Sehnsucht

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.

21 thoughts on “Sehnsucht

  1. Moments of pure joy are rare and fleeting . Your heart swells and your eyes mist, and then it’s gone. We can’t sustain the feeling or recreate it. What I do know is that these instants of simple joy, clear and profound happiness, are never about things. It’s never about a new dress, or car, or job. Hmmmm….

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  2. Sehnsuch… At the age of 5, I stood in my filmy pink dress on the front lawn of our home, and the day was perfect. Literally, perfect. A taste of heaven.

    My first memory was being hugged by God. I didn’t even know how to walk upright yet. I remember the brown purse and the marbles I was playing with. Fast forward through my life…different experiences of the presence of God, once when I deserved His presence the very least.

    I see sehnsuch as a pining for perfect relationship: vertical love (relationship with God) and horizontal love (relationship with others) finally coming together…Heaven. Presence. Wholeness. …with no end to it anymore…

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  3. That sudden piercing joy… I have to say, being hit in the chest by a soccer ball isn’t the first thing that comes to mind! It’s those moments where you catch “a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper” and you feel your heart is not enough to contain it – and so it slips away, leaving a memory you can’t express in words.
    On the subject of words peculiar to their language, have you ever read The Meaning of Tingo? If not, hunt down a copy – you are sure to enjoy it!

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    • Haha! I never realized how odd the soccer ball thing really was until just now. It’s like I was literally knocked into another frame of mind.
      I have never read The Meaning of Tingo, or heard of it, but I just ordered it from the library!! It looks amazing. Maybe it will spawn some future blog posts 😀 Thanks for the recommendation!

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  4. I work in the homeless sector where many people experience the power of addictions to pull them ever further from their essential selves. I have often heard that first hit of a drug as being ‘sehnsucht’ like. So compelling that the drive is to constantly seek it to the exclusion of self.

    They too speak of the memory words can’t express.

    Thank you for your beautiful prose — I had never thought of the parallels between sehnsucht and addictions — like anything taken to extremes, there is danger of losing our way when we pursue the pleasures of piercing joy without being mindful of this moment right now.

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  5. Amazing depth of feeling and expression in one who looks so young. An old soul, perhaps? Whatever…you’ve got a strong handle on what’s important in life. hugs for that…

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  6. Sehnsucht is a recurring theme in the poems of Nelly Sachs, many of which I have translated (www.poemsofnellysachsinenglish.wordpress.com) – and I have never found a satisfactory English equivalent. Hiraeth is that devastating emptiness that can only be filled by being “home” and can strike suddenly out of the blue. I like your writing – keep at it, you have talent.

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    • That’s so cool that you’ve translated poems! I’ll check them out in a minute. I’d like to research hiraeth more, too. I find the idea very interesting. Thanks for the compliment, and I will keep on, as you suggest.

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