Coming back to Switzerland after a summer holiday in the States was unexpectedly revealing and a tiny bit unsettling. It’s taken a few days to sort out my feelings and – like the first-year German student that I am – I haven’t been able to form sentences to describe what I’m feeling.

I’m still not sure I have put my finger on it.

Toward the end of my time away I started to feel as though it was time to get back to work. That’s always a welcome feeling. I feel it every year. I’m not quite sure what would happen if I didn’t want to get back to work.

Retire, I suppose.  Or, go back to school and get a real job, maybe.

But I was ready to re-engage, to see the people of my church, to prepare sermons for them, to ask about their lives, to go on hikes with them, to be the church with them. For more than 30 years I have lived for this, and for more than 30 years I have been glad for this life. I still am.

What was different this time was going home. I told everyone that I was “going home to Switzerland,” which has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My home is in Switzerland. I loved to say it and loved to see the reactions to it.

And it’s true that I have some clothes and furniture in Switzerland. But home is also in the United States.  I have some clothes and furniture there too.

So, what is home?

The German language, which to me is not all that beautiful to listen to, finds its beauty in the way it expresses complex emotion. I never thought I would love German opera. (What is Italian for, after all, except to express the deep and painful longings of love, and to swear at other drivers?) But the German language, as it turns out, can describe a feeling with such precision that translators are tempted to leave some words well enough alone.

The word “sehnsucht” would be one example. Yearning and addiction. Those are the two words Germans have put together in a compound word that defies an exact translation.

For some people the yearning is for the past, nostalgia. They think about an America that may have existed briefly in the 1950s, but then only in certain suburbs and hardly for everyone. I think I remember it, but I’m never quite sure it was real. And for some there is a longing and – more recently – a grieving and an unsettling feeling that we will never experience that time and place again.

For me the yearning is not for the past, the American suburbs of the 1950s. And surprisingly my yearning is not for the U.S. at all. To be back briefly after months away was to recognize the good and the bad of American life. I was overwhelmed at times by the friendliness and helpfulness of people in Holland, Michigan, where I vacation each year. I recognized myself in those people. I am even aware that I look like them – and they like me. But I was also irritated by their driving, their wastefulness, their loudness, and much, much more.

I love what my friends here call their “passport country,” but I do not yearn to be there. At least not now.

C.S. Lewis once described “sehnsucht” as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” I think I see this theme in much of his writing. I think I see it in much of my life. Which would account for the insatiable desire to see and experience so much of the world, to keep my passport in my back pocket, just in case.

I already know that this inconsolable longing, this “sehnsucht,” is spiritual. If more than 30 years of ministry teaches you nothing at all, it teaches you to see the spiritual connections in life. I read Augustine when I was at seminary, but a young man in his early 20s knows little of life. The young man I was then knew less than most.

“You have made us for yourself,” Augustine wrote, as if in prayer. “And our hearts are restless, until they find rest in you.”

I think those words, at long last, are beginning to make sense.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


8 Responses to Sehnsucht

  1. Jodi September 10, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    Our experiences of living abroad and outside of our “passport countries” perhaps lends insight into why the foreigner is lifted up in the Old Testament and forces us to take seriously this notion that this world is not our home…resident aliens are we…thanks for your thoughts…

    • Doug September 10, 2014 at 5:06 am #

      Thanks, Jodi. I knew you would understand.

  2. Bettina September 10, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    I so do understand what you may feel: we lived five years in Cameroon, home was there, but it was also in Switzerland, and at the same time it was neither in Cameroon nor in Switzerland. We were strangers in Cameroon, and strangers when we visited our home country. Resident aliens are we, so right!

    • Doug September 10, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks for the reply, Bettina. I didn’t know about your sojourn in the Cameroon. Am glad you can understand the feeling.

  3. Ron Poorman September 10, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Doug – I was an exchange student many years ago and learned to speak German in the “holy land” of Hochdeutsch, Hamburg. I think Swiss German, with apologies to the folk in your new home, has an accent that is not quite as pleasing. German has the possibility, with all of those consonants, to be rough and guttural. So does almost any language when abused. I really love the sound of the German language. Listen to a fine singer sing Schubert lieder or a fine actor read poems of Goethe or Rilke. On the subject of home…I loved living in Germany; I was young when there. That and speaking a second language changes the whole way you see the world, and gives you a new twist on patria, the completely accidental fact of where you were born.

    • Doug September 10, 2014 at 9:02 am #

      Ron, thanks for the comment. My own ear isn’t well trained enough to hear the difference between the high German I am learning and the Swiss German most people actually speak around here. I may learn to love the sound of it, but right now am finding beauty (and occasionally some humor) in the precision or exactness of the language. Blessings!

  4. Al Klein September 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Hello Doug,

    After 6 years of living here in Switzerland, I can rightfully call this “home”, sometimes to the amazement and consternation of my US friends. Each time I go back, I realize that my friends and family have changed, and so have I, and sometimes that is disconcerting. I try to keep up with what’s going on, but over time I see our lives slowly diverging. The things that you took for granted in the US, like stores staying open over the weekend, seem like a big deal when you are inSwitzerland. But on the other hand, one becomes more aware of some of the negative things about the US, like crime, traffic, waste, and the emphasis on consumption and bigness. You’ t be in two places at the same time, and you just have to make a choice to admire the best things in both countries. Al Klein

  5. Georgia Hamilton September 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    Doug, I found your blog especially thoughtful–yes, the German language is harsh sounding but also quite distinct, certainly when compared to the smooth, almost lucious sounds of Romance languages. But it makes so much sense, and, when you know the rules, is easier than English! But more importantly for me, I was struck by your thoughts about the meaning of “sehnsucht.” —- that there is a spiritual meaning for you that others might not experience provides much food for thought. Thank you.