Posted by Mike

Wikipedia defines “sehnsucht” as meaning “longing or intensely missing,” but goes on to state that the term is “almost impossible to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state…similar to the Portuguese word, saudade.”  And that “It is one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language.” The author Georg Tabori is quoted as suggesting that the “ardent longing or yearning” that is implied is closely related to the “addiction…that lurks behind each longing, waiting to turn the feeling into a destructive, self-defeating force.”

I have this notion that virtually everything that we think or do has its costs and benefits; consequently the suggestion above that beneath the overwhelming feeling contained in sehnsucht lies a counterface, a shadow side that might contain hidden costs appeals to me. I’d like to hasten to say that generally the major costs likely to be associated with most of our behavior that we would consider commendable is that in thinking about and doing action “a,” we are are using up time and energy that could have been expended upon “b” to “z,” to the power of infinity. Nevertheless, the costs-benefits notion not only seems to have validity but also usefulness at times. One other aspect of this notion [and the issue of what might be considered a notion rather than an idea, concept, construct, fact, or truth is also obviously something we could explore in these columns. Personally, I tend to consider as notions ideas and beliefs of others that I am completely unable to abide and for which there is no verifiability. I admit that my use of “notion,” referring to ideas of others, is often not a pretty picture] is that our ability to predict all of the consequence of our actions varies from excellent to rather iffy. Fortunately, few of us are so severely obsessive-compulsive that the conflict related to the consequential costs and benefits of our activities ends us in stasis. To survive not only as individuals but as a species we are “designed” by natural selection to consider these issues, mostly at an unconscious level, and then to act. That’s one of the myriad of design features of the human animal that has been adaptive. Come to think of it all organisms must have it, or they wouldn’t be around.

But I’ve gotten off the topic and need to get back to sehnsucht. And I must relate my own personal feelings here, because it seems that there’s no other way to go, except to relate what others have had to say about this aspect of the human condition. My own experience with intense longing for what is missing – and this would be something from the past, some things never attained, something missing in the present, ineffable “things,” is that such feelings that I have had that seem to fit the meaning of the word come and  go and change considerably over time. Right here I’m not about to be so personally self-disclosing to go into detail, but I can certainly relate to the notion, having experienced intense longing myself. I can also relate to the idea of a kind of low grade longing that propels us into exploration and learning experiences. This is likely often a longing to know and to understand that which we don’t know or understand but which is knowable or in any case that we believe it to be so. I expect that journalists, medical students, scientific researchers may often be motivated by such longings, though I admit that this idea itself is just my notion.

Philosophers and theologians have an intense desire to know and to understand. At what point does the need for the satisfactory meeting of the need – for understanding, resolution, finality – lead to premature conclusions as to the nature of reality, in order to attain that feeling sense of completion? Humans seem to eschew not-knowingness and tentativeness. It seems that we are truly uncomfortable living in the state of anxiety of being unsure or uncertain. I suspect that often we move to one polarity or another of an issue primarily because we can’t live with that anxiety of indecision. We are always seeking answers. Fortunate we are that we are able to ask the questions.

I suspect that we all will continue to experience sehnsucht periodically throughout our lives. We can learn that we are able to live with such feelings and that they propel us to consider, explore, study and that the outcomes for us can be truly greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Knowing that we and those around us experience this same feeling that we each have difficulty in articulating and understanding – one of Carl Rogers’ terms, “felt meanings“ seems appropriate – cautiously talking with each other about our own very personal and well guarded longings would likely slowly edge us solitary souls a little closer toward each other.

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.  –  Friedrich Nietzche


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