Recently I read an article about travel from the BBC, and, impractical as it may appear, I immediately thought of one of my favourite scenes from The Simpsons. The following conversation is between Lisa Simpson and her father, Homer.
“Dad, do you know what Schadenfreude is?”
“No, I do not know what Schadenfreude is, please tell me because I’m dying to know.”
“It’s the German term for shameful joy—taking pleasure in the suffering of others.”
“What’s the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?”
“Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!”
Not that I am here to condone this wisdom of Homer Simpson, but let’s face it. He is on to something here. The Germans may not have a word for everything, but what they do have are a number of apposite expressions that, when translated, take on a universal transcendence not often seen in the Queen’s English. Take, for instance, the word “wanderlust.” From the BBC article:
[The Germans] gave us the word “wanderlust,” after all, which combines the German words wandern, meaning to “wander,” and lust, or “desire.” It’s a word so provocative to English speakers with a yen to see the world that we’ve borrowed it from the German and have taken it as our own.
If that is not German enough for you, here’s another word, based on wanderlust: fernweh.
Marrying the words fern, or distance, and wehe, an ache or sickness, the word can be roughly translated as “distance sickening” or “far woe”—a pain to see far-flung places beyond our doorstep. Think of it as the opposite of heimweh (homesickness).
If that sounds similar to wanderlust, it’s because it is. But allow for some nuancing and you can see just how different the ideas are. Wanderlust, by its definition, is the basic desire to travel, whereas fernweh, with its use of “sickening” and “woe,” would seem to indicate not only a passion for getting away but also a near-biological necessity for those possessed by fernweh—if we don’t get out and see the world, we will become ill. So perhaps the proper expression is not to say “those possessed by fernweh” but “those infected by fernweh.” Infected. In the best of times it’s not a word we want to see, but what better word can you use to describe something based on “sickening” and “woe”?
It is no coincidence the BBC ran the story about fernweh in March 2020, when so many of us were in the middle of being forbidden one of the real pleasures of this blasted century: freedom of movement. When the planet shut down because of COVID-19, the most important thing on our minds was keeping the world as healthy as possible and protecting and saving as many lives as we could. At the same time, however, my mind, once a base level of anxiety and fear had been established, adjusted to its new state and began to operate as it had before—much like the human body will react to a limited-calorie diet and adjust to the new energy regime and discourage further weight loss. A mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but it’s also terrible at wasting. The COVID-19 drama didn’t replace all those old thoughts and ideas and visions and dreams. It merely added to them.
I wasn’t particularly surprised by this. When my daughter was born I thought all the pressures of having a child would consume most of my existence, that my past hopes and dreams and fears would be eviscerated—that our life would naturally turn insular. I did not necessarily view this thru a negative lens. Though I certainly wanted to preserve the best parts of me, at the same time I thought spending less time looking into moving to Europe, among other wasteful endeavours, would only help. And since I would be so busy raising a family, who would have time anyway? This was my first realisation how often people lie to each other about parenting. The past may or may not be a foreign country, but it did not disappear with the birth of my daughter. Even with her and my first high-paying freelance job (“high paying” simply meaning earning as much as I would in an entry-level office job), I was never so busy as to forget my life before I became a father. It wasn’t that I yearned for the old “freedoms” I previously enjoyed. (Though after my daughter was born I still vividly recall the first time someone said to me “Have a good weekend!” Weekends with a baby. As if.) It’s that life after all does not stop, ever.
It would be some time before I came to understand this wasn’t common; most of my friends with children adapted better to their new life. It’s true that because we share so little of our meaningful day-to-day existence as parents that it may have been that all of my friends were experiencing something similar. But because we insist on only sharing the joys—that first smile!—and the petty irritations—“My mother-in-law is a nightmare, and I simply cannot find the right wallpaper for the baby’s room.”—we fly around sightless, blinded by the expectations that every moment, while bursting with challenges, is worth it in the end. That our feelings, our needs as humans, not only should not matter anymore but also can’t matter. There’s another life in the fold. We can live ours later.
The key word is an inch or so above these: expectations. I can only speak for myself, but I can say that whether my needs, feelings, or wants should matter or could matter, they did matter. Or at least they still presented themselves, a vision from the past in the form of an Indigo Girls song: “The dreams came in like needy children tugging at my sleeve.” In short, I was capable of feeling it all, the new highs and lows joining with the old ones, stubbornly undiminished—an unwanted gift to put it gently. What’s more, not only did the past attach itself to the present, but the most significant longings of my previous life took on new urgency, spoke louder, demanded more, more, more. I didn’t grasp it at first, but eventually recognised this as a version of “fight or flight”—which, when you belong to a family, means “fight or fight harder.” The same can be said for the COVID-19 pandemic, with one crucial difference: even if I had wanted to choose “flight” I would not have been able to do so. One of the more perplexing traits of humanity is our bottomless desire to want what we can’t have. And it would seem that it operates proportionally, too. The more out-of-reach something is, the more we cleave to it. So that when COVID-19 (unsurprisingly) shredded the United States and its last illusions of exceptionalism, all my needy children showed up even needier.
Fight or flight. Fernweh. Wanderlust. The article in the BBC was an excellent one, but I will quibble with something, the idea that fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It is precisely that of homesickness if your true home is far away, even if—maybe even especially if—you’ve never actually lived there. The problem in future for people like me will be not to yield to the flight impulse, to resist the siren call of fernweh, even if heeding that call means rupturing families. But it will be difficult. Very difficult. As Carl Jung said,
The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing. He must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths.