Sehnsucht: How curiosity is saving this cat

Posted by on 08.19.07 | 10 Comments
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If I had it to do over again, I’d probably become an anthropologist of some variety. During my career, I’ve done a lot of different work dealing with human behavior and the conditions that we experience. The one constant thing is an undying curiosity about why we do what we do. Somebody has said that all behavior has a reason, and I believe that’s true. It’s just that the real reason behind any one behavior may not be all that obvious.

Sometimes I sit and think about distraction. What if…we spend most of our life distracting ourselves from…what we’re really supposed to be doing? What if all my active, participating in human services has been, for me, a distraction from my real purpose: to be a deep observer, not just of human behavior, but of animal and plant behavior, rock and landscape behavior? What if, instead of all the activity, my life purpose was to be sitting in a cave or on a hill somewhere, just observing it all? Not to fix or even change it (although we know that just observing changes the environment).

So, if I’ve distracted myself with all manner of interesting and worthwhile causes, and my real purpose is to not be engaged, but to be a wide-angle receptacle…boy, that’s a fine howdy-do.

A retreat master once said to me, almost in passing, “There’s a German word for that which quietly draws us towards our purpose–the longings of our life. Sehnsucht can be best described by how it looks: it’s what the books are about that are by our beds (how many of us have books that relate to our work-life by our bed?). We can also see that longing in what fascinated us when we were children.”

When I was maybe 7, living on a dairy farm in upstate Pennsylvania, outside one of our garages for some reason that I now don’t remember, we had a huge pile of gravel. These were not just any old rocks. These were fascinating, multi-colored river rocks. I would categorize them by color. And then re-categorize them by size. And one day I decided that my goal in life was going to be to count all the rocks in the world. Here was a good pile to get started on, so I did. I got about a quarter of the pile done, and decided that maybe that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life–it was too hard; I began to see that there were many other rocks around the original pile, all over the farm, and I could see it turning out to be a pretty hard job. So, I went to college and got an elementary education degree, and then a master’s in religion. But that’s another whole can of worms.

My point is, that if someone had seen my interest in rocks, and had guided me, or if I’d had the stick-to-itiveness, life may have been different. Not better, but different. Same for 12 years of age, after reading a book about physicians in Africa, decided I wanted to be a doctor. Told my mother, and she discouraged me in several ways from this pursuit, so I acquiesed.

Back to sehnsucht: In the Wikipedia description of it, C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” In the Afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress he provides examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly. Lewis talks about

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Tthe majority of people who experience sehnsucht are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be. Indeed, the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for.

The key ingredient of the experience, as Lewis treats it, is that this longing—never fulfilled—is itself sweeter than the fulfillment of any other human desire. Another feature is that it is so deeply personal that it does not occur to the one feeling it that others would have similar experiences and so is rarely communicated verbally. For most people it is something which cannot be put into words. Indeed the present description of sehnsucht is itself inadequate and is only suggestive of it. Yet, though difficult to define, Lewis maintained that this is a universal experience.

So, my longing to “count all the rocks in the world” was probably based on a profound and continuing desire to explore the natural building blocks of our earth. Somehow related to this curiosity: as an early adolescent I would be helping on the farm, and would lay on my back looking at the blue, blue October sky, in the ensilage wagon as the machine chewed up what was left of the corn and spit it into the wagon and onto me, watching and listening to the Canadian geese going south as they prepared for winter’s arrival–I have a longing for that longing. There’s no words for it, but just a knowing that in that longing is all potential.

I do know that we all experience sehnsucht–this deep longing. If I observed myself and other humans, plants, animals, and yes, rocks more thoughtfully, prayerfully and openly, I might experience the sehnsucht of our lives in full color. Heck, from that profound observation and leaning into it instead of away from it, I might live into my own longing. Now there would be a world of almost unbearable sweetness.

Call it curiosity, sehnsucht, lack of distraction–it’s what maintains hope and makes our hearts beat faster at the smell of autumn around the corner.

To go back to the beginning of this post: the real reason I let myself be distracted from my goal ‘to count all the rocks in the world’: fear of not being able to do it. Dang it, I hate it that I sold out for that piddly-*** reason. That was the reason behind the behavior–fear of failure.

My goal for the week is to be a little more aware of the longings that draw me, and the longings of those around me that often bring me to tears. And to not be afraid of the longings…to know that they are our path ‘home’.

How does sehnsucht call to you? What makes your heart beat faster and your senses stand at attention? We’d love to know…

Remember, you have to join to be able to add comments to these blog posts, or post stories of your own…we encourage you to do so!

Love from this-cat-who-is-being-saved-by-longing-and-curiosity,

Beth, VTH Host




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