Sehnsucht and past lives

So i’m that really weird person who, during an awkward silence, will come out with an existential question that makes everyone feel uncomfortable. Something like, “do you ever feel like you have a connection to a certain biome?” or “what was your past life?”

And yes, this is a result of a need for social intimacy paired with social ineptitude, but I believe in these weird questions. Which is why I tend to spend most of my time at parties like this:


But seriously, I think there is something to it. As humans we are capable of very intense emotions, not all of which can be captured by language. We are born and live and die in our world and as a result are inherently connected to it, something that Aboriginal cultures speak a lot about but that in a busy, often urban world, a lot of people forget. But I think that consciously or not, everyone has a leaning towards a certain environment. Perhaps it’s ancestral, associative or just a result of life experiences. But I think that we can all be aware of it, at some level at least.

My father, mother and sister, for example, are all crazy about the sea. My dad spent a large part of his life as a professional fisherman, my sister has a degree in Marine Biology, and mum is at her most content when on the beach, rain or shine. So what, did we all just live on the coast? Dad grew up in a town and mum a farm, while my sister and I grew up in a small village. Not exactly beachfront, so I don’t think it’s simply a childhood thing. And while I like the coast, it’s not my ‘nostalgiasphere’.

Nothing compares to the calm, aching nostalgia I associate with the woods: moss covered tree stumps and dew sprinkled branches, gentle-hued flowers littering the floor. I know other people who like the heat of summer, the dry of the desert, or are in love with a snow-covered mountain.

So there are justifications for the weird biome question. And it’s linked to past lives by a little thing called sehnsucht.

Sehn-wut? I’m not crazy. Germans aren’t crazy*, C.S. Lewis wasn’t crazy.

A lot of people report a deep longing for a bygone era they have never personally experienced. Nostalgia. Tinged with yearning. Tinged with a wistfulness that almost hurts you. C.S. Lewis took the German concept of sehnsucht, roughly translated as “yearning”, and applied it to his own experience of poignant longing. He described it as an inconsolable longing in the human heart “for which we know not what.”

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now 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.”

This article, by Terry Lindvall, quite perfectly summarises the significance of sehnsucht for us all. And I especially adore this quote:

“Old or young, human beings generally feel a longing of this type—for something they find difficult to describe. It is difficult because the longing is intangible and ineffable. Thus, sehnsucht remains in human nature, no matter how settled one may become; it is one of the things that marks our humanity. No other creature is so inherently dissatisfied as the human being.”

So very long story finally becoming short, my second desert island song is connected to the idea of sehnsucht and a past life. The whole ‘past life’ thing isn’t necessarily literal. Don’t brush me off as a superstitious spurler of garbage. It’s just a fun interpretation of sehnsucht that makes for some discomfort-inducing party conversation.

When do I get sehnsucht? Well, when I hear the harpsichord, which has led me to conclude that I had a past life in the Baroque era. I also get sehnsucht thinking about 17th-18th century Frontier America. If you wanna creep yourself out, then those periods, and my current ‘life’, are roughly 200 years apart.

If you don’t wanna creep yourself out, though, just think about how sehnsucht is just a part of the human condition, and our ‘inherent dissatisfaction’. Which flares up in all its aching beauty when I hear this song:


So, harpsichord. How could I survive on a desert island without some fuel for my sehnsucht? There are some things you just love (or once loved  😉 ) too much to go without.


Peachy x

*why do you have to make everything about Hitler?


7 thoughts on “Sehnsucht and past lives

  1. You have put into words those feelings I have had, as Lewis said, “a yearning to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off”, and now I have a word for it, “Sehnsucht”.

  2. Awesome piece, really got me thinking about when do I get sehnsucht… definitely the frontier, or the any old Western. A really great article and, as always, an enjoyable read 🙂

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  5. Love the concept of sehnsucht. You’re right – we all have it.
    I don’t do parties, but I’d enjoy your conversation!
    Loved the Stranglers, too 🙂

  6. Adore your post. I know German and I’ve always loved how there’s no perfect translation to the word “sehnsucht” 🙂 I also feel something special whenever I get to go in the mountains, through the woods…it’s something magic happening while taking a walk through the woods 🙂

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