That Feeling You Can’t Name
My mother called it “the green lace.” Every spring there was a window of just a few days where the buds on all the trees had barely begun to flower, tiny leaf-tips pushed free of supple branches, and all of Nature was briefly sheathed in the most delicate green embroidery. As warming winds signaled “the green lace” was near, the years fell like calendar pages from my mother’s face. She stood taller. She would smile and laugh easily, but at the same time seemed ever on the verge of tears. The first day “the green lace” burst forth and draped the countryside, Mom would disappear in the family car to drive backroads alone, basking in the newborn spring, weeping freely as she drove. I never witnessed that last part in person, but I find it easy to imagine. My mother was not an emotionally expressive woman. But this emotion overcame her. She couldn’t control it, and more to the point, she didn’t want to control it. It was an eruption of the sacred, to be revered in seclusion, but never denied. She loved it privately, without having to define or justify the experience to anyone.
For me, this feeling descends in Fall. A few trees turn early, adding splashes of red and gold to my morning commute. Each evening when I arrive home from work, more grass has vanished beneath a thickening carpet of leaves. The sunlight slants, and afternoons golden. Then there’s always one day, usually in mid-October, when Autumn happens. The red maple in my front yard bursts overnight into flame. I step onto my porch and the air crisps just so. My heart wells as if someone I love with abandon has returned from a long absence. I ache with longing to merge with the trees and the air, the sunlight and sky.
This emotion is not always associated with a season, or even with Nature. For some it can be triggered by music, art, or poetry. The Prussian Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote that Beethoven’s music “awakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism.” C. S. Lewis experienced it as a child, reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin.
Here’s how Lewis described the feeling in The Pilgrim’s Regress:
The experience is one of intense longing… the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, [the longing, itself] continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world…
Elsewhere he labelled it:
“The inconsolable longing in the human heart for ‘we know not what.’”
Lucas Coia describes the same feeling thus:
The best way I can describe it is a quick, physical burst of energy that… contains in it intense feelings of beauty, love, familiarity, tenderness, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of reality and longing all occurring simultaneously.
Every friend I’ve ever described this emotion to recognizes it immediately, and has felt it at least once. Most had assumed it was something strange, even mystical, that nobody else would understand, so they kept it to themselves.
And none of them had a name for it.
C. S. Lewis eventually seized on the German word Sehnsucht to name this feeling. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
Sehnsucht (German pronunciation: [ˈzeːnˌzʊxt]) is a German noun translated as “longing”, “pining”, “yearning”, or “craving, or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”. However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state.
Sehnsucht is on some level “ineffable,” as the mystics say of spiritual visions. For those who experience it, no words are necessary. Without personal experience, no words suffice.
C. S. Lewis concluded that Sehnsucht was proof of the existence of God. His “Argument from Desire” was that we feel hunger because there is food in the world, and we must eat to live. We feel sexual desire because coupling is possible, and our want ensures the continuance of the species. If food or sex did not exist, neither could our instinctual desire for them. Therefore, we are visited by Sehnsucht — a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy — because we are made for another world, Heaven, where the intense “beauty, love, familiarity, tenderness, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of reality” we desire awaits us.
Sehnsucht — A Challenge to Neuroscience
This is my final installment in a series inspired by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, in which she explores her research disproving long-held beliefs about the nature and origin of emotions. The classical Darwinian view states that emotions are hardwired in the brain, inherited from our ancient evolutionary animal ancestors. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Theory of Constructed Emotion says emotions are neither innate nor hardwired. Rather, our brains construct unique instances, in each moment we feel them, of “emotion concepts” we are taught by our culture (parents, teachers, everyone around us in the first few years of life).
That’s a wildly abbreviated, two-sentence thumbnail of a complex theory, so please read How Emotions Are Made for yourself. Lisa Feldman Barrett has a great TED Talk, too.
You can read my essays inspired by her research here:
The Secret Life of the Brain
Essays Inspired by Lisa Feldman Barret’s “How Emotions Are Made”
Overall, I’m a big fan of her work. But there’s one part of the Theory of Constructed Emotion that I feel compelled to challenge in this final essay.
In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett makes the case that emotion concepts must be learned before we can experience them. We literally cannot feel emotions we have not learned from our culture.
I think Sehnsucht challenges that assertion. It’s a complex, powerful, even transcendent emotion that seizes us out of nowhere. Once experienced, we rarely discuss it. No words, no concepts, can adequately describe it. American culture, and the English language, have no word for it. No one teaches it to us. Yet many/most English-speaking Americans experience it at least once in their lives.
Sehnsucht may not prove the existence of God…
But it certainly hints at a greater human mystery.
What do you think?
Thanks for reading!