(June 2007)
Published in Psychologies Magazine, UK

On a Sunday morning in Oxford, a young publisher wakes early. In spite of her hangover she walks across the city to sit for an hour, in silence with twenty strangers. A grandfather listens to a piece of music and is surprised to find himself weeping. Sitting by the Thames, a teacher watches a woman pushing a pram and is almost doubled over with the pain of it. A writer carries mementos of her homeland with her everywhere and dreams of the water of her childhood. Each of them united by longing: deeper than desire, and as universal as hunger.
Sylvia Plath, writing in her journals as a young student, mused: “There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it.” Who among us doesn’t recognise that feeling of bubbling expectancy, of yearning hope? It’s a deep feeling, one which drives many of us. The endless traveler, the hyper-achiever, the serial monogamist: longing for something out of reach. Sometimes the desire itself is the motivating force, not the end product, although we may convince ourselves that we are merely pining for the perfect lover, place, or job. Australian psychotherapist Dr Craig San Roque says that longing differs in intensity from simple desire, and adds, “intense feelings are part of human life, in some ways they look for a home … longing for perfection, yearning: it’s one of the absolute fundamentals of human life.”

In 1994, my husband-to-be took me for a hike up Ben Lomond, a lochside mountain on the edge of Glasgow. Near the summit, buffeted by wind, I stopped and looked at the blue-green loch below, and was slapped by the realisation that for years I had been ‘imagining’ this landscape in meditation sessions. I could barely breathe for the yearning it set up in me: to be part of that landscape, to belong to it. Music too, has that potential to illuminate our deeper longings. A sudden gasp in the midst of music which leads us to remember that we are more than the sum of our parts: more than our mortgages; our jobs; more than our holiday plans and our renovations. Much of our lives, for many of us, is constructed of a careful forgetting: we have too much to achieve or to maintain to be distracted by the siren call of our own longing. We need it, though: it is our thread, connecting us to depth of our humanity.

Listen to any Arvo Pärt composition and I defy you not to notice an aching gap in some deep, private part of your being. Even pop songs—the best ones, those that people return to year after year—are about a deep, primal longing. For what? For a lover, mostly; for belonging—but more than that. Think of Radiohead’s “I’m a Creep” to get a sense of what I mean; that desperate need in Thom Yorke’s voice hungrily repeating “I wish I was special.”
Pop music is often about the desire to be special, to be beautiful, no matter what they say. Pop music is arguably the realm of the adolescent—that era of human lifespan which is all about longing. Teetering on the cusp of something big, not quite sure what it is, having left childhood behind; it’s a waiting-room of a time, made taut with angst and desire. Most teenagers, being teenagers, are unable to articulate that longing and so lyricists like Thom Yorke do it for them. Of course some of these articulations are of desire rather than deep yearning. Is there, after all, a difference between the two?

Pop-singer turned Anglican priest Steve Butler, thinks there is. “We cannot long for our daily bread, no matter how much we want or need it,” he argues. “Rather we long for what we once knew, and for whom we have known. Longing looms up from the unconscious. Like a memory that is felt but cannot be recalled. It is a ‘back then’, and a ‘one day’, and ‘sadly, not now’. It is the psychodynamic—living with the ‘loss’ of what’s deepest within us.”

Occasionally, we surprise ourselves with a moment of clear pining, without knowing what it is we pine for. Carol Anne Duffy, in her sublime poem, Prayer, captures that delicate forgetting, and sudden remembering: “Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth/enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;/then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his/ youth in the distant Latin chanting of a train.” Film and theatre, too, at their best illuminate our longings. Markus Michalowski, director of the German hip-hop theatre company, Renegade, says theatre “is about the duality of human life, which is captured in the symbol for theatre—the Dionysian mask: half smile, half-grimace. In that duality is the human longing to find the full experience of ourselves.” It seems on some level that we have this space within us, some innate yearning which seeks a home, a focus. As existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1845: ‘The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.’

Some years ago I spent some time working with Indigenous Australians in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Speaking through translators, several women told me of a deep hunger for their country—their land—a never-forgetting. For these women, the desire for country seemed vivid, three dimensional, and as hungry as the desire a young woman feels for her new lover. The Welsh talk about this longing for home as hiraeth—a deep pining for the patch of land which is your home. Is it home that we long for—is that what the psalmist of the Old Testament meant when he wrote “deep calls to deep”? Raymond Carver in his poem Late Fragment asks: “And what did you want?/To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ beloved on the earth.” Is it the case, as Carver implies, that our primal longing is to know ourselves as beloved? To be as intimate as humanly possible. Allen Ginsburg in Song, wrote: “I always wanted to return to the body where I was born.” What place is more intimate than the womb?

The Portugese have perfected a form of song, known as fado, dedicated to this deep yearning, sometimes for home, sometimes for the beloved, sometimes for the unknowable. Fado is both a celebration of, and commiseration with, saudade—described by A. F. Bell back in 1912, in the book In Portugal as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.” In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis wrote of a similar longing as a “desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now… (it is a yearning) which pierces with such sweetness.”

When I began writing my latest novel, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, I knew that it was at the very least a tale about longing. It is, after all, the story of a woman, an Australian rodeo rider and silent film star, Jess A., who becomes an outlaw in order to find her lost child. This desperation to be reunited turned out to be at the heart of the book, surprising me with its intensity. It is echoed in the parallel story of a British migrant to Australia, Rose, longing for home, and for her child. Yet underneath all this something even more fundamental is gradually uncovered: the yearning for life itself and the need to be connected, to matter. The primal longing.

In the medieval Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author describes a form of prayer that perhaps also describes the form of our life’s yearning: ‘When you first begin, you will find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You do not know what it means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out… never give up your firm intention: beat away at this cloud of unknowing… with that sharp dart of longing love.’ Perhaps we do not truly know what it is we long for. Yet surely we can do this: steadfastly to listen, and to then allow the longing in our deepest selves to shape our lives and our loves.