Several months ago, I was talking to a new friend from college. We were discussing poetry we had written and were getting to know each other. We laughed over the fact that we both irrationally hold onto melancholy emotions because there is something so intense and satisfying about them.
Talking about this relished somberness reminded me of an experience I had when I was about five years old. At that point in my life, I could not give words to what I felt. Even if I did, I was such a self-conscious child that I think I would have been too embarrassed to. Or maybe I thought that I would not be understood — even by my family — if I tried to articulate what I felt.
The “experience” I’m referring to took place in just a few minutes. It happened on a warm evening in July or August. The sun had already set. In Ohio, where I grew up, summer days were hot — but the nights were perfect. The cicadas were humming, and there was a slight breeze that broke up the humidity. It was absolutely serene in my backyard.
I was on the swing set wearing a comfortable nightgown. As I faced my house swinging back and forth, an intense feeling gradually came upon me.
This feeling probably can never be properly expressed in any language. It was not merely an emotion. Rather, it was more like my soul grappling with a pervasive emptiness that lurks in its dark and unexplored corners. It was a paradoxical yearning for some inexplicable “more,” while being purely satisfied with the moment.
In my case, I was content because it was a perfect, serene night in every way. Yet this moment was filled with an emotion that was higher than happiness. It was almost a calling. Or a challenge to exchange a lower form of happiness for some yet undiscovered and more complex kind.
How long this moment and those feelings lasted was only for as long as I continued to swing, so probably another fifteen minutes. Perhaps it was the rhythmic back-and-forth motion of the swing that set me into such a meditative state to begin with.
That moment has taken me years to process. I was not some kind of transcendental child prodigy with existential insight. However, I remember consciously thinking that I would not forget that moment, that it was indelibly engraved in my memory.
Sehnsucht: An Unexplainable Yearning
When I was on Pinterest recently, I happened upon a word and its definition. It is an untranslatable compound German word that conveys essentially the same concept that I just described. The word is “sehnsucht,” and it roughly means an inconsolable yearning or wistful longing for something one cannot explain or does not know. When I came upon this word, I was relieved to find such a concise way of describing this nearly incommunicable feeling.
Why was I still thinking about that childhood moment on the swing set, all these years later? Because I believe that, in retrospect, that moment revealed to me what I now understand is introversion — my own introversion. The feeling of sehnsucht only came to me once I was alone, undistracted, in a calm setting, and in a reflective mood. I was happy and at peace alone.
To me, introversion is a superpower, but it also has a catch. As introverts, we often observe what many other people don’t notice. Because of this intense power of attentiveness, we have the ability to relate our experiences to those of others, and thus we may have heightened powers of empathy.
However, our introversion can also be a source of great anguish. Along with a deep and flourishing inner life comes the distortion of our perception. We can easily fall prey to the lies and negativity that surround us. Introverts often struggle with depression, anxiety, and trusting others. Our empathy may make us susceptible to absorbing the negative energy of others, draining us to our last drop of energy and willpower. We may feel helpless because of this, stuck in our personality and incapable of “overcoming” what is really our greatest asset.
Despite all of these apparent setbacks, introversion is one of the best parts of ourselves that we can offer the world. We may feel like a “drain on society” when we are depressed because we think our life doesn’t have a purpose or that the work we do is not meaningful.
Despite this, the mere fact that we are conscientious and intentional about our lives reveals our value to society. We are unsatisfied by simply fulfilling a task or making a lot of money, although these may be parts of our careers. We may crave a kind of work or lifestyle that will assure us that we are improving society.
The World Needs This Longing Within Me
That feeling of “sehnsucht” is related to the need for meaning. To me, that dissonance in my soul was the epitome of my introversion. Within me at age five the roots of this call were just beginning to wrap themselves around my heart.
Now I am one step closer to realizing it, but I don’t believe I will ever fully satisfy that inner craving. That’s the point, I think. It would be a tragedy if that inner draw to “something more” eventually faded, because it would leave me satisfied with a state of mediocrity. And if there is something I know introverts loathe, it is mediocrity.
Not all introverts will feel this “sehnsucht,” but for me it is a defining and beautiful part of being an introvert. The melancholy yet beautiful tug in my soul helps me to realize that I am, indeed, meant for greatness.
Being an introvert and using the yearning that haunts me will lead me to a meaningful life. I believe that the world would be the worse without my powerful, empathetic, introverted life.
I hope you know the world would be worse without yours as well.
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