How to deal with soul sickness zozobra?

Sanne Breimer
3 min readJan 1, 2024
The zozobra marionette representing anguish, anxiety and gloom is being burned every year in September in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Image from Flickr.

Have you ever heard of the word ‘zozobra’? It was new to me until this afternoon when I went through my notes of Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger. She mentions ‘zozobra’ somewhere at the beginning of her writing when she draws a picture of the emergencies on our planet and how we deal with them psychologically.

Modernity is failing us

The Mexican philosophy of ‘zozobra’ is a peculiar form of anxiety — as The Conversation explains — that comes from being unable to settle into a single point of view (“wobbling and toggling between perspectives”), leaving you with questions like: Is it going to be a good New Year, or is this an alarming moment of global catastrophes?
It comes from the early 20th century when intellectuals used the word to describe the sense of having no stable ground and feeling out of place in the world. As Francisco Gallegos, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and Carlos Alberto Sánchez, Professor of Philosophy at San José State University, write in The Conversation, the feeling is commonly experienced by people who visit or immigrate to a foreign country: the rhythms of life, the way people interact, everything just seems “off” — unfamiliar, disorienting and vaguely alienating.
It reminds me of what we talked about in the first class of the summer school about decoloniality almost three years ago. We were asked if we ever felt as if we don’t belong in this world (I do) and when we have that feeling, it might be a first sign of understanding that modernity is failing us. Or, in other words, the idea of our current state of capitalism in which we put profit over people and seek continuous growth at the cost of our planet’s help, doesn’t feel like the right way to go.

A vacuum for conspiracies

Zozobra is ‘soul-sickness’ and therefore hard to address because it’s intangible. It has created cracks in the framework of meaning that we normally rely on to make sense of our world. The war in Gaza is one of the examples of such a crack: the horrible October 7th attack by Hamas has caused disproportionate violence used by the Israeli army on Palestinian civilians while the world is watching. Together with the almost 70% of buildings that have been destroyed in Gaza, our joined global moral standards seem to be demolished in this conflict too.
The professors describe how the disintegration of our societies (due to the global pandemic and election results in the US in 2020, but we can now also mention the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the lingering climate crisis) makes people doubt themselves and makes them thus reluctant to take action. And action is needed more than ever. It also creates cynicism and corruption and people become prone to nostalgia and apocalyptic thinking.
Naomi Klein writes in her book how a situation like this creates a vacuum in which opportunists jump in with simplistic solutions. It is also the space that is being occupied by conspiracy theorist media makers because journalists corner extreme thoughts easily as ‘crazy’ instead of researching where they come from.

And now what?

What then is the solution? Well, we need to first address the problem. Let me start by admitting I do feel a bit soul-sick. However, I also find solace in the decolonial theory and the many thinkers and colleagues who bring hope with their stories.
The second step is to create an understanding among each other about what is real and what matters. Honestly, I don’t see this happening on a global scale any time soon but let’s try to find ways in our communities. And thirdly, zozobra itself can unify us. When we talk about the feeling of instability and feeling lost in this world, it becomes digestible. And we will generate more love and sympathy for one another.

Read more about Naomi Klein’s book in the Inclusive Journalism Weekly. Check out the newsletter archive or subscribe to receive it in your inbox.



Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.