recent years, and we believe that the insight of Mexican philosophers can help Americans during these turbulent times.
Since the conquest and colonization of the Valley of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, the Mexicans have had to deal with wave after wave of profound social and spiritual disturbances – wars, insurrections, revolution, corruption, dictatorship and now the danger of becoming an anesthetic state. Mexican philosophers have had more than 500 years of uncertainty to reflect on, and they have important lessons to share.
Zozobra and the wobbling of the world
The word “zozobra” is a common Spanish term for “fear”, but with connotations that are reminiscent of the wobbling of a ship about to capsize. The term emerged as a key term among Mexican intellectuals in the early 20th century to describe the feeling of lack of stable ground and feeling out of place in the world.
This feeling of zozobra is often experienced by people who visit a foreign country or immigrate to a foreign country: The rhythm of life, the way people treat each other, everything just seems to be “out” – unfamiliar, disoriented and vaguely alienating.
According to the philosopher Emilio Uranga (1921-1988), the telltale sign of the zozobra wobbles and shifts between perspectives and cannot relax in a single frame to make sense of things. As Uranga describes in his 1952 book “Analysis of Mexican Being”:
“Zozobra refers to a way of being that oscillates ceaselessly between two possibilities, between two affects, without knowing which one depends on … indiscriminately rejecting one extreme in favor of the other. The soul suffers from this, it feels torn and wounded. ”
What makes Zozobra so difficult to address is that its source is intangible. It is a soul sickness that is not caused by a personal failure or any of the special events we can point out.
Instead, it comes from cracks in the frames of meaning that we rely on to understand our world – the shared understanding of what is real and who is trustworthy, what risks we face and how we can address them, what the basic decency of demands us and what ideals our nation strives for.
In the past, many people in the US took these framework conditions for granted – but no longer.
The nagging sense of distress and disorientation felt by many Americans is a sign that at some level they are now realizing how necessary and fragile these structures are.
The need for community
Another Mexican philosopher, Jorge Portilla (1918-1963) reminds us that these frames of meaning that hold our world together cannot be sustained by individuals alone. While each of us may find our own purpose in life, we do so in light of what Portilla calls the “horizon of understanding” sustained by our community. In everything we do, from small talk to big life decisions, we rely on others to share a number of basic assumptions about the world. This is a fact that becomes painfully obvious when we suddenly find ourselves among people with very different assumptions.
In our book on the contemporary relevance of Portilla’s philosophy, we point out that people in the United States increasingly feel that their neighbors and compatriots live in another world. As social circles get smaller and closer, the zozobra deepens.
In his 1949 essay “Community, Greatness, and Misery in Mexican Life,” Portilla identified four signs that indicate when the feedback loop between zozobra and social decay has reached a critical level.
First, in a dissolving society, people tend to have self-doubt and reluctance to take action when urgent action is needed. Second, they are prone to cynicism and even corruption – not because they are immoral, but because they really do not experience a common good for which they can sacrifice their personal interests. Third, they are prone to nostalgia and dream of going back to a time when things made sense. In the case of America, this doesn’t just apply to those who wear MAGA hats. Anyone can fall into this feeling of longing for an earlier age.
And finally, people tend to feel deeply vulnerable, which leads to apocalyptic thinking. Portilla puts it this way:
“We always live in a human world and rooted in a natural world at the same time, and when the human world in any way refuses to accommodate us, the natural world arises with a force equal to the degree of uncertainty that structures our human connections. ”
In other words, when a society dissolves, fires, floods, and tornadoes seem to herald the apocalypse.
Overcoming the crisis
Identifying the current crisis is a first step in dealing with it. But what should be done then?
Portilla suggests that national leaders can exacerbate or alleviate the zozobra. When there is a coherent horizon of understanding at the national level – that is, when there is a common sense of what is real and what matters – people will have a greater sense of connectedness with and a sense of theirs with those around them Society is in a better position to solve its most pressing problems. With this consolation, it is easier to draw attention to your own small circle of influence.
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For his part, Uranga suggests that Zozobra actually unites people in a common human state. Many prefer to hide their suffering behind a cheerful facade or channel it into anger and guilt. But Uranga insists that honest conversation about shared suffering is an opportunity to come together. Talking about Zozobra offers something to communicate about, something to love or at least find sympathy for one another.
Francisco Gallegos, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and Carlos Alberto Sánchez, Professor of Philosophy at San José State University
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.