The Conversation - November 2, 2020

... What makes zozobra so difficult to address is that its source is intangible. It is a soul-sickness not caused by any personal failing, nor by any of the particular events that we can point to.

Instead, it comes from cracks in the frameworks of meaning that we rely on to make sense of our world – the shared understanding of what is real and who is trustworthy, what risks we face and how to meet them, what basic decency requires of us and what ideals our nation aspires to.

In the past, many people in the U.S. took these frameworks for granted – but no longer.

The need for community

Another Mexican philosopher, Jorge Portilla (1918-1963), reminds us that these frameworks of meaning that hold our world together cannot be maintained by individuals alone. While each of us may find our own meaning in life, we do so against the backdrop of what Portilla described as a “horizon of understanding” that is maintained by our community. In everything we do, from making small talk to making big life choices, we depend on others to share a basic set of assumptions about the world. It’s 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 in the U.S., people increasingly have the sense that their neighbors and countrymen inhabit a different world. As social circles become smaller and more restricted, zozobra deepens.

In his 1949 essay, “Community, Greatness, and Misery in Mexican Life,” Portilla identifies four signs that indicate when the feedback loop between zozobra and social disintegration has reached critical levels.

First, people in a disintegrating society become prone to self-doubt and reluctance to take action, despite how urgently action may be needed. Second, they become prone to cynicism and even corruption – not because they are immoral but because they genuinely do not experience a common good for which to sacrifice their personal interests. ...
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