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Words that describe our longing

Updated: Mar 27, 2022


Hiraeth (Welsh pronunciation: [hɪraɨ̯θ, hiːrai̯θ]) is a Welsh word for homesickness or nostalgia, an earnest longing or desire, or a sense of regret. The feeling of longing for a home that never was. A deep and irrational bond felt with a time, era, place or person.

The word ‘Hiraeth,’ according to the Wikipedia entry is a word for homesickness and nostalgia, a longing for a home that never was, perhaps only in your head, a feeling, a sense of something good that you thought existed, but only ever drew breath inside your imagination.

It’s a place that made you feel safe. it’s a bond that can be felt for a time, a place or a person. It is a sanctification of what felt good to us, regardless of whether it ever existed as we remember it.

I heard this word throughout my childhood, either in the classroom or in my home listening to my parent’s conversations. The word can be used to describe the feelings you have due to bereavement, a period of time in your life you remember well, or a feeling of homesickness when you’re away from all that is familiar to you - in many ways, it is a whitewashing of memories that are dear to us, so we can feel better in our present.

Never have we needed this feeling more…

According to Wikipedia, there is a Cornish and Breton equivalent - “hireth” and “hirzezh” respectively. I have never come across those words before, either now or in the past, until I looked up “hiraeth” on Google.

I’m not sure if many people are even aware of the word’s existence, much less understand what it means. It felt for a long time like a word that only I understood (apart from the inner sanctum of family and friends), and it felt good.

It felt special, a word that perfectly described emotions that I felt often as an anxious person.

It is a longing for things to remain the same, to stay as they are, in a place where everything made perfect sense and everything was in its place, where no radical changes occurred and everything within its confines remained static.

It was a word that not only described my world but described me, I was the living embodiment of the word.

A few years ago I read Julian Barnes’ ‘Levels of Life’ about the loss of his wife. It reminded me of Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Living Dangerously.’ Another book on love, loss and grief. In ‘Levels of Life’ Barnes describes a word that is as close to hiraeth as I’d ever heard -

“There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent; it means ‘the longing for something.’ It has romantic and mystical connotations; C. S. Lewis defined it as the ‘inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what.’ It seems rather German to be able to specify the unspecifiable.

The longing for something - or, in our case, for someone. Sehnsucht describes the first kind of loneliness. But the second kind comes from the opposite condition; the absence of a very specific someone. Not so much loneliness as her-lessness.”

Barnes was obviously describing the loss of his wife in those final few sentences. In the book, he describes his pain with a visceral bluntness that hits you between the eyes with its raw honesty, in the same way Didion wrote about hers.

But why am I talking about it?

I mention it because hiraeth or Sehnsucht describes how I’m feeling right now, and I deeply suspect it’s how many of us are all feeling. It is a longing for things the way they were before all of this, a sense of grief for a period of time we can’t return to.

It is a longing for the familiar, and as time goes on we look on this time, the pre-covid era, with fondness and nostalgia, and as it no doubt continues alongside the worst recession we’ve experienced since the 1950s and the invasion of Ukraine, we will carry on creating this fondness for the past.

We’ll wrap it up in our imagination and make it more perfect than it ever was in real life. It will be our hiraeth, our Sehnsucht, tied up in a satin bow so we can open it up whenever we’re hurting and call them the good times.

I understand why we feel this way, the times we are in now are more uncertain than they’ve ever been, everything on a rolling conveyer belt of change, and we don’t know how things will be next week, next month, or even tomorrow.

Change is hard to adapt to, especially when those changes are constant and are seemingly without end. It is enough to make us all fearful, even those who wouldn’t normally feel fear or anxiety.

Everything is different and that feeling doesn’t change, it is the only constant, the sense that you’re constantly adapting to new change and a series of frightening events. We have become used to our routines, we have become creatures of habit. The changes wrought by the pandemic jolted us into a new world, one that feels uncomfortable and terrifying.

We have departed from that beautiful past, it is now our beautiful version of the lives we once knew, it is a world where we continue to conjure, twist and reshape to fit our narrative of what we remember, to fulfil our need for comfort in our minds.

The departure from the norm is as abrupt as it is brutal and we cling on to what we were once familiar with all the force we can muster. It is our hiraeth.

But things will never be the same again. We cannot go back into the past. We can be defensive as we wish, we can talk about strategies, mistakes and our perceptions of how things were, how things are and how we want things to be, but right now, we have no control, we only have hope, and each other.

I don’t know what will happen in the future, is it the big reset they speak of? A forced return to the old world order or is it the new one we’re being jettisoned into seemingly against our will?

This reset can perhaps be our way of looking at whatever the future brings with a sense of optimism, a feeling of anticipation, that we are looking at a new way of living, a better way of living.

If we try to look at it with a degree of optimism, then perhaps whatever we are experiencing now, there is better to come. That what we have been through will have taught us to appreciate so much more what we have in the here and now, so that we can create a better future.

Our hearts say that we know not what, our future is unwritten and unknown, but we can perhaps approach it with a sense of hope, ambition and optimism.

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