Every human being with normal mental and emotional faculties longs for more. People typically associate their longing for more with a desire to somehow improve their lot in life—to get a better job, a nicer house, a more loving spouse, become famous, and so on. If only this, that, or some other thing were different, we say to ourselves, then we’d feel complete and happy.
The best word in any language that captures this hunger for more, according to C. S. Lewis, is the German word Sehnsucht (pronounced “zane-zookt”). It’s an unusual word that is hard to translate, for it expresses a deep longing or craving for something that you can’t quite identify and that always feels just out of reach. Some have described Sehnsucht as a vague and bittersweet nostalgia and/or longing for a distant country, but one that cannot be found on earth. Others have described it as a quasi-mystical sense that we are incomplete, combined with an unattainable yearning for whatever it is that would complete it.
Lewis saw Sehnsucht as reflective of our “pilgrim status.” It indicates that we are not where we were meant to be, where we are destined to be; we are not home. Lewis once wrote to a friend that “our best havings are wantings,” for our “wantings” are reminders that humans are meant for a different and better state. In another place he wrote:
“Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside is … the truest index of our real situation.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important aspect of this Sehnsucht is a need to experience God’s perfect, unconditional love. A central aspect of what this means is that we long to know, in an experiential way, that we have unlimited or unsurpassable worth to God and that we are absolutely secure in this love and worth.
The degree to which we feel anything approximating this unconditional love, unsurpassable worth, and absolute security is the degree to which we feel fully alive and at home in the world. To the degree we don’t experience this, however, we remain hungry, out of place, and less than fully alive.
Sehnsucht is hunger for life.
We are made to perpetually share in a life in which we are perfectly and unconditionally loved, in which we experientially know we could not matter more to God than we already do, and in which we feel absolutely secure in this love and worth, for we know that nothing—including the loss of our biological life—could cause us to lose this life.
This hunger for life is the most fundamental driving force for our lives.
—Adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 56-58
Image by Jordan McQueen.