“I understand your loneliness,” he told me.
I was in a meeting to discuss an issue at school. It morphed into a conversation where three people were telling me how their spouses help give them perspective and advice about their issues and idiosyncrasies. I said I have no one like they do to lean on and ask for insights when I’m puzzled, so I feel very alone.
When he said he understands my loneliness, I wanted to shake my head and wail, “But you just told me your wife helps you with your blind spots, and you know I’m single—how can you understand?”
But I stayed quiet and did my best to pour grace into his words.
My gentle friend went on to say that even their healthy marriage carries an emptiness in its core. The cave inside doesn’t mean something’s wrong with the relationship. It’s just the way things are.
Later, it came to me: I’d been talking about my practical, tangible loneliness, and he was talking about existential loneliness, so I had felt like we weren’t understanding each other.
Existential loneliness, I’ve learned, is the ache of emptiness that caverns inside every human. It’s the thirst after every pleasure and the whimper at every dream come true.
There’s an old German word, Sehnsuht, that explains it best to me. Everyone feels it, but it seems only the bravest, most honest writers, artists, and composers try to express it. They explain it as the inconsolable longing for a place you haven’t seen but know as home. You could call it nostalgia, or homesickness, except that it’s the reverse of that, a hungering for a place we haven’t been to yet. The emotion is so profound and intense that sometimes we’re aware of the ache, but don’t even know what we’re aching for.
Sehnsuht is the tendency to demand presence and availability from someone who can never ever be big and wonderful and sensitive enough to fill the holes in your soul. It’s the drive to go further and longer and higher into uncharted horizons because maybe just out there is the place that will fully soothe your soul. It’s what keeps you talking and discussing and pushing for concepts that solve all your dilemmas perfectly.
The Sunday school answer to this insatiable thirst is that Jesus satisfies it. Happily, it’s true, but it can be hard sometimes to know or experience how it’s true.
God, in His inscrutable design, created us with this cavernous loneliness without creating something that fills the cavern. Only He, the Infinite, can fill to overflowing, satisfy, and soothe the Sehnsuht He gave us.
God also thought up countless creative, beautiful ways for us to live whole, full, rich lives. We are awake to textures, colors, sounds, flavors, memories, dreams that constantly entwine with incredible, gifted, winsome, deep, whimsical people around us.
But Sehnsuht still haunts us.
I read an interview of a playwright who said, “All the best stories have to do with loneliness.” We connect best with what what’s been our experience, and everyone has experienced loneliness, so the stories that include that theme are the ones that become enduring. Sehnsuht crept out of the theater stage and connected with this playwright’s audiences because it connects with every human.
You’ve seen the same hunger demonstrated in your friends in their life choices, in the characters in your favorite novels, and the lyrics of your go-to music. Many people can’t put Sehnsuht into words, but Bono was brave enough to call it for what it is when he sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
The search drives alive, sensitive people to breathtaking thrills. I can’t scorn the lady who endlessly pursues expensive exercise regimens and takes any man who gives her attention. Or the man who loses himself in games and adrenaline. Their search is part of being human, alive, and honest about their thirst. But they short-circuit the search when they settle for something less than Infinity.
This post concludes tomorrow.