I tore through Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make Us Whole (Crown 2022) pretty quickly. And I may have done so while referring to it as “my emo book” for short.
“Delightful” may seem an odd word for a book that’s all about being sad, but I really did find it an enjoyable read. I appreciated how Susan Cain has quite thoroughly done her homework and also writes about it in a smooth, accessible, not-particularly-academic way. It seems pretty clear that she has not only put years of research into this book but also years of deep personal reflection, mulling over what it all means. Pondering these things in her heart, if you will.*
A few thoughts and quotes:
1) I really enjoyed the broad range of this book. A topic like “bittersweet” really lets you go in all sorts of directions, and I felt like Cain took advantage of that—in a really good way—without it feeling like the book was directionless or just all over the place.
Cain drew together realms ranging from psychological studies, to music (including her own love for Leonard Cohen), to poetry on grief and death, to workplace management research, to the Stanford Duck Syndrome on elite college campuses. (Well okay, mostly its Princetonian equivalent…which I guess they call effortless perfection, because it sounds fancier than ducks.)
I hope this doesn’t make the book sound overly intellectual. It really got me in the feels. In a good way—a humanizing way.
2) I appreciated how Cain wrote about art coming out of pain. Not in a romanticized way, or a way that tries to make suffering seem like a good thing. But in a way that encourages us to take the pain that we do have and the suffering we go through and make something beautiful of it.
Cain writes in the introduction, “Bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other” (xxv).
I like the idea of looking for what “nourishes the soul,” whatever form that may take. And of turning toward one another and building connection rather than self-isolating when we’re suffering. And, by implication, the idea of turning toward those who are suffering and helping them know they’re not alone.
3) In my more evangelical days, I might have found the way Cain writes about religion a bit blasphemous. But now I’m totally into it.
For example, Cain writes of a shared human yearning for what Christians might call the Garden of Eden, and/or heaven:
“I call this place, this state that we’re longing for, ‘the perfect and beautiful world,’ In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s the Garden of Eden and the Kingdom of Heaven; the Sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul. There are countless other names for it: for instance, simply, home, or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ or, as the novelist Mark Merlis puts it, ‘the shore from which we were deported before we were born.’ C. S. Lewis called it ‘the place where all the beauty came from.’ They’re all the same thing—they’re the deepest desire of every human heart…It doesn’t matter whether we consider ourselves ‘secular’ or ‘religious’: in some fundamental way, we’re all reaching for the heavens” (xxviii).
That strikes me as really true, and really beautiful. In some Christian circles the idea of heaven is something that divides people into two groups—those going to heaven, and those going to hell. What if, instead, the idea of heaven could be something that unites us and connects us as humans in our shared longing for a “perfect and beautiful world”?
4) This was a tidbit I’d like to hold onto:
“I found out that [Leonard Cohen] drew especially from the Kabbalah—the mystical version of Judaism which teaches that all of creation was once a vessel filled with holy light. But it shattered, and now the shards of divinity are scattered everywhere, amidst the pain and ugliness. Our task is to gather up these fragments wherever we find them” (p. 67).
That feels totally right. And I like that it’s not just a way to understand the world—as shards of divinity scattered amidst pain and ugliness—but also a call to action. There’s a sense of purpose. It’s an invitation to start looking for and gathering up those fragments of divinity. Even—maybe especially—in the worst, most pain-filled places.
5) Cain writes about how there are particular large-scale losses (like the death of someone close to us, or the loss of a job) that we are societally “allowed” to mourn. As in, most people in our workplaces or in the dominant U.S. culture in general totally understand, in these cases, that we might need some time off, and that we’ll feel sad for a while, and that sort of thing. But there’s often no such grace or understanding for losses that might seem smaller but are actually also very much worth mourning.
Cain writes of these “everyday losses, the kind we feel we have no permission to mourn—the ones that psychologists now call ‘disenfranchised griefs’” (129), and of the need to make space for ourselves and others to process these griefs. That made a lot of sense to me. How do we make it more “normal” to feel sad about things other than what might seem like the Really Big Things—and to feel through this sadness rather than stuff it inside because we don’t think we should be so affected by it?
6) I liked these questions Cain asks:
“How do we get to the point of seeing our sorrows and longings not as indications of secret unworthiness but as features of humanity? How do we come to realize that embracing our inner loser as well as winner—the bitter and the sweet—is the key to transcending them both, the key to meaning, creativity, and joy?” (p. 135)
I like the idea of reframing the things we might see as “indications of secret unworthiness” as, instead, “features of humanity.” And this idea of “embracing our inner loser.” She writes about how dominant U.S. culture tends to divide people into categories of winner and loser, which is just wrong as well as super unhelpful. Among other things, it makes us desperate to not fall into the “loser” category.
Really, though, it’s the nature of being human to experience both success and failure. The disappointments we experience and the mistakes we make do not make us bad or unworthy. They’re just part of life, and we do best to embrace that reality rather than try to deny or hide it.
7) In general, Bittersweet strikes me as kind of a broader research-based nonfiction version of Kate Bowler’s more memoir-y (and more specifically Christian) books Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) and No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear).
I appreciate both authors’ commitment to unpacking and critiquing what Cain calls “a culture of normative sunshine” (xxix) and Kate Bowler calls “a fever dream promising infinite choices and unlimited progress” (No Cure for Being Human, p. 16). So, if you like the idea of Bittersweet and are looking for more emo books, Kate Bowler’s are really good too.
Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and enjoy the book if you read it—both the bitter and the sweet!
*That’s a not-so-subtle reference to Mary in Luke 2:19.