The Wisdom of WTF

Sometimes you just have to say “WTF.”  In an imperfect world there is wisdom in a shrug of indifference.   

I’ve been thinking about this when considering student responses to a scandal that recently rocked my university involving the Chancellor of the California State University, who was our former President.  What’s remarkable is that most of my students don’t seem to care.  When I discussed this in class, most shrugged it off.

Some may think those students are callous and clueless.  But I’m not so sure.  A shrug is a strategy of self-preservation in a world of alienation.  To say “WTF” is to express disbelief at how stupid things are.  Sometimes it is an outburst of anger.  Sometimes it is a cry of despair.  Almost always it is an expression of alienation.

The world is too big for us to comprehend.  The forces that buffet us are beyond our control.  The omnipresence of alienation poses a challenge for the human spirit.

One of my mentors, the philosopher John Lachs, describes this in a recent book as the peculiar unhappiness of the modern world:

Huge institutions surround and engulf us: we feel powerless to influence their course… We are lost in their bowels and experience much social life as a sort of homelessness.  The devastating sense of the meaninglessness of what we do and of our own unimportance moves us alternately to shoulder-shrugging indifference and to personal despair. 

An obvious solution is to reform our institutions and make them more friendly and transparent.  But even that work is mostly beyond our control.  It also helps to understand that alienation is, as Lachs puts it, “the cost of comfort.”  Even though we are alienated, the modern world provides us with previously unimaginable health, wealth, and power.

And so we take the good with the bad.  And on occasion we sigh and say, “WTF.” 

Outrages abound.  Powerful leaders make huge mistakes.  Democracies elect buffoons.  Ecosystems are in crisis.  War is on the horizon.  Poverty continues.  And the pandemic plods along.

We fret and fume about all of this.  And our anxiety increases.  There is mostly nothing any individual can do solve these problems.  So there is wisdom learning to say “WTF.”

Alienation has a long history.  Karl Marx thought capitalism was built upon alienation.  The existentialist of the 20th Century saw it everywhere.  Human beings do not feel at home in the world.  We are estranged from one another and even from ourselves. 

Alienation is a common theme in literature and film.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield thinks everyone around him is phony.  In The Matrix Morpheus tells Neo, “You are a slave.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.” 

Alienation appears when we are stuck in traffic.  We experience it when prices rise and paychecks shrink.  It occurs when we work on our tax returns.  The world’s systems are indifferent to us.  We are cogs in a machine over which we have no control.

Alienation gives birth to resentment and anger.  It is part of the discontent fueling “the great resignation” (as I discussed in a recent column).  It fuels suicide and addiction. 

It even helps explain conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy believer is trying to make sense of a world that makes no sense.

And so instead of beating your head against the wall, learn to shrug it off.  We say “WTF” because we know we deserve better; but also, because we know there’s not much we can do about any of this.

Sometimes “WTF” is a cynical abdication of responsibility.  Imagine, for example, saying “WTF” as you jump off a cliff.  So we must be careful not to let “WTF” give rise to nihilism.

To avoid that we should recognize solidarity in the shrug of indifference.  You and I both know that the world is out of joint.  But at least we’re in this together.  The process of making meaning often begins when we look at our neighbor and say “WTF.”  From there we can begin to make things better, one shrug at a time.