It’s Hard to Describe What I Feel

two people standing on a cliff

What are you thinking about?

Picture yourself back in high school, and the bully who has been paying attention to you recently comes along in the hall, pretends to accidentally bump into you, and knocks everything you’re carrying into the floor. “God, you’re so clumsy!” he says, walking off laughing. Later in the day, if you happen to see him slip on the ice in the parking lot and smack down on the ground, what emotion instantly goes through your mind?

The Germans have a word for this emotion: Schadenfreude (if you don’t know German, it’s pronounced something like SHAH-den-froy-duh), to take pleasure from the suffering of another person. This week I read that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, the one who paid off the porn star, suddenly had his office and home searched by Federal investigators. I knew what Trump’s unhappy reaction would be—something along the lines of screaming and cursing at the TV.

I don’t think Schadenfreude is a positive emotion. It’s just the opposite, in fact, but we don’t choose our emotions, they choose us. Given what a horrible person Donald Trump is, I could not have been more delighted to learn about the raid on the lawyer’s office. Schadenfreude, baby.

I’ve read that psychology researchers have identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Notice how common each of those words is, so common you would expect to easily find a translation into any other language. All humans experience those six emotions in some form, but in the complexity of our lives, we can experience more than one emotion at the same time, or subtle gradations of an emotion, or the emotion can be evoked for various reasons.

Language is limited. As it’s based on cultural and social interaction, language can only do so much. In the vast ocean of human psychology, we might experience and feel many things that we actually don’t have words for. As an example of this complexity, take the Japanese word “natsukashii”, which means to long for the past with a mix of being happy for having the memory of something that was good, together with sadness that the thing you remember is gone.

I don’t intend here to simply make a list of such words, but let’s have one more example. The French phrase “l’appel du vide”, which we could translate as something like “the call of the void”, describes a feeling that comes from realizing we could throw ourselves into a great empty space, like jumping off a building. It doesn’t mean you actually want to, but rather that you experience both exhilaration and fear from the thought of it.

If you care to find more such words, you can easily go online and find lists. I think the existence of all these words is one of the wonderful things about the human mind, that we create words for the variety of our experience of the world. By analogy, we’ve done the same thing with other aspects of life. In English, for instance, we have the words teal, vermillion, and mauve, not limiting ourselves to green, red, and purple.

It is possible to live without all these words. Years ago I read that there was a language in which the people had only two color words, basically meaning “warm colors” and “cool colors”. It’s not that they couldn’t see the range of colors, they just didn’t have words for them, because they didn’t need them. In the same way, you may have experienced “l’appel du vide” when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but maybe you didn’t have a word for that creepy idea that you could just jump off.

I think we’re better off to have a wide range of words, representing some of the small intricacies of our lives. The more words we know, the more we can think about things in subtle ways, so that we possibly live richer and maybe even more civilized lives. So if you’re in the mood to invent words, how about more words to describe garlic? We could use words for things like: a slight hint of garlic in the air, the strong smell of garlic cooking, the zing of raw garlic in a dish, the mellow savor of garlic cooked in food, and so on. Don’t we need special words for all of this? We could use those words in my house.

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