The Germans have a word that describes a great deal of my complicated and ambiguous feelings, sehnsucht, which refers to a passionate yearning for a world or an experience that one does not currently enjoy and has never experienced that tends to fill one’s life with intense and unsatisfied longing. It combines an intense dissatisfaction for what is imperfect or incomplete with a longing for a perfect world one has never known or seen that fills one’s life with meaning and a deep quest, but also with a great deal of inconsolable and deep sadness. The word itself, and the complicated set of feelings involved with it, seems to be typical of a particular type of person who is often described as a romanticist. Such a person combines a high degree of rational intelligence with a deep and often frustrated spring of unfulfilled and passionate romantic longings. Whether one speaks of an English romanticist like C.S. Lewis or the German Goethe, who appears to have coined the word, or the American poet Walt Whitman, the word tends to most strongly fit those who have a sensitive heart, an able but somewhat tormented mind, and a spirit yearning for the Jerusalem that is above while being trapped among the squalor of the world that now is.
What makes a day full of longing more than any other day? My days in general are full of longing as it is, as is my life, something that no doubt serves to frustrate others, who perhaps might wish that I would lower my eyes from the lofty heights of the Cascades to the more modest valleys and hills where I reside, even if those high peaks are in my eyeline but out of my reach. Nor am I alone in this problem. For example, I have several little friends whose lives are filled with such a yearning, even if they are not able to define it. Whether it is projecting that yearning for a father onto others, or whether it is enjoying the presence of one’s father in obvious affection, the presence of that yearning is something that can be easily understood and appreciated. Being a person of intense yearning, I appreciate it when the yearnings of others may be appreciated or fulfilled at least in part in this highly imperfect world.
But this is not all. After enjoying my time and conversation at services, conversation that sometimes reflected a deliberate attempt to quell longings that were likely not to be realized because of the lack of love and concern of others, I went off by myself to eat dinner before volleyball practice, only to find a couple of young people enjoying what looked like a pleasant and enjoyable date. After changing from my church clothes into my volleyball clothes, I waved at the young couple, and, wishing to leave a tender moment alone, as that tender moment was not for me to enjoy for myself but rather only vicariously as an outside observer who enjoys seeing the happiness of others, regardless of the lack of fulfillment of my own yearnings and longings, I chose a seat on the other side of the restaurant and read the first part of a book on bronze age finds in North America that show examples of an early German language that would be akin to proto-North Germanic or even perhaps proto-Germanic. A few minutes later, as I was finishing my food and about forty pages or so into the book, another group of fellow brethren came through and invited me over to where they sat, which was very close to the young couple that I had left alone. After I ate, therefore, I chose to be sociable with the group that came in, having done what I could, at least, to leave others in a bit of privacy that they seemed to want, and to at least draw the attention of the others near them to humorous conversation among ourselves.
Nor is this all. After I finished volleyball practice and made my lonely drive home, what should happen but that in taking one of the online courses I am in at Hillsdale College on the writings and thinking of C.S. Lewis, but that the subject of sehnsucht should come up in relation to the relationship between the imagination, reason, and the will. Our imagination serves the interests of reason by providing it with the raw materials to assent to or deny. Our reason serves the will by seeking to provide the perception of reality that we can then act upon and build our character upon. To be sure, we may misinterpret life, sometimes in a tragic fashion, not only because of our yearning but also because there are other people in our lives who may enjoy acting corruptly, in deceit, either in ignorance of the state of their own hearts and minds or because they are not aware of the seriousness of what they are about. For example, early this morning, while I was getting ready for services, I took the chance to listen to a sermon on anger given by a minister whom I respect but do not know very well. This speaker commented that an angry person, one who continually looks at others for the negative without reflecting on the positive, and does not show graciousness or gratitude to God or to others, will not enter the kingdom of God and will find the Holy Spirit hindered in developing godly character. Likewise, he talked eloquently about the damage that is done by abuse, in the way that it leads to a passionate anger against the injustices that one has suffered that can be diverted from a righteous anger about situations and about evil to unrighteous anger that merely attacks people, or that sees others as worthless and disregards them utterly.
Regardless of the state of our own lives and our own longings, and regardless of how interested or uninterested others are in helping to fulfill those longings or help guide them in a proper direction, other people have an intrinsic worth because they are created in the image of God as we are, and they are worth taking the time to understand and appreciate as best as we are able, with the knowledge that they too live their own lives and have their own quests, in which we may encourage them from afar in some aspects even as we are fellow members of the same quests at other times. When one leaves a tender moment alone, one does so not because of a lack of love or concern for others, but rather because there is a time for every purpose under heaven, even if not all are enjoying that time at the same time, and because one would wish for the same sensitivity if the roles were reversed. If our days are few and evil, our hearts still long for perfection, even if it appears hopelessly out of reach. Perhaps by appreciating the glimpses of that perfect world we see in our own lives and in the lives of others, we feel less hopeless about our own opportunities for being surprised by joy, and are thus prepared for the goodness that God has prepared for us when the right time comes.