Lebensmüdigkeit, Sehnsucht, und Wanderlust

One thing I love about the German language is how expressive it is. The standard joke is if there isn’t a word for something in German, just take three or four different words and smash them together to make one. Or, if you want a very specific word for a very specific thing, you can smash together a bunch words to come up with something like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. (That’s a real thing. Look it up.)

Recently, as I’ve been winding down my time at BYU, I have fallen into a rather singular emotional state. I can’t really describe it adequately in English, so I’ll revert to German.

I’ve recently been suffering from a bad bout of what the Germans call Lebensmüdigkeit. What does this mean? It literally translates as “life tiredness,” and is slippery to nail down in English. It’s not quite depression (I’m not sad), or exhaustion (I’m have energy), or anything like that, although it can be paired with those and other near-synonyms. It’s also not really being “tired of life” in a suicidal sense (no need to call a suicide hotline, I promise), although, again, it can be linked with that. I’d say it’s more like resignation mixed with frustration at not seeing progress or changes one’s life that one wants to see happen. In my estimation it’s more like being tired with one’s circumstances in life than life itself, although one may understandably take the implications of meaning all the way.

Of course, when one suffers from Lebensmüdigkeit, that almost naturally drives one to foster Sehnsucht in one’s breast. This one’s a little easier to nail down. Typically translated as “longing” or “yearning,” it has been defined by Wikipedia thusly:

Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.

A casual glance at the standard canon of Lieder (as performed by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for example) will reveal no less than 7 songs from the Romantics either titled simply “Sehnsucht” or containing the word as a compound element. Here, for example, is Schiller’s poem “Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen,” set to music by Schubert and titled simply “Sehnsucht.”

Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen,
Die der kalte Nebel drückt,
Könnt’ ich doch den Ausgang finden,
Ach, wie fühlt’ ich mich beglückt!
Dort erblick’ ich schöne Hügel,
Ewig jung und ewig grün!
Hätt’ ich Schwingen hätt ich Flügel,
Nach den Hügeln zög’ ich hin.
Harmonieen hör’ ich klingen,
Töne süßer Himmelsruh’,
Und die leichten Winde bringen
Mir der Düfte Balsam zu,
Gold’ne Früchte seh’ ich glühen,
Winkend zwischen dunkelm Laub,
Und die Blumen, die dort blühen,
Werden keines Winters Raub.
Ach wie schön muß sich’s ergehen
Dort im ew’gen Sonnenschein,
Und die Luft auf jenen Höhen,
O wie labend muß sie sein!
Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben,
Der ergrimmt dazwischen braust,
Seine Wellen sind gehoben,
Daß die Seele mir ergraust.
Einen Nachen seh ich schwanken,
Aber ach! der Fährmann fehlt.
Frisch hinein und ohne Wanken,
Seine Segel sind beseelt.
Du mußt glauben, du mußt wagen,
Denn die Götter leih’n kein Pfand,
Nur ein Wunder kann dich tragen
In das schöne Wunderland.

This is an excellent poetic summary of the feelings associated with Sehnsucht.

Finally, those who experience Sehnsucht for something frequently fall into Wanderlust. This last one has come into English as a loanword, and was even the title for a 2012 film starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Literally “hiking desire,” for the Romantics Wanderlust was the impulse to escape into the world and leave behind your old life. It was effectively memorialized with Werther’s openly exclamation:

Wie froh bin ich, daß ich weg bin! Bester Freund, was ist das Herz des Menschen! Dich zu verlassen, den ich so liebe, von dem ich unzertrennlich war, und froh zu sein!

So, how does this all apply to me right now? I can’t really articulate it at this time, actually. Suffice it to say that I’ve grown somewhat frustrated at the stagnancy in my life right now, which makes me yearn for something new and better, which drives me to want to escape Provo and the life I know right now. Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Come April I will be done with BYU, done with Provo, and, if all goes well, gearing up for grad school in the fall and working for my sister and brother-in-law during the summer.

Until that happens, though, I am left to reflect these words from Schiller:

Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben,
Der ergrimmt dazwischen braust,
Seine Wellen sind gehoben,
Daß die Seele mir ergraust.

2 thoughts on “Lebensmüdigkeit, Sehnsucht, und Wanderlust

  1. Are you German descent? Or did you go on a mission to Germany? Or both?

    I am trying to learn basic German on my own. I have a hard enough time with English and all the ridiculous rules and exceptions!

    I need to learn German to be able to do genealogy. My maternal grandmother was born in Germany. They have roots in what was previously Prussia. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was an infant. My mother spoke German before English. Unfortunately, she lost it and was never able to teach me any German. The family quit speaking German when WW II broke out. They were afraid of being imprisoned like the American Japanese. And I always begged to be taught German. My paternal grandmother is half German.
    My parents did not speak much of their childhood, as they had hard lives. But the one thing they remembered fondly was when all the relatives would gather together to make sausage and sauerkraut, and bake. Everyone was able to take some home with them.
    My mother now suffers with Alzheimer's. But about four years ago we called an auction agency to sell her house and other things. The lady who owned the agency was from Germany, now a U.S. citizen. My mother was able to speak to this woman in German. I was dumbfounded. My mother could not remember from five minutes previously. Weird how Alzheimer's works. Two years ago my mother's youngest brother had successful outpatient surgery. Two days after surgery he was back in the hospital going down hill fast. Right before he passed away he was speaking fluent German. Then he was gone.

    I enjoy everything about your site. I do enjoy it when you bring up German subjects. Thank you for your defense of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Good luck with grad school!

    • Alas! I neither served a mission in Germany, nor am I a descendant of German ancestors (as far as I know). I served my mission in New England and descend primarily from Scottish and English ancestors.

      All of my German I've learned in school and on my study abroad in Austria.

      If you're interested in German genealogy, you'll want to contact Roger P. Minert, or otherwise check out his work. He's one the leading genealogists in the Church when it comes to the German-speaking parts of Europe.


      "I enjoy everything about your site. I do enjoy it when you bring up German subjects. Thank you for your defense of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ."

      Thank you for the compliment. 🙂 Cheers!

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