“What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest. What was told the cypress that made it strong and straight, what was whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made sugarcane sweet, whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan that makes them so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush like a human face, that is being said to me now” – Rumi (1207-1273 CE)
This 13th century Persian poem, What Was Told, expresses an emotion and captures an experience that’s difficult to explain in ordinary English. This experience is something that I’ve been searching for my entire life. It’s been the subject of countless Google searches and online readings over the years, so naturally I was overjoyed when I finally found what I was searching for about a month ago.
It’s called “Sehnsucht”. Sehnsucht is a German word with no English equivalent that translates roughly as “a high degree of intense, (recurring), and often painful desire for something, particularly if there is no hope to attain the desired, or when its attainment is uncertain, still far away.”
The Portuguese “saudade”, which describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent thing or person, comes close to the meaning of Sehnsucht, but still doesn’t succeed in adquately representing it. In fact, even Sehnsucht can’t express Sehnsucht fully, because the experience is so unique that it must be actually felt in order to be properly understood.
The best way I can describe it is a quick, physical burst of energy that can be felt in the chest. It’s almost like that feeling of “butterflies in the stomach” that you get before a big test or exam, except different and amplified. That burst of energy contains in it intense feelings of beauty, love, familiarity, tenderness, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of reality and longing all occurring simultaneously. Bizarre, right?
These feelings are actually the consequence of what Sehnsucht is all about, the painful desire for something that is seemingly unattainable. In my experience, this translates into feelings of longing for an unidentifiable place or reality that was once part of my existence but had drifted away at some unknown time in the past. Returning to this place would both satisfy an innate desire for utopia and represent the culmination of my life’s entire purpose and being. These were the feelings that always haunted me, especially since I could never figure out their meaning, if any at all.
Sehnsucht is triggered by different things for different people, and it seems as if no two experiences are exactly the same. For me it often comes when listening to beautiful music (especially epic film scores) or admiring the magnificence of nature. Certain environments will also trigger it, such as the light of a late-afternoon summer day or the rustling of autumn leaves under an overcast sky. The paintings of Claude Monet, especially those set outdoors on a sunny day, seem to come close to capturing the feeling of Sehnsucht and it is something about the lighting in these paintings that seems to evoke these feelings in me. Interestingly enough, there is an article online about Sehnsucht in which the writer also attributes light to these strange feelings of longing. Written by Peter Lucia, the article states: “Both Saudade and Sehnsucht are frequently found in poetry and attempted in painting (think of light, late-afternoon light, the end of summer, the first chill of autumn).”
Lucia also feels Sehnsucht when listening to certain classical music such as the works of Mahler or Ravel, in which he describes what feel like quick bursts of “ecstasies.” In nature, he is able to feel it in the sound of ocean waves. He concludes with, “I have always been trying to write or compose about both experiences in one way or another. I have pursued the experience down many avenues – the sense of time passing, of ages passing, being one of the strongest. I feel that the secret of life, love, death, life’s paths taken or not taken – the Universe itself – is somehow embraced in its achingly beautiful promise.”
So Lucia seems to have some kind of idea as to the nature of these feelings. What he cannot do however is pinpoint what their existence truly indicates, or whether or not they are even worthy of meaningful time and thought.
There was a study conducted in 2007 at the University of Virginia in which academics tackled the subject of Sehnsucht from a purely psychological standpoint. Researchers studied 299 adults and discovered six key characteristics: (a) utopian conceptions of ideal development; (b) sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life; (c) conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future; (d) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; (e) reflection and evaluation of one’s life; and (f) symbolic richness.
Focusing first on (b), the sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life is a conception that appears to have been a part of human consciousness since time immemorial, and there are many plausible reasons for this. First let us dissect the essence of this notion using simple logic.
“Incompleteness” assumes two things. First it suggests that one’s life, being ‘incomplete’ to some, must be composed of a series of ‘things’ (for lack of a better word) that are either tangible or abstract in nature. Second, it implies that there must also be something to the likes of a ‘complete’ life that can account for this state of incompleteness. The dictionary definition for ‘complete’ is as follows: “Filled up; with no part or element lacking; free from deficiency; entire; perfect; consummate.” According to this definition, if something is complete then it is automatically comprised of all the necessary components. What the lack thereof will indicate is ultimately open for interpretation, and will vary case-by-case. Things can however, still be fairly clear-cut with regard to this principle. For example, it’s true that a bike will not run without all of its parts. By the same logic, a human being will cease to live without all of its essential organs; these are facts. However, when talking about more abstract ideas like one’s own life (or even life in general), it becomes difficult if not impossible to determine what ‘complete’ really means.
The idea has nonetheless been the subject of deep contemplation for millennia. Religious and spiritual leaders all around the world have claimed to know the true path to this utopia of sorts, which is often a metaphor for some form of afterlife. Although Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and people of all other faiths may not necessarily agree on what a perfect life looks like, I think it’s remarkable that they all seem to agree that humans are desperately in need of some higher fulfillment. These religions wouldn’t exist in their present-form if this weren’t the case. After all, religion is rooted on a fundamental level in the idea that life on its own is lacking in one thing or another. What religion ultimately tries to do is offer the correct remedy to this problem.
What it essentially comes down to is the fact that simply living life on its own with no greater purpose seems inadequate for the majority of humanity. The outstanding durability of religion throughout the ages is proof of this. We all look for some greater meaning, something to take with us beyond the grave. We are likewise also looking for some kind of fulfillment in our current life. Some people are led to believe that this would come in the form of some kind of material wealth. They claim that they would indeed be very happy if they could just win the lottery and buy whatever they want. We all know this is an age-old myth that has no basis in reality. Why is it that new things get old rather quickly, especially when they become part of our every day lives? Why does that new car only make us happy for a short period of time and not forever? Of course this has something to do with the fact that that initial excitement when acquiring new things is invariably of a finite nature and that once things become ‘normal’ they no longer seem so attractive. This also tells us something quite significant about material goods in general. It tells us that tangible objects are by nature unable to evoke a sense of purpose and fulfilment in life.
So if not material wealth, then what else in this world truly matters? For one thing, there’s your relationships with other people: friends, family and acquaintances. But it can also be argued that these are neither infinitely lasting nor completely incorruptible. Indeed, George Orwell explored this idea in his novel 1984 in which Winston, the protagonist, gets physically and psychologically tortured to the point where he wishes the same level of harm on Julia, the love of his life. Now I am by no means saying there’s no such thing as unconditional love between parent and child, brother and sister, or even two friends. However, these relationships are nonetheless subject to our human nature and they should be recognized as not necessarily absolute. Humans need to adapt to their surroundings, whether that be a situation of danger, or relative safety; it’s true that environmental factors account for a good portion of our development into unique human beings.
Still, this is not to say that there aren’t and haven’t been outstanding figures of unwearying constancy that seem to contradict everything above. Think about Sir Thomas More, who in 16th century England stood up to a determined King Henry VIII, and thus willingly became a martyr in the name of Catholicism and tradition. Or, of Martin Luther King Jr., who writing from Birmingham Jail proclaimed we all have the “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
These two men are extraordinary individuals with a tremendous amount of courage, and that is not to mention the thousands of martyrs throughout all of human history that were willing to give their lives up for some particular ideal. How then do we reconcile this fact with the Hobbesian view that humans in a state of nature are inherently selfish? Ultimately, what it comes down to is the fact that all people are different, and that some are just more reliable and trustworthy than others. This can be determined by a host of genetic or environmental factors, or perhaps both; it’s difficult to say. Most importantly however, what can be concluded from all this ambiguity is simply that no human being on this earth necessarily has the power to act as an absolute constant in one’s respective life. There’s always going to be some level of uncertainty, no matter how small.
Now that both human beings and material possessions have been ruled out as sources of meaning and constancy in life, if there is any hope for mankind then it must lie in something that is otherworldly, or supernatural. This is the essence of Sehnsucht, as it is not a longing for something that can be touched, tasted, smelled or seen, but for something that can’t be explained in ordinary terms. The Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien called this thing ‘Eden.’ He writes in one of his letters:
“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
When my friend sent me that quote a few weeks ago, I’ll admit I didn’t initially understand the implications of Tolkien’s message. Not only are we all longing for Eden, but we are also constantly glimpsing it. That would explain why Sehnsucht tends to come while in the midst of enjoying something very beautiful. The chirping of the birds on a still summer morning, the roar of the tropical ocean waves, or simply the laughter of a small child may be mere glimpses of this thing called Eden – a quick snapshot into something far greater than life itself. Although these things in themselves can’t offer us the salvation we are looking for, what they can do is give us hope in something that transcends all conceptions of time and space. For it is here that we can look for a sense of meaning and purpose. This is the truth that is part of life’s greater reality. We will all eventually find it. Until then, Eden remains a mere glimmer in the hopeful aspiration of a weary human race. It is life’s purpose to go seek it out.
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.” – C.S. Lewis on Sehnsucht.