I simply love compound German words, especially long ones comprised of many, many letters. They are precise in their meanings and they’re delightful to speak. This fondness stems from my overall love of the German language.
The fact is, there are a few German compound words that are used in common English speech. One of the most often used words is Zeitgeist. It literally means “time ghost”. We English speakers use it as shorthand for the general cultural, moral, intellectual climate of an historical era or of our own times.
Another one of these words that has found favor in many circles is Schadenfreude. This lyrical word refers to the enjoyment we feel about the troubles of others. Literally we find the noun Schaden to mean damage or harm. The noun Freude is happiness or joy.
A lesser used German compound is Torschlusspanik. The excellent word encompasses a feeling all of us have or are now experiencing when we notice the passage of time. Torschlusspanik is frighteningly beautiful in its precision. Literally the word is the combination of three German words: Tor, which translates to gate; Schluss, from the verb schließen…to close; and Panik which translates to panic.
In its original, literal meaning, Torschlusspanik was apparently used in midieval times when peasants had to return to the protective city walls before the gates closed at nightfall. Nobody wanted to be left out and vulnerable to harsh weather, fierce animals, and criminals. When a peasant realized that the gates were to close soon, they felt this fear.
These days, we don’t have city gates so there is no fear of city gates closing at sunset. Torschlusspanik is now used in a more existential sense. It is the sinking feeling that soon we will be too old to accomplish an important lifetime goal or something one has “always wanted to do”.
Despite the well-meaning encouragement of feel good articles we find on the Web, there are some instances when we are too old to do whatever we want. During honest, quiet times when you’re ruminating about life, haven’t you sometimes thought, “What have I done with my life?” You realize, deep in your heart, that in a few years, you will not realistically ever have the chance to do “X”.
The constraints may be physical, mental, or social. That sinking realization that it’s now or never is what is meant by Torschlusspanik. This is why I believe that Torschlusspanik is a a frighteningly beautiful, precise word.
One example might be a person’s desire to join the U.S. Navy. You cannot wait very many years to do this. If you don’t get sent to basic training by your 34th birthday, you cannot enlist in that branch of the military. There are age waivers, but they are rarely granted. So a 33-year-old who has been procrastinating about joining the Navy might experience some Torschlusspanik as her 34th birthday draws nearer.
Aside from that formal limitation, there are other examples that are less exact, but still present real limits. These are subjective, personal limits. Torschlusspanik often happens when a person realizes his biological clock is ticking or when we experience an existential or a mid-life crisis.
As the Germans say, “Die Zeit wird knapp!” (Time is running out!) Overly optimistic commentators tell us that it’s never too late to do whatever we want. We know that isn’t always the case. We rightfully feel angst if we’re not yet married, perhaps wish to have children, or begin a new career.
On a more stark level, we feel Torschlusspanik when the subject of our own aging comes up. With each passing day, the gate of life closes a little bit more.
A person can take Torschlusspanik by the horns and either use it to spur you onwards toward your goal. On the other hand, the realization that limitations are actually closing in can cause you to look into your heart and gratefully accept that your life has turned out however it has.
The precisely beautiful thing about Torschlusspanik is when we realize we’re in the same straits as everybody else.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes writer Henry Cloud. “Everything has seasons, and we have to be able to recognize when something’s time has passed and be able to move into the next season. Everything that is alive requires pruning as well, which is a great metaphor for endings.”