When it comes to the full range of the complexity, depth, and range of the human experience, there are just some things English cannot satisfyingly express. Some things are negligible, though nice to have words or expressions for when the situation arises. Like the Japanese term ‘bakku-shan‘, which is what you would call someone who is very attractive from behind but is ugly in front. As in, ‘don’t get your hopes up, that girl over there is a complete bakku-shan, wait until she turns around’. Tragic. Others are so culturally specific it might be hard for others on the outside looking in to grasp. Like trying to explain to my friends what ‘papak‘ is, but how can you explain the term for eating something that is supposed to be eaten with rice without rice when my friends usually eat without rice in the first place? Or trying to complain that American bars have no good ‘pulutan‘, or food that is meant to be had with drinks? Some of the best Filipino foods are these ‘pulutan‘ dishes that just have certain characteristics that scream ‘eat me with a cold beer’. Then there are the deeply complex and emotional terms, like the Danish word ‘hygge‘ that expresses a profoundly peaceful state absent of emotion or complication, a source of gentleness and soothing.
‘Saudade‘ is one of the latter, a word in Portuguese and Galician that captures a very specific and yet universal form of longing. Sometimes for something or someone we’ve lost, sometimes for something or someone we never even had or even knew existed. It is an emotion we have almost all felt, but only those familiar with ‘saudade‘ could accurately describe and therefore, celebrate and even chase after. There are many ways to try and explain ‘saudade‘, but each effort to try and pin it down feels like trying to capture a butterfly only to kill it and mount it onto a frame. It’s only beautiful when it’s alive. As in, when you experience it for yourself. Some expressions come pretty close though. ‘Saudade‘ has been described as ‘memory of something with a desire for it’, or others have called it ‘a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy’. It is the immense weight of longing paired with the deep gratitude of having had it once before. A moment’s recollection when emptiness, appreciation, and yearning happen all at once.
I am sure we have all had certain moments where longing for something that is no longer there or missing something that was never there to begin with have in turn affected how we felt about situations, experiences, or people. It’s like a cavity only the dentist forgets to fill it in afterwards, and when you run your tongue along your tooth you can ‘feel’ the emptiness left behind. But, and this is the bittersweet medicine of it all, I don’t believe ‘saudade‘ to be an inherently negative emotion or experience. I believe what makes a moment, an experience, a person, a place, a thing filled with ‘saudade‘ is the implied gratitude, the deep appreciation for being blessed with the realization that there is more to what is already here, what we already have, and the tinge of hope that we might yet find it again or discover it for the very first time. That’s what makes pain something beautiful, what paints longing with appreciation. It is in the very slight tinges of bright color that we dot even the bleakest memories and thoughts. To know and understand and experience ‘saudade‘, we must by definition first realize that there is something great that is missing. For some, we know this because we had it once before and we lost it. Love, romantic love missing the embrace of someone special, or familial love, longing for relatives gone or missing, is an example of this. Or, it could be that we know in the depths of our soul that we are missing something we never had to begin with. Passion, creation, the call to a greatness that would break the static of our landscape, could still be considered ‘saudade‘. It is to know what it is we are missing, what prevents the ‘wholeness’ the ‘completeness’ of our being, to relish in the melancholy of longing that we are fortunate enough to feel and appreciate because we were so blessed at one point to have felt it before, and to be armed with that painful passion, that uplifting burden of loss, to pursue it once again. You left me, and I miss you, and I know I can only feel this deep chasm of longing and emptiness because it was once filled with your love, and though you are gone and I can never have you again, I am happy to know how much I can be filled with love, and I chase now not you, but love.