There are places and moments in our lives that we wish we could make last.
When C.S. Lewis was an atheist, he spoke about times when that sensation would fall on him: “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” one gets when we experience something that brings us deep Joy which, we know, is fleeting. It is the wistful experience that makes us intensely desire something that we don’t even know how to describe.
One of my academic friends talks in this regard about his times in an heirloom bench at his cabin lake at sunset; another hunter friend talks about the glistening shine of a meadow’s dew at dawn’s first light. This “wistful longing” has come over me in recent weeks at a favorite beach at Cape Lookout Bight, and as I marveled with my wife at the sight of a rising crescent moon over a newly cleared pasture. I’ve known this sensation many times before, in some of life’s most precious moments of reflective Joy.
Though a literary don at Oxford, Lewis had to borrow a word from the German language to convey this sensation. He called it sehnsucht (pronounced zane-zookt). It became a central theme in all his writings. He came to believe that our experiences of sehnsucht are meant to harken us, not satisfy us:
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 not yet visited.
I was reminded of these things this past week when we welcomed, for the 15th year, a new group of spirited high schoolers to The Adler Roundtable. As the food and drinks were served in Semper Fi Hall, and the fire blazed, and the conversation thrilled as these young people reveled in Longfellow’s classic poem A Psalm of Life – I felt it!
Sehnsucht struck. It was sweetly wistful, and touched upon something timeless. And then, it was gone. Later in his life, in his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis processed his passing sehnsucht moments through the eyes of Christian faith:
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
I share this because we all need “Sehnsucht Spots” in our lives. And when we find them, we must learn to mark them and be glad. They remind us, as the Scriptures teach, that we all have eternity written on our hearts. Yet, like anything good, we can twist even the Joy of sehnsucht to our detriment. “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.”
Lewis elsewhere wrote about how to process all this in a way that has changed me:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.
And so, here’s hoping you’ll experience a Sehnsucht Sighting – a place and a moment that fuse together in a flash of Joy – perhaps yet this very day!