A few years ago, I was waiting to be checked-in at one of the plush seats at The Peninsula New York’s Gotham Lounge with another traveler I met at the hotel's arrival lobby. He was a near stranger. We met two hours prior to the check-in time and were carrying on a conversation about nothing in particular. I don’t remember much about him, but one of his questions stuck with me.
“Have you ever missed something…that you have never had before?”
I don’t remember the conversation before or after, but what I do remember is that although we both knew the feeling, neither of us have an understanding of what it really is. Exactly how could you miss something that you never even had in the first place?
We couldn’t give an explanation, and we didn’t try to.
Describing the Indescribable
I later learned that this mutual feeling we had was one of the many ways to describe the term saudade, a Portuguese term that seems to have no exact literal translation. This elaborate expression has been described as a feeling of longing, mourning, desire or nostalgia.
Have you ever felt an emptiness or incompleteness, almost as if something was missing but you don't know what?
I was so perplexed by the idea that we could experience emotion for something that had never existed inside of us. And I realized that I was not alone.
Everyone I asked said they had felt this way at one time or another in their lives. But how is it possible to have nostalgia for something you’ve never had? Is it just a hope or a wish that something beautiful may materialize in the future? Perhaps it is just a scrambled concoction of our fondest memories, plucked from the ether.
Through some research I learned that this Portuguese term saudade dates back centuries. It is thought to have originated in the 1300s when many Portuguese ships set sail for the unknown; to discover foreign lands. Sorrow overwhelmed those left behind, both for their own loss as well as the sailors at sea. Similarly, the men felt a constant longing for their loved ones at home, yet had hopes for a bright future. They had a gnawing feeling of sadness and deficiency, and at the same time a yearning for recaptured love and happiness. The men cherished that they had loved before, and found joy in the possibility of embracing it again.
Asking for Something We May Never Receive
The beautiful thing about the term saudade is that everyone’s definition is different. It is malleable, adjusting to fit each person’s need for expression, whatever they are at the moment.
This deep emotional state that cannot be properly labeled, just like the desire or mourning for something cannot have a color or taste. But now there is a way to at least articulate it.
So when I feel there is a void but I’m not quite sure why, I call it saudade.
If I miss something from the past that could never exist again, it’s saudade. A yearning for something illusionary that may never materialize is saudade.
So yes, it is possible to miss something you’ve never had.
No judgment, no explanation needed. Just, saudade.