I’ve recently become interested in foreign words that have no English equivalent. Wabi sabi, for example, a Japanese philosophy concerning the beauty of imperfection. Or hiraeth, a Welsh word signifying a longing for a familiar spirit that dwells in the earth and the water and the hearths of one’s homeland.
I adore most of all the German word sehnsucht, a term roughly equivalent to “yearning.” C. S. Lewis described sehnsucht as an “inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”
A defining childhood moment awakened my awareness of sehnsucht. My siblings and I were playing in the side yard one day of the interminable summer. A soccer ball hit me in the chest. I landed back-first and painlessly into mud. I still clung to the half-eaten peach picked from the neighbor’s yard. I looked up at the protective sea-blue sky and realized in amazement that everything was perfect. The brief moment was, paradoxically, both elongated and fleeting, as time often is. “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world,” noted C. S. Lewis. The “it” he refers to is an experience, similar to mine, that he termed “Joy.” Sehnsucht is the longing for such moments of Joy.
It seems that in exchange for these infrequent moments of Joy, sehnsucht can nearly drive us insane. The hope of experiencing Joy again is impossible to wish away, partly because of our tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses. We reflect on childhood vacations with relish and nostalgia, but we forget the lashes stuck in our eyes, our growling stomachs, and how groggy we felt the morning of. We run the hedonic treadmill trying to recapture the positive emotions we once experienced, knowing that, after the next promotion or new set of clothes or slight apartment upgrade, everything will be perfect.
One of my other favorite pretentious concepts, mindfulness, works together with sehnsucht like an interlinking cog. Mindfulness lets you snuggle into the here and now. Sehnsucht lets you strive toward and anticipate an ideal future. There is a moral lesson here. What better person is there than one who, practicing mindfulness, exists happily with her current flaws yet also, compelled by sehnsucht, strives to be an ideal person in the future?
Sehnsucht helps us trudge through life. We believe that what is next will always be better, even if, looking at our past, we see that life does not always get better. This is still how I view the future: a steady progression of happiness until my last day, when I will be exploding with joy at all the wonders of the world.
What do you think? Is the experience of sehnsucht as foreign to you as the word itself? What about Joy? I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.