I was told once to use the French language for food, German for religion, English for money and Spanish for love. That’s a bit narrow, but it’s stuck with me.
The Germans have a word I’ve long admired: sehnsucht. There is no easy English translation, although it is generally translated “longing” or “yearning.” The German idea goes a good deal deeper into the quasi-mystical.
One author translated it as the “inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.” Another compared it to “a longing for a far off country, but not one which we could identify. C.S. Lewis called it
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
I never use this word. Truth be told, I have a deep mistrust of beauty, and shut my eyes and plug my ears whenever I see it. It’s betrayed me too many times, so I’d rather not entertain it anymore. But sehnsucht, the idea anyhow, sticks with me like unrequited love or a song stuck in the head. I know what the Germans are talking about when they use it – I understand the need that birthed it. I suppose almost everyone does. It sneaks up on you unaware, before you have time to rightly recognize it. You could no sooner give it a name then it would slip through your fingers and disappear.
And it does.
Most good things do.
I’ve been trying to find a bit more sehnsucht in my own life, of late, because of just that desire to shut it out. We live in a time of plenty, and longing is an increasingly foreign notion. Whenever it sparks in the dry tinder of our hearts, we dash to smart phones to quench it. Sehnsucht feels like sadness and loneliness, and those are two emotions we will stop at nothing to strangle.
These days, when I start feeling sad, I think good. So be sad. I’m learning my way around it—this most natural state of the human condition. The surest reminder of all that we have not yet arrived.
And when that longing comes—it comes in strange forms now. A small child running after her mother, her Halloween costume trailing behind. A haunting line of nostalgia in a Gaslight Anthem song: “In the backseats, we just try to find some room for our knees.” The way Liz looks when she wakes up from a nap and rubs the sleep out of her eyes. Something Pope Francis recently said: “The proposal of the Gospel must be simple, profound, radiant.”
The way I increasingly feel about the limited time I have left on earth, and how I might greet death whenever it comes a’knocking.
These are the moments of sehnsucht—that moment that is not quite happiness or sadness, but something else altogether. And these are the things I’m trying to stop drowning out with the distractions that are so readily at hand. I’m making a map of my own heart, really, and I’m trying to make note of the corners and basements that it would be easier to avoid.
The heart is a home, after all. If we do not explore it, who will?
(Also, here’s a list of words that don’t exist in the English language, but ought to.)