Saudade: Longing for What was Lost

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Recently I came across a Portuguese word, “saudade,” which means a melancholic longing for what was lost; a missing person, place or experience that is unreachable, once had, or never had at all. There is, evidently, no direct English translation for this word which is more feeling than verb.

Saudade (pronounced something along the lines of “sol-dotch”) is the feeling of ballads, of wanting what you cannot have, to the point where that longing becomes somehow bitter-sweetly pleasurable. It is, of course, profoundly romantic, and makes for the subject of much beautiful poetry and music.  It brings to mind Psalm 137:

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

I like the idea of saudade, so reflective of our weak human nature as it is, but only to a certain point. I see danger in settling into that longing permanently. When we spend time longing for what has been or never will be, we run the risk of sinking into acedia, or rejecting God’s blessings in our lives.

When saudade become acedia

It’s dangerous to think only of what has been, while forgetting what is in front of us, or losing curiosity for what could come. To long for what we know we cannot have – whether that is a specific time that has past, a relationship that is over, or worse – in this age of social media envy – a life that is not our own, a source of past goodness can become a source of current discontent.

It is odd to think we may desire something that is emotionally painful.  Yet art and human history are full of examples of saudade.  As in Robert Frost’s poem, To Earthward, perhaps it is these experiences of sweetness “dashed with pain” that make us feel most alive:

“Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

 

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.”

But wise men and women who have gone before us have warned about the trap of romanticizing what has been. “They multiply their sorrows/who court other Gods,” Psalm 16:4 tells us. We can make failed relationships, memories of vacations long gone, a previous job and any number of saudade-worthy longings into our gods.

This plays directly into what has been called the greatest sin of the modern age, “acedia.” It has been defined in many ways, but in its simplest form we can regard it as a rejection of God’s grace and goodness in our lives, combined with a determination not to move forward. What good can come of sinking into the past and forsaking the present?

Make A Plan

The best way to confront saudade, and therefore acedia, if it reaches that point, is through a combination of several actions: prayer, works, and seeking friendship with God.

When I find myself slipping too much into that longing, the first thing I do is pray. First, I pray for the ability to recognize what is beautiful in my current life. And secondly, to appreciate whatever that moment was – a summer, a conversation, a trip abroad – for what it was, then. We are able at all times to ask God for the grace we need. So if your prayer is, “God, give me the grace to love that moment for what it was – and only carry with me the positive memories,” pray that to God with a sincere heart and see what happens.

Both are important facets to the prayer, though I think arguably the prayer for gratitude is more pressing. The ability to have a grateful heart is something which will affect every moment of our lives and often takes practice and meditation over a while, before it becomes our default position. Think of it like the psalmist: “Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” (Psalm 103:1) Your prayer can be as simple as that.

Serve Others, Seek God

Another thing to take us out of our past is action in the present. And what better way to forget ourselves, than to serve others? I have found service to be the best remedy for sadness (even if only bittersweet sadness, as opposed to depressive). This could be as simple as writing your friend in another state a thoughtful card, baking a pie for a new mother, helping your neighbor clean up their yard, or finding an actual service opportunity through a local ministry or your parish. Move your body, and your mind will follow. As Bishop Robert Barron always says: “Your life is not about you.”

Finally, do whatever you need to do, in the present, to build a real relationship with God. We have to trust that His plan – and not the plan of the past, or what we long for with our human hearts – is the best thing for us. Understandably, this is something which takes time.

I believe if we make a sincere movement toward God, He is there to meet us. Talk to Him about what you want for your life – what you see as having been good, what you have had to let go of, and where you would like to go. But always know that it is His will, and not ours, which triumphs. And thank goodness for that.

Seeking true belonging

By ceding our present to saudade, we inadvertently tell God the present which He has provided is not good enough. Rather, we ought always to be mindful to first thank God for what is at hand in our present lives, secure in the knowledge that we are safe in His plan for our lives. Saudade is, most likely, a longing for the true belonging we seek all of our lives: love and friendship with God, our maker.

There is something beautiful in claiming and experiencing all the range of emotions which God has gifted us to feel in this world and to express ourselves, including even those that are melancholic and tied up in futile longing. But let us experience saudade just long enough to recognize what was good, and return to the present moment with God.

As I mentioned, the arts are full of examples that precisely express the sentiment of saudade. One great example that I love is the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Southern Cross,” about a man sailing and reflecting on a failed relationship. Although he looks back with longing, he looks forward, as well, with gratitude (arguably, to God!):

“Think about how many times I have fallen

Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’

What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten.”

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