Between Saudade and Sehnsucht

There is a peculiarity to being in what is hopefully the middle of life.  It is the phenomenon of at once being in two places.  These are the places of longing for what was had and for that which may still be had.  Those who have studied language may be familiar with the Portuguese word soudade or the German word sehnsucht.  They are words that really have no English equivalent, though the feelings they represent are common to speakers of English and all other languages.  Saudade calls to mind the things had….the remembrance of childhood and first love and sehnsucht the hope of what may still be such as heaven and the realization of unfulfilled dreams.   Both are a type of longing, but longing without despair.

I look at the photos as I upload them to an image gallery.  Having lost many physical photos and other things, I have learned the value of cloud storage as well as the practice of keeping things in a burn box.  These are my safety nets, but it is also the reality that there are now things never lost, even if I want them to be.  Of course I could throw away what is in that box, but that is a poor practice and regarding cyberspace, I have no control of that whatsoever.  It is the reason to think very hard before posting to a blog or social media or uploading a photo.  Untag, delete, or do whatever….the data is still there somewhere and no matter how well you hide it or try to get rid of it, someone can find it.

I wonder if the digital world which keeps life forever preserved will reinvent how we view nostalgia or handle the repression of soudade.  I am sure it will, but what it will not do is change the feeling.  And there is no program that can do anything about sehnsucht.

So having a “sort of” week off work, I take the time to place my photos online in yet another drive.   I remind myself it is not only the photos.  For a decade all the sentiments, letters, musings, poetry, and accounts of travel have been backed up.  Well not all….being the age I am and use to a non-digital world, I still occasionally pick up pen and paper.  In some ways I have more of an attachment to this.  Written accounts and letters are like the play bulletins, scarves, dolls, jewelry, and postcards….all the things I’ve given and received.  They may be “chucked out” after an argument or locked up when a relationship or a person has died or whatever, but the fact remains they were, at least one time very real, even more real than the never truly deleted posts, texts, photos and blog entries of which I’ve composed and of which I am the subject.  They are also the reminders that saudade use to involve real work as these are those physical markers that drive us to sehnsucht.

It would be too easy to go into a litany of these things I have locked away or preserved either in the written word of the Roman alphabet or in the strings of 1 and 0 that make up code.  They are the things that make me want to return to the likes of Appalachia or the Rhineland….places I think would allay saudade or fulfill sehnsucht, though I know better.  After all, we do live life in the in the present.  What we are doing now and with who is the most real thing.  Going back to a hillside in Kentucky will not recapture the childhood of running alongside a creek bed with my sister anymore than I can be guaranteed of seeing falling stars in the Pfalz.

And yet….I am a product of those moments.  I do not need to see an ocean or a mountain to realize that “everything that dies someday comes back” (Bruce Springsteen.)  I do not need to be reminded that every moment I have lived where a person or place was more important than all the others inform the relationships and geography of where I currently reside.  It is why the lost photos are not all that despairing of a matter.  I do not need to see them to know the greater things.  After all I have many things in that burn box I rarely look at and they all point to stories that have formed me, just as the things I have thrown away or even choose not to look at do the same.

This rambling does have a point.  The most authentic people will certainly have saudade and sehnsucht.  It will be augmented by memory and keepsakes, which is now more of a reality than ever in the world of the internet and social media where nothing ever need be lost or for that matter can be.  The point here is what we are to do with our saudade and sehnsucht.  In my fashion I will address this first by talking about what we are not to do with it.

One thing we can’t do is always live in the constant intensity of soudade and sehnsucht as they point to moments that are often too overpowering to be sustained.  Besides, even if it were possible, this would sabotage every place we find ourselves currently in and that would be grossly unfair to more than just oneself.

Conversely, the other thing we can’t do is deny their power.  Of all the things that give me cause for despair, and there are not many,  the greatest is that post-modern people often handle moments of intensity by hoping they will just disappear.  Granted we have always done this, but it is now becoming epidemic.  It is giving us everything from serial monogamy to declining birthrates.  (I will let you figure out why that is.)  My fear is people are now setting themselves up to live lives that will not have to ever be about soudade, but instead living lives that in old age will become the regret of never having lived in a way that would ever give them cause for it to begin with.  I don’t entirely know why this has happened, but it is especially true in the West, where we have become societies of cowards that no longer allow relationships to get to the point that give us cause for soudade and sehnsucht. I do have to concur with Seth Godin, that much of this comes from technology which permits us to no longer have to look someone in the eye and communicate with them.  When this happens we can start to see people as disposable.   (You can read Godin’s piece here.)

This is for me a great sadness, but there are people who rise above it and I pray there may be more still.  For these who do the better thing, who know the longing of our Portuguese and German words, what are they to do?  Here I leave you with my unscientific, totally biased from experience list of what I think can be done.

  1.  Realize what can’t be done.  I already addressed this, but here it is succinctly. You can’t turn someone into a non-person.  You can’t say something didn’t happen.  Burning letters and throwing away cards doesn’t change the fact you were someone’s lover.  Moving away from your parents and saying you will have nothing to do with them doesn’t mean they did not sit next to you when you were sick or taught you life’s most valuable lessons.  Realize you are the product of others and occasionally allow that to produce soudade and sehnsucht.
  2. Have courage.  Life has to be lived in a way that invites terrific joy and hurt.  It is only the openness to this authenticity that can ever give us an understanding of the beauty of a life lived and the desire to see that life may be lived more fully still.  You have to be ready to have the courage to give of yourself and the courage to receive from another when they give themselves to you.
  3. Be judicious about going back and moving forward.  There are those who live too vitally in the world of soudade and sehnsucht. Though not entirely bad (think Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis) it can also produce a living in the past mentality that immobilizes us or the desire to run off on so many adventures that experiences become cheapened to the point that life develops no worthwhile narrative.
  4. Do go back and do move forward.  Visit the gravesides, put on the jewelry, call your parents to say you love them (be careful to explain you are not dying; trust me I know) and take Neruda or Yates off the shelf.  Also go again to your beach, café, playground, or mountain and let them give you your sehnsucht and soudade.  Just be mindful of those you are with in this moment lest   you become so enamored with a “better” past or the possibility of a “better” future that where you are in the present has no meaning. It may well be (and more than likely true) the most important place you are in is where you are now and the most important person is who you are with.  If that is not the case go to number 5.
  5. Finally….and this demands we be very careful….discern when soudade and sehnsucht are the same and when they are not.  We are torn between the bright places of the past and what we hope to be places brighter still.  Our lives need narrative and though it is not guaranteed, it should be one with the right people and places.  The whole reason we are equipped with sehnsucht and soudade is to discern this.  Granted we cannot obsess on these, but neither can we ignore them.  Our personal narratives demand we ask ourselves “Où avons-nous été, où en sommes-nous, où allons-nous?”(Paul Gaughin)  Sometimes we do have to go home as “back there” holds the answer to what is “out there.”  But we must also be mindful that it may not, that our home may be in the yet undiscovered place or perhaps even in the present.  Discerning such things involves quite a bit of hard thought and perhaps more than a little prayer.  It is difficult work.  It is the courage to both say “yes” and to hear the word “no.”  It gives our lives the height of our greatest joy and the depths of our greatest sorrow.  This discernment is sadly disappearing, but it need not as it is not difficult to know soudade and sehnsucht, for if we live in the courage of authenticity they will happen with or without our best intentions. As to whether we close our minds and hearts to these, that is our choice, but best be that we do not for hiding in that freedom of choice  and informed by our soudade and sehnsucht  may be very well be that thing that approaches destiny.