What experiences overcome you with joy? That make you feel so connected to something beyond yourself? C.S. Lewis called these experiences Sehensucht… the German word for longing. He described joy as an almost painful feeling that makes you long for something beyond the object of that joy. We can’t make these experiences happen, but we can seek environments and create space in our lives that make them more likely… the key is discovering what does this for you.
For me, the Sehensucht feeling is important for as much as what (and Who) it points towards as what it points away from. It points away from monotony, away from despondency, away from purposelessness. It eclipses the worries that weren’t so important after all. Especially living alone–and having a job that throws me from the extremes of constant interaction to sudden isolation–I have to remind myself of those Sehensucht moments and “set the conditions” for new moments.
Lately, I’ve termed this “making my heart sing.” That’s just what it feels like to me. Of course, we can’t just generate feelings, nor should we want to. There are times that it seems like the heart-bursting feelings will never happen again, and we have to rely on what we know to be true even if we can’t feel it. Still, Sehensucht does happen, and it we’re more likely to experience–and notice it–when we’re attuned to what inspires it in us. Here are some examples of some experiences that have inspired Sehensucht in my life (some poignant and some maybe silly, but all serious!). Hopefully, these stories can help you start to identify what makes your heart sing, even if for a beautiful fleeting moment.
1. Nature. This one is kind of obvious, so often mentioned that there’s almost not much point in mentioning it here. (Indeed, experiencing beauty in nature is one of Lewis’s key examples of Sehensucht). Still, I wanted to at least talk a little bit about it, and most of all, share what I consider to be my landmark Sehensucht story.
I studied in England for a semester in college, and during our only break, a dear friend and I traveled to Germany. I was really excited to go… I was born in Germany and took several years of German (was passably conversational), but hadn’t been back in the country since when my family moved when I was three years old. I was also at something of a crisis point in my faith and had been appreciating more and more Lewis’s honest and straightforward approach (I’d been reading his works as part of one of my courses).
My friend and I stayed in Munich for most of our trip, taking day trips from there. One day, we traveled by train to the town of Fuessen to visit the famous Neuschwanstein (castle). As we neared the town, the snow-covered Alps came into view… a breathtaking image I have imprinted in my mind. I immediately thought, “This is the Sehensucht that Lewis was talking about.” I still remember the date–March 13th (hm, almost exactly seven years ago!). That moment was a turning point, but the entire day was so special. This is one of my all-time favorite pictures… seeing snow falling on Hohenschwangau (another castle) through the window of Neuschwanstein.
2. Stars on Ice. See, I told you some of my examples might seem silly to you. Still, I absolutely love live figure skating. It’s not just that I enjoy it. It’s that it moves me. It’s an incredible artistic expression of movement paired with music… touching solo performances intertwined with breathtaking interactions of pairs and coordination of groups. I’ll admit I first started going to Stars on Ice because I was rather infatuated with Evan Lysacek (the men’s gold medalist at the 2010 Winter Olympics), but now I go back every year the program is in my area, regardless of whether he’s performing. Once I had to beg other people to go with me–and I’ll go by myself if/when I have to. My best friend took this picture at the most recent performance (unbeknownst to me)…
I was rather enthralled, to say the least! These following pictures can’t possibly capture the beauty of the event, but maybe it will give you the tiniest hint…
And I can’t help but post one of my favorite Evan Lysacek performances (paired with a particularly inspiring song…)… still doesn’t capture what it’s like to be there!
3. Music. Another kind of obvious one… but worth mentioning. When I was a preteen, my parents gave me a CD player that had detachable speakers. I liked to sit on the floor in my room in the dark, with the speakers propped on either side of me, close my eyes, turn on my favorite songs, and sing my heart out. I think my mom was a little worried about my sanity (sorry, Mom)–or maybe just my hearing–but for me, it was about being inside the music.. hearing every note, every instrumentation, and making myself part of that.
Music transports us… and gets to a place inside us where we can’t really hide. There are certain songs that I love to play on the piano… and, when it’s a piece with words, to sing along. There’s five specific songs that come to mind… songs that when I play them, I feel incredibly close to God. They’re not hymns or praise songs. They’re not even labeled as “Christian.” But they connect with me deeply in a way that it’s impossible for them to not connect me to my Creator.
Anyway, here are two of my songs (played/sung by people much more adept at their craft than me!)… Chopin’s “Waltz in B Minor” (Arthur Rubenstein) and “They Were You” from The Fantasticks (2006 cast, even though I prefer the original.. just ignore the dialogue before/after)…
It’s hard to say this, but I’m not sure if I’ve even played the piano–or any of these songs–since my dad died (nearly a year ago now). It connects with a depth of feeling that I just haven’t yet been able to handle. But I will, when I’m ready. (I must be getting closer, because I just spent several minutes replaying “They Were You” and singing along… one of my favorite lines in the play, from the better-known “Try to Remember,” is “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”)
4. Passionate stories.
Les Mis. Some people find the story depressing.. and, yes, most of the main characters die.. but it’s not really about that. It’s about grace, redemption, hope, and fighting for what you believe is right… something beyond yourself. I’ve seen it on stage three times (and saw the movie twice in the theaters). The most recent time that I saw it on stage, I was in the midst of a months-long struggle to just get through each day. Moments where I felt lifted from that were rare and memorable–even just small enjoyment was a victory. So, to feel my heart actually singing was an incredible gift.
Lord of the Rings. The first time I read Tolkien’s works, I was experiencing a rather strange chain of events (set off by fainting in PE class and hitting my head so hard that I had short-term memory loss and killed the nerves in three of my front teeth). It was so comforting to me to escape into a story that emphasized the indomitable force of love and friendship, the courageous role of seemingly weak and powerless individuals, and, above all, the importance of living a story worth telling. Below is one of the best moments from the movie… (I’ve put the text below if you’d rather read it).
Sam: It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
5. Zumba. I’m completely serious. I haven’t done zumba for several months (not wanting to jeopardize my half-marathon and marathon training… more on that later), but I miss it. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an increasingly popular exercise routine… aerobic dancing of several different forms set to popular music (zumba.com). Even just typing that description, it doesn’t sound like something I’d normally be up for. 😉 But I tried it and I’m glad I did. Sometimes it was just fun, sometimes a stress reliever, sometimes just a good workout… but every once in awhile, a particular song would take on a new meaning when, connected with movement, took me to a different place altogether.
How about you? You don’t have to connect with any of my examples. I expect that you will connect with some of them, but that’s not the point. I encourage you to take some time to think about what experiences reach to a deeper part of you that reminds you of a greater story beyond your everyday life. It’s what I’ve spent this snowy March morning doing, and it’s been a Sehensucht experience all of its own.