Come and explore the meaning and different aspects of the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’. In todays episode we focus on the wrong side of the door.
This episode is the third episode of a 7 part series. You can find the subjects of and the links to the other episodes at the end of this blog post.
WATCH THE VIDEO
Find the Hope Cymru Youtube channel here.
Wherever we are, we feel homesickness for a home to which we cannot return, a home which maybe never was, the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of our past.
We are not at home. We want to go back home. But we cannot get there.
All our efforts in science and the arts, bring us to disappointing dead ends.
We cannot seem to shake the sense that we’re cut off, by time and distance from something else, the place we really want to be, from the place we belong, from home.
And all this despite the fact that for over a century we’ve been telling ourselves and acting as if we are already at home.
THE MAN THAT HAD EVERYTHING
In late December 2016, on a cold winters night, a man was seen standing looking out the window of his large country home, in Goring-On-Thames, Oxfordshire.
He was a man, who had made it in life. He had everything that the X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and the Voice tantalise millions of viewers with week after week.
He had chased the dream and won. He was one of the bestselling artists of all time with over 80 million records sold world-wide during his solo career alone.
He had done what he set out to do, as the title of his second album of 1984, had put it ‘Make it Big’.
It was strange given all that he had that he should have been seen looking out at something else- something which he didn’t have.
That last night of his life, he was seen looking out at a torchlight procession of people from the village church, to celebrate that event which was to be the turning point in the history of the world, an older story, which has long been buried and covered over, the story of Christmas.
All that he had and had achieved turned out to be nothing more than a mirage. There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
This man was all alone as he looked out at the cold winters night.
He was looking out at something pass by that he was not part of and for something else.
The man was 53 year old international pop sensation George Michael.
The next day news of his tragic death would hit the headlines around the world.
THE DENIAL OF SOMETHING ELSE
The most powerful ideas are the ones that never have to justify themselves. In Wales today, one idea in particular has been taken for granted for over a hundred years: that the world we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste is all there is.
It is the air we breathe, such that any suggestion that there might be something else, and something more is quickly dismissed, regarded as simply a delusion that would prevent us from making the most of what we have got here and now, and making ourselves at home.
Rather than wrestling with Hiraeth and the strong desires which we cannot account for, we look to politicians to make the best of what we’ve got, Hollywood actors to entertain us and sports stars to thrill us all to keep us from reflecting upon the deepest longings of our hearts.
In the 19th century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill took to politics and economics with what he described as: “the desire to create an earthly hope for the (human) race, created by science, where all greater evils of the past shall be removed.”
His godson, Bertrand Russell, took this further in a 1927 lecture, “Why I am not a Christian,” in which he claimed:
“Religion is based… primarily… upon fear… of the unknown, and partly… the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes… In this world we can now begin… to understand things,… to master them with the help of science… Science can help us get over this… fear… Our… hearts can teach us no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in.”
The idea that we are at home alone and that we are to make the best of it, is now so deeply entrenched in popular culture that it pervades nearly all the stories we tell and the songs we sing.
In the 70s and 80s, Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” wittily informed us that we live on “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet” orbiting a “small unregarded yellow sun”… “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy,”.
In the 90s, Joe Diffie’s hit song chanted, “welcome to earth, third rock from the sun.”
More recently, Oxford chemist Peter Atkins said: “It is time to stand four square in front of this glorious world and accept we are alone.”
All alone in a cold dark universe, we are to make the most of it, by getting as much stuff as we can, the more we have the happier we will be, although those with the most, are often the unhappiest of all.
SOMETHING DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT
We’ve tried to tell ourselves that we’re at home, that we’ve been at home all along. And yet, it really doesn’t feel like it.
We’re not at home in our environment. As Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have brought more and more to our attention, we’re deeply out of sync with the world around us, and seem to be toxic and destructive to our planet.
We’re not at home with those who are different from us; in race, nationality, class or gender.
Black Lives Matter has highlighted the injustice and strife that still exists between different racial groups, every election seems to deepen the divides across class lines, and the #metoo movement has reminded us how broken the relationship between men and women is in our society.
Nor are we at home with people who are like us. So many of us have known the scars of deep relationship breakdown in our own families, and the trauma and upheaval that go with it.
But most of all, we’re not at home with ourselves; with our own minds, our own bodies, with who and what we are. We’re deeply disoriented and confused.
Self-harm among teenagers is increasingly prevalent, and hospital admissions for self-harm among pre-teens have doubled in the past 6 years alone.
We may have been telling ourselves that we are at home, but instead we certainly present as people who are not at home with our environment, others, or with ourselves.
We cannot stop ourselves longing for another home, which maybe never was, feeling the nostalgia, yearning and grief, even while telling ourselves and being told that we are at home already and have been home all along.
Since we so bravely declared that this is all there is, and that we are all alone in the universe, we’ve been trying to make the most of it, and invest it with the deepest meaning and significance we can.
It seemed such a liberating and empowering stance, but it has turned out to be both crushing and disappointing.
Far from enabling us to make more of life, it has reduced our lives and us to gritting our teeth in the face of cruel fate, or escaping it all by shopping, working, and decorating our homes, “eating, drinking and being merry for tomorrow we die.”
We aim for nothing more than “a good innings” and to be able to go out to Sinatra’s “I did it my way,” but where has it led us?
It’s left us lost.
We tell each other that we’re where we’re supposed to be, but our hearts and lives betray that we’re not, and we don’t really know where we are at all.
“I used to think it was mere homesickness”, John Lennon once said, “then I started getting it at home.”
“I had spent my whole life feeling homesick,” Marian Keyes said, though she “didn’t know what or where home was.”
If we’re not at home with our environment, with one another and even with ourselves, if we experience a yearning and longing for home that we can’t get to, then where exactly are we?
In exile, in a pigsty in a far country, lost and on the wrong side of the door.
We are not at home, and are far from it.
Although in our age, we thought we could be anything we wanted, we seem to be unable to shake the feeling that we are cut off and somehow away from where we are supposed to be.
T S Elliot once described it;‘not as the feeling of anything I have ever done, which I might get away from, or anything in me, I could get rid of, but of emptiness, of failure, towards someone, or something outside myself, and I feel I must atone…’
“One of (the) most curious characteristics” of “our spiritual longings” is something “we usually notice… just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance…The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret… “At present”, he devastatingly concluded, “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.”
We swipe through tinder, endlessly looking for “the One”, the one with whom there will be the perfect connection, all the right chemistry, and incredible intimacy, the one for whom we were made.
But we haven’t found the One.
More than ever today, we feel alone and frightened, orphans and adrift in a cold, dark world of pandemics and death, left to work it out for ourselves, in a universe which has come from nowhere and is going nowhere, as no more than grown-up germs sitting on the cog of a vast cosmic machine that is slowly but inexorably running down into nothingness.
We look for communities to belong to, but more and more of us identify with the growing online communities of self-proclaimed outsiders, with those who see themselves as living on the margins of society.
Many of us feel like foreigners and second class citizens, even in the countries we were born.
We have told ourselves that we can make our home here and turn earth into heaven.
And yet the fulfilment of this dream always seems to be in the distance; not now, but when another party comes to power, after Brexit, after the Euros.
If only we had more retail therapy, a better diet, were famous, that job, that relationship, then we would be truly happy and yet all the research shows that the harder happiness is pursued, the more elusive it becomes.
We have never really managed to close the door to something else, that lost home and world. If we had, we could dispense with the word “hiraeth”.
As it stands, we feel it more than ever.
But what if, in the words of C S Lewis;
“…our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation?”
OUR TRUE HOME
The world wants to go home, but the world cannot get back home nor can the world make its home here and now, no matter how hard it tries.
What if an old world and our true home has been lost and turned away from for no reason at all, but ignorance and prejudice?
What if what has been lost and been forgotten, buried and covered over, what your ancestors lived and died by was true all along?
What if, the homesickness, the nostalgia, the yearning and grief for a home which maybe never was, is not a dead end after all?
What if somewhere, sometime out there, there was such a home after all?
What home could ever be strong enough, to still haunt individuals, young and old, as well as whole nations across the world, and call us still, through the best experiences of our pasts, across great spans of time and space?