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We Need a Word for That: Joy and Anxiety in an Era of Climate Crisis

Relief and Dread at the Same Time

Here’s an experience a lot of people can relate to: it’s the dead of winter, you’re somewhere far from the tropics, and you’ve been coping with far too many hours of darkness each day as well as temperatures that require you to wear far too many pounds of clothing every time you leave the house. It’s been like this for a couple of months now and you’re tired of it. A single warm day would really mean a lot. Just think: you could open the windows and air the place out a bit, wear a t-shirt outdoors, eat ice cream, go to the park and sit in the grass – all while still being able to feel your fingertips! Is that so much to ask for?

Then, one day, because you weren’t careful what you wished for, you get it. You wake up and it’s still mid-winter, but the forecast says 75ºF/24ºC this afternoon! Huzzah! You can leave the house with literally nothing on your head! People on the street aren’t huddling and scurrying, but walking tall and strolling! Waiting for the bus feels a little less soul-crushing! This is it! This is what you’ve been waiting for!

Except something’s off. Something doesn’t quite add up here. No. It can’t be! Why? Why now? Why, in the midst of your revelry, why, why, why this feeling? This gnawing unpleasantness that you can’t describe as anything less than dread? It’s not fair! You’ve waited all winter – well, half of winter, anyway – for this! And dammit, you’re going to enjoy your inappropriately warm day come hell or … well, high water. Ugh!

Ambiguous Words for Ambivalent Times

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced one phenomenon that needs a name. It’s something that might be defined as:

An ambivalent emotional state felt during pleasant yet drastically unseasonable weather and characterized by simultaneous joy and dread due to a mixture of relief from seasonal doldrums and anxiety about climate change.

Which is to say that, yes, you are indeed glad for some momentary sunshine (and why shouldn’t you be?), but you can’t shake a subtle feeling that it’s also a sign that we’re all completely screwed.

I’ve been asking for help coming up with an expression for this for years and it turns out that a lot of people know exactly what I’m talking about even before I finish explaining it. More than a few of them have suggested that there probably is (or at least could be) a German word for that. I’ve asked a few native German speakers and, so far, no dice. As a German-English translator, I’ve made a few abortive attempts of my own. The best I’ve ever been able to come with was Klimafreudenangst (Klima = climate; Freude = joy; Angst = fear). I ran it by a friend from overseas and she said that she could see what I was getting at, but it didn’t really work. She was right. If anything, it’s a term that might be understood as meaning something like “fear of climate-joy” (whatever that is) in the same way that Zeitgeist (Zeit = time; Geist = spirit) means “spirit of the time.”

Another friend suggested some kind of use of the French word jouissance, given the way that Jacques Lacan used it to refer to transgression “beyond the pleasure principle,” at which point pleasure actually becomes painful (at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me; I’m hardly any kind of expert in psychoanalysis generally or Lacan specifically). The ambiguity of that usage does get at the mixed emotion described above, but in the phenomenon I’m talking about, it’s not the joy itself that turns painful. I’m talking about joy and discomfort that exist simultaneously and independently of one another. But again, I’m no expert. Maybe “seasonal jouissance,” or something similar, is the answer I’ve been looking for all along.

Either way, we are left with a definable phenomenon that seemingly many people have experienced but, thus far, no recognized label for it. Having a single, compact term that could express it might help us work through some of our discomfort or at least feel a little less alone with it. Even before that, though, it might enable us to simply acknowledge that we feel discomfort in the first place and therefore get a bit more serious, as a society, about finding solutions. Maybe. In any case, collective action generally starts with words. Finding the right ones is a necessary first step.

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