On Longing

There are many things in this world that evoke the emotion of longing.

Longing is not wanting. The wanting mind, like a child, is persistent and nagging and tugs at you, like a small nephew in a grocery where you’ve stopped to pick up last minute herbs for the Thanksgiving turkey, and sees a display of candy. I want it, I want it, I want it, he says over and over. I hear you, you say, I hear you. And avoid a temper tantrum by acknowledging the want. Wanting, if you just tune in, is easy to recognize. It buys things and just has a bite that turns into a plate, or just one more drink.

Longing seems different. It recognizes that you can’t have whatever it is and it wants it anyway. It sits and yearns for a time when summer days stretched long, amid the buzz of insects in the tall grass that skims your hand as you pass through it. Of a long car trip on a winding road to nowhere, with fresh air streaming in the open windows, and the smell of the sun on the freshly turned earth. Of the moment of delight when your mom says, reach down into that cooler by your feet and hand me a Coke, and you find she has brought on this trip with just the two of you, every kind of junk food that she never allows at home. For just a moment, you feel akin, you look from the darkness at your feet, out the window and glimpse a quail in the twilight desert. Longing.

Longing knows that memory is not accurate and it wants it anyway. It wants the bubble of pride and hope, the feeling again that the world is blossoming into a better place, and that anything is possible. Post-racial America, sure! End hunger, snap! Care for the sick, the needy, no problem! That finally the good guys have won and now everyone will see what America can be. That remembered pride in who we are, of the beacon we were to countries who were struggling to become. Have faith, we promised, and you can have what we have. Longing.

Longing for a memory of firelight and guitar music, the smell of the wood on the fire, voices joined in harmony, letting go for a few minutes of fear and anxiety, the need to impress. A family encircled by the warmth and light of the flames, drawn together in the darkness in the wilderness. The snap of the resins in the wood, our voices lifted together.

A cold day in Georgetown, a long walk through the snowy streets, illuminated by the golden light streaming from shop windows. A small restaurant, richly colored and dark, filled with smells of cheese and spice. A long dinner, just the two of us, sitting in the window, finished by the sweet, spicy taste of Frangelico. A moment when I felt special to my mother, I felt appreciated as her daughter, I felt recognized. A moment that she doesn’t remember, probably forgot almost immediately, replaced by moments she created for herself.


It’s not about wanting something that you’ve never had, something that you wish you could get for yourself in the future: travel or a bigger house or a different job, for instance. It’s about something you maybe glimpsed once and remember with rose colored glasses, and are reluctant to let go of, even though you know you can never have it.

You can never have it. It’s unattainable. A fantasy that doesn’t serve you. A pain in your chest that, unrecognized, emerges as your shadow side, striking out and leading you into trouble. Seeking to recreate whatever that memory is, to fill a void with whatever matter it has at hand, like a marooned astronaut seeking to build a companion from parts found in an alien junk yard. You may create some semblance of what you seek but although you may choose to forget sometimes, deep down, you will always know that it’s not the same thing. And the longing will still be there.

I would say you should let go of it, but it’s hard to let go of something without replacing it with something else. What can you replace it with? Perhaps gratitude, at having glimpsed something so special.

Express gratitude for the experience that created this longing and see it for what it is. As beautiful as the experience was when you chose to remember it, as beautiful as the emotion was that secured that memory, it has been replaced by something that no longer brings you joy.

By something that gets in your way, that you unconsciously measure each new experience against, that you cling to as a badge of honor: I had this once, I am special, I have it here, inside me. That you try to recreate without success because it has become a fantasy now.

And then Marie Kondo it: Think deeply about how letting go of the experiences you long for will affect how you live now and attain new experiences moving forward.

There is always promise in the future.

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