I was yearning before I understood what it meant, before covid-19, before the meme concretely normalized the distant dissatisfaction that I was trying very hard to suppress. I think, in a way, we all were. So in early February, when my friend replied to my Instagram story that she was “yearning to be in my arms once again” followed by several pleading face emojis, I wasn’t very taken aback. I had never seen that language used so casually before and the emoji was still fairly new to me at the time, but something within me innately understood the connection between my friend’s silly, overly dramatic digital offering and her genuine emotion. When I replied, I told her I was yearning for her, too. I sent the same emojis back without thinking twice.
Yearning, both in it’s traditional definition and as it’s used today, is a sensation of heartfelt or even painful longing for something or someone. Though the term originated before the 12th century, it has seen two waves of resurgence: in popular literature throughout the 18th and 19th century by female creatives like Virginia Woolf and Louisa May Alcott, and on the internet in 2020. While it might seem strange that a term happily at home in a Jane Austen novel has now become commonplace in our contemporary English vernacular, it is also eerily fitting. Like the women in these novels, I too have found myself preoccupied with a broad yet all consuming longing these days more than ever. It’s a sensation so specific to our needs in this current moment that it had to be brought back from the dead.
It’s easy to assume that this language is merely a reaction to our new social circumstances amid the coronavirus, but I believe this is an oversimplification. While perhaps the most pervasive today, “yearn” is one of many outdated and overly saccharine terms that have resurfaced into our everyday vocabulary in recent years. Since perhaps 2018, words like “tender,” “earnest,” “wholesome,” and “soft” have also made their way into popular conversation, demonstrating a collective desire for a type of simple sweetness not commonly found today. The ubiquity of these terms might denote the normalization of a desire for softness, but this language is also self aware. We desire tenderness and meaningful connection, but we also understand it’s scarcity.
The things I find myself yearning for most––lying in the sun eating fruit with my friends, turning off my phone to enjoy a good book––have remained the same for years. They are simple pleasures. Things I know I should have time and space for often, but also recognize as luxuries that must be reserved for my daydreams save rare, cherished occasions.
In order to understand the current cultural significance of yearning, it's important to grapple with the term's history. While the word “yearn” can be used to describe a deep desire for just about anything, it has traditionally referred to an intense longing for affection, intimacy, partnership, or love. Just as the word itself is old fashioned, the type of love typically associated with it is a more traditional, monogamous, long-term partnership. The sensation has also historically been effeminized. In her 1913 novel “The Waves,” for example, Virginia Woolf writes of a woman pining over her faraway lover, “I condemn you. Yet my heart yearns towards you. I would go with you through the fires of death,” capturing the cisheteronormative romantic ideals attached to the term before it’s recent resurgence.
In 2020, the connotations of yearning, as well as the things we yearn for, look much different. Today, the word is most often attached to ideas of intimacy, luxury, rest, or comfort rather than exclusively romance––the internet is full of folks yearning for a nap in the sun or a good forehead pat, for example, rather than their lover to return from war. In many ways, this shift is indicative of a widespread change in our generational priorities in partnerships and lifestyle. Women in the 20th century were conditioned to prioritize marriage and other romantic pursuits over most other facets in their lives. Meanwhile, millennials are getting married later than any other generation before them, and more are opting not to get married at all. Platonic intimacy, or the prioritization of loving friendships over romantic or sexual relationships, has also become a more popular ideology as of late, particularly among women and queer people. I myself send music to my friends almost every day, yearning for a time when we are not six feet or time zones apart, when we can kick back and listen to the songs together.
But this shift in definition is about more than the way we view our relationships; what we yearn for most ultimately defines the way we envision our ideal lifestyle. Our deep and unfulfilled desire to spend more time with friends, to unplug, to luxuriate all day in the sun, represents a longing for a life where we can spend our time freely. One where we’re not stressed about money or work, where we can focus on things that actually matter and bring us fulfillment or joy. Though yearning was once a sensation, it has today evolved into a framework: one that is pro pleasure, antiwork, and striving towards envisioning a gentler and more fulfilling future.
Inherent in the word “yearn” is both a layer of shame and a level of resignation to the impossible; we may long for things that seem out of reach, but we yearn for things we should not want or cannot have. Pleasure, rest, and human connection are both fundamental to our survival and antithetical to our very way of existence. In our fast paced and often work-centered lives, we seldom have time to pursue hobbies, properly cherish our loved ones, or create things that are not monetized––and when we do, we’ve been conditioned to feel guilty. In this way, through our perpetual yearning, we are not only craving specific people or material items, we are desiring the very conditions of our lives to change.
When I hear the word “yearn,” the first image that comes to mind is that of the pleading face emoji, which I have also dubbed the yearn emoji. The emoticon, which is currently the third most popular used on Twitter, says very much while not saying anything at all. Emojipedia describes the yearn emoji as “a yellow face with furrowed eyebrows, a small frown, and large, puppy dog eyes” that “may also represent adoration or feeling touched by a loving gesture.” The emoji is a bundle of contradictions––at once happy and sad, satisfied and wanting more. It’s current popularity on social media suggests that we too have been experiencing this range of emotions with unprecedented frequency.
What further differentiates our generations yearning from that of women in the 20th century is the invention of the internet, which has placed all of our emotions onto a public forum. The character in Woolf’s novel pined after her faraway lover in secret; the content of her interior desire was only available to us through the author’s prose. Meanwhile, we are not only expected to yearn publicly online, but, through inventions like the pleading face emoji, we are encouraged to do so. I rarely find myself using language like “tender” and “soft” when I’m speaking out loud; these words have more or less been reserved for tweets, texts to a loved one, or comments on a friend’s Instagram post. Though of course I find my friends lovely offline as well, there’s something about the internet that has conditioned us to aestheticize our emotions in a way that would otherwise feel unnatural.
In a way, it seems enlightened to yearn––those who are able to express their emotions publicly are, presumably, well adjusted and in touch with their feelings. But it’s certainly interesting that the sensation of yearning, one that evokes feelings of nostalgia and an old-fashioned purity, takes place most frequently on new-age technology. There’s something amiss about the way we have equated an ability to curate an online aesthetic of softness with the actual sensation of feeling soft. The yearn aesthetic, which I would categorize as frequent use of language like “tender” and “wholesome” online as well as regular usage of cutesy emojis, has also allowed us to essentialize a capacity for vulnerability with the ability to reproduce a particular language on social media. This association between online public earnestness and a certain moral superiority or higher emotional intellect can be dangerous, as it erases yearning’s original pursuit––to improve the material conditions of our lives offline.
If we agree that yearning is more of a framework than a sensation, it makes sense that it also has an ultimate goal. For many, we yearn in order to recognize what is lacking in our lives so that we can imagine a brighter and fuller future. The aesthetic is cute and the internet is an excellent tool for yearning, but it can also serve as a distraction.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been a big dreamer. I dreamed of traveling the world, of writing a novel, of owning a little house on the beach somewhere. Even now, when maintaining hope for my future becomes more difficult with each passing day, I somehow manage to hold on to most of my dreams. Dreaming feels comfortable; with enough time, I think, I can accomplish all that I want to. But dreaming is different from yearning; we dream of things that seem big, far off, improbable; we yearn for things that should be within reach. So when we still can’t attain these small, simple fantasies, we feel even more robbed.
Yearning is easy to poke fun at and even easier to dismiss––the language is cheesy and the emoji is frankly ridiculous. What’s less easy is admitting that yearning is a brave and difficult task; it takes courage to recognize what you are lacking in life, and it is an act of rare imagination to envision a world where all of your needs are met when you have only known life circumstances of burden or scarcity. Back in February, when my friend and I said that we were yearning to see each other again, it wasn’t a lie, but we never did make it happen. Because what we were really craving was to be less consumed by school so that we could take a weekend off, to be less stressed about money so that one of us could buy plane tickets, and to be less preoccupied with looking for jobs so that we could enjoy each other’s company. The sad truth is that even if covid-19 had not occurred, it still would have been a minute before I could see my friend in person. Back in February and today, we’ve both been reduced to Instagram messages and cheesy emojis, dreaming of the day we can live in a world that finally lets us pursue joy.
To yearn is to crave sweetness both desperately and against all reason. It is to recognize that purity today is an anachronism, but to desire it all the more. It is the hope against all hope that one day, we will live the lives we deserve.
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