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Saudade: The bittersweet emotion you never knew you felt

We know that everything changes, but we long for something more permanent.
a black and white photo of two women sitting next to each other.
Credit: kuco / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Saudade is a Portuguese word that refers to a deep and philosophical longing for something that’s likely lost forever.
  • The feeling involves recognizing the transience of life while also desiring something more permanent.
  • It’s a feeling that connects both atheists like Albert Camus and believers like Saint Augustine.

Not all homecomings are happy. After you’ve moved out of your hometown and spent years building a new life, it can be bittersweet to come back for a visit. You walk by shops with new names and new streets that never existed. Your old jaunts and favorite hangouts now belong to someone else. Once, friends and neighbors were a brief walk in any direction, but not anymore. A few places are the same, but that just makes it worse. You remember yourself at a café table or in the park with your friends. But their voices are echoes now, ghosts of a past that belongs to someone else.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of this moment. Poignant? Possibly. Nostalgic? Maybe. But neither is quite right. Maybe a better word might be one unfamiliar to English speakers: the Portuguese word saudade.

The desire for things past

Saudade is the sad longing for something that is likely lost forever. It’s the recognition that everything has changed and that you and everyone will never be the same. It’s nostalgia for a past, contented time, but it’s also a deeper, philosophical acceptance that change is an inevitable part of life. Saudade sees the transience of things and accepts that all things must fade. It pines for a memory that we know can never come back.

Saudade is when an old and long-married couple looks back at photos of their youthful, party days. The couple might be very happy together, but it’s saudade to reflect that they’ll never have those days back. Or saudade might be watching an old TV program about a country and a time long gone. Today might be better in almost every way, but watching that program reminds you that the world you once knew is lost forever.

When the philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” he was preempting saudade. It’s this fact that lies at the heart of it. Because no matter how great a thing is, no matter how in love or happy you might be, nothing will stay still. This moment will give way to the next, and, eventually, everything will end up in the past.

The longing for the divine

In many ways, saudade is about the tragedy of the human condition. We are all aware that everything changes — that our skin sags, our hair grays, and that the people around us come and go — but we long for something more permanent. We want things to stay the same, but every day we face Heraclitus’ reality that everything is in constant flux.

For the French philosopher Albert Camus, this dissonance lies at the heart of absurdity. Camus knew that we each want to find meaning in things. We like answers and to know where everything is. Yet the universe stubbornly refuses to play ball. It offers no consolation to those who seek answers, but instead, with every new Ethan Siegel article, it throws out ever greater mysteries. The universe doesn’t give one fig about our need for meaning, and so it stares back at us with the cold indifference of a cloud watching a massacre.

For the theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo, this longing for constancy is fundamental to being human because it’s fundamental to our religious nature. In Christian theology, humans are meant to be with God. We are meant to be living in the Garden of Eden in his loving care. But, with human sin, we left all that behind to try it on our own. The result is constant dissatisfaction. We are left with the dissonant knowledge that everything changes and everything dies, but also that we should be in the infinite and perfect hands of God. As Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Ironic, then, that the atheistic Camus and the Church Father Augustine reach the same point from different directions: that longing for permanence in a fleeting world leaves us feeling — odd. It leaves us feeling saudade.


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