Across the vast expanses of the mysteries of the ocean, beyond the realms of my feeble modern imagination, lives a lost world, the hidden city of Atlantis. The Greeks wrote of this lost land, forgotten by time, erased from memory, eclipsed by a modern world gone awry. It was filled with marvels and mysteries, bliss and elation, magic and wonder, fiction and fantasy, dreams and memories, and even more so, hope. It was the ideal manifestation human dreams, desires, and yearnings for a perfect utopia. It is the kind of story that makes a child’s eyes sparkle.
The Chinese called it Fusang. It was a mythical land in the East which held the elixir of life, and was guarded from evil by legendary sea creatures. It that was rumored to have been found by Chinese adventurers, was researched by countless scholars, and is embedded into the memory of many generations. But in the end, it too, was lost in a cloud of myths, just like Atlantis.
Then there is the legend of Lemura, a place where human beings lived in an idyllic agrarian paradise, with lush forest and an abundance wonderful fruit trees and beautiful flowers. Tranquil principles of sharing, creativity, cooperation produced a magnificent society that was free of crime, violence, strife, and warfare. The land was filled with an ethereal harmony and all the living beings, small and large, lived together in a magnificent symphony.
The Spanish sent many expeditions into the New World to search for the Lost cities of Gold, most famous amongst them being El Dorado. Here, they expected to find the grandest assortment of wealth, luxury, and other unearthly delights. Many an adventure was wrecked in the cruel jungles of South America while searching for this perfect golden utopia that captivated the heart and mind. Alas, El Dorado as well, was lost.
There are countless legends of lost lands that are the ideal embodiment of the human desire for perfection, beauty, and purity. The lost continents of Mu and Rutas; the lost cities or islands of Arcadia, Akakor, Beimeni, Datong, Cokaygne, Ciudad de los Césares, Shambhala , Sierra de la Plata, Schlaraffenland, Quivira, and many more among them. Every culture has myths that fulfill a deep inner longing for some long lost place of ethereal utopia. The place is perfect and beautiful, as it is long lost and unobtainable. There is a deep rooted, and even nostalgic, memory of this place, yet the place is unobtainable and unknown.
When I hear something about a mythical lost land my spine begins to tingle as a wave of excitement and adventure radiates throughout my body. There is somewhere that is amazing and I feel as though I belong there. I am meant for something bigger than this boring and mundane life. It’s as though I have nostalgia for a place that was lost before I was born. It’s as though I have a memory of the future. But how can that be?The great authors and poets of yesteryear, most notably C.S. Lewis, called this confusing existential nausea, Sehnsucht, German for “the longing.”
Every time you read a grand story that moves you and stirs up the deepest of human emotions, even beyond simple tears or laughter, you experience sehnsucht. I recall reading an old adventure in a mythical world of ancient Greece. The story captivated the whole sum of my young imagination and took me through a perilous journey that resulted in a final battle for the salvation of the world. With sparkling eyes I read as the hero of the story led a final charge against the enemy sacrificing himself to save others. I cried for about twenty minutes, and the only thing I could think of was “that’s what glory is.” I longed to be that kind of person and live in that world, where there was meaning and purpose greater than going to the fifth grade and doing math problems. It was sehnsucht.
When you think of the greatest stories ever told, and their profound impact upon you, you remember moments of nostalgia and sehnsucht. From the most ancient fairy tales, to great modern marvels, where Aslan saves Narnia, Frodo carries a dangerous ring to Mordor, Luke saves the Galactic Empire, and Harry defeats Voldermort; all of these mythical places and worlds embody the desire for something larger than our often meaningless existence. Some place where things make sense, where there is meaning, where the abstract idea of hope becomes so tangible you can grasp it with your two hands and never let go.
That longing is sehnsucht. That place we are longing for is Eden, a grand Paradise where everything that is wrong with the world will be righted.
Why do we have this longing?
That is the as grand a question as there ever was. Humans have many desires, we long to be fed, because there is a thing called food. We are thirsty and desire to drink because there is a thing called water. We are lonely and long to be connected because there is a thing we call friendship, family, or other meaningful relationships. In fact, all of our earthly longings have a counterpart, the longing is not alone, it is there because there is a thing to fulfill that longing. So why do we long for a mythical place where there is meaning, harmony, and perfection if not that it exists.
You may doubt me here, and honestly I doubt me sometimes too. You may ask “are you unflinchingly certain that there exists such a place?”
And I would answer with “I hope so.” And that very hope gives me reason to believe.