Super chill book review: Bittersweet (Susan Cain)

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.

Fourth grade child, crucified

Processing the grief and horror of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX with a poem. God, have mercy.

Fourth Grade Child, Crucified

Fourth grade child on the cross,
you did not choose this.
There is nothing in you 
nor your family, friends, or schoolmates
that deserved this.
All forever changed without consent.

Where was Christ to wipe your tears
and who was there to honor 
all the sacred blood that left your side?

Fourth grade child, crucified
because the Romans shouted “freedom”
and would not give up their guns.
Because lobbyists lobbied 
and senators are spineless
and lines are drawn unjustly
and our addiction to violence 
is strong.

You deserved to live 
among a people who cared. 
You deserved a long life
among a people who are for life.
And now you deserve the birthing of a world
where this will never happen again.
Even so, you’re gone forever.
It would not be enough. 
It would be something.

Fourth grade child, 
the grief of those who love you
is real and raw 
and right and angry.
You were unprotected by 
the ones who pledged to keep you safe.
We failed you.
No excuses remain.
Nothing to be said
and nothing left to do
but bear witness and not turn away.
To grieve and scream.
Hold vigil.
Refuse to forget and move on.
Demand better.

Fourth grade child, innocent,
I need you to know -
I need us to show you tangibly -
your life was worth more than all the money in the world
and all the power thrown around
by those who lead 
but do not love us.

Lament Wall Prayer

At the beginning of Lent, a team of people from my church put up an amazing “Lament Wall” in the courtyard. People were invited to write down prayers and laments on pieces of paper and stick them in the cracks of the wall. Prayers written during church services were stuck in there, joined later by prayers written by the elementary schoolers involved in the church’s afterschool program.

There are so many prayers in there. It’s beautiful, and heavy.

I had the privilege of teaming up with Sue Kesler to write a “Prayers of the People” kind of prayer based on a lot of the prayers in the wall. I wanted to share with you what we came up with, because, while it’s based on the prayers of our particular community, most of the cries of our hearts are not unique to us. We are not alone.

Here’s the prayer; the words in bold are meant as a kind of response, read together by the congregation. Peace to you this Good Friday.

Prayers of the People (Lament Wall Prayer)

God, as we come together in this space, hear our prayers of lament. Thank you for holding and treasuring every prayer we’ve put in the lament wall and every prayer we hold in our hearts.

God, our wounds are real, both the physical ones and the ones that are harder to see.
We long for your healing, comforting touch.
We ask for your special nearness to those who have cancer.
We ask for your special nearness to those whose family or other loved ones have cancer. 
God, would your loving presence be so near to the kids among us whose parents are sick — so near that they can reach out and touch you. Wrap them with your love like a big bear hug.

God, you are our strength and provider. You are our healer. Show yourself to us.

God, for the emotional wounds we carry and often feel we need to hide.
That you would lead us into safe spaces where we can reveal them and be loved into wholeness —  a healing that isn’t rushed but is patient, however long it takes.
You know how we have been hurt. You know how we hurt, still.
For all those who are tired, discouraged, and afraid, hold us.
Breathe new life through your Spirit who lives in and among us.

God, you are near to the brokenhearted. Lift up, comfort, and empower us.

God, we pray for the relationships that are broken, difficult, or not what we hoped they might be.
For the families among us who are estranged and long for reconciliation.
For the relationships that come with tension  — we long for patience, understanding, and grace.
For relationships that are changing, we ask for peace — for comfort in the grief that comes with loss, and for joy in the new things.
God, just as you have reconciled all to yourself, help us in the healing of relationships, especially in our families.

God, you join together what was separate and restore what was broken. Make a way for us to live in peace with one another.

God, we ask for your presence with those who are in grief. 
We remember those we have lost.
Give us space, gentleness, and safety — to name our griefs, make room for them, and not run from them.
Unite in love the families and friends who experience loss together. 
Help us help one another in our grief.
In the rough mornings and in the evenings full of tears, be with us.
Give us songs of lament that we can sing and know that we are heard.
Make room for our sadness.

God, you mourn with those who mourn. There is no tear we’ve shed that you haven’t seen. You are big enough to hold our grief.

God, we lift up to you the material needs among us. 
For those who need work, and for those who long for greater purpose in work.
We pray for those starting new jobs.
For those who need financial breakthrough.
For those who need a car.
For those who need a place to live.
God, all money belongs to you. Please meet our financial needs, so that we are better able to meet the needs of others.
God, please supply the work of our hands that is needed by all.

God, you know our needs. Take care of us, and help us take care of one another.

God, even as we long for justice, we lament our complicity with injustice.
Please forgive us for ignoring your pleading voice, calling us not up and out of, but instead, down and into.
We lament our failure to acknowledge the stolen land we live on and the indigenous peoples around and among us.
We lament the ways we hoard instead of share.
The ways we compete rather than support.
The ways we exclude rather than include.
The ways we act like there isn’t enough to go around.
Our callousness to injustice and violence.

God, bring justice to all and for all. Make us aware of our complicity in injustice so that we can repent of it and move beyond it. Make us new.

God, we long for transformation.
For the grace to accept your blessings and rejoice in them.
To move beyond lament to repair and reconciliation.
To be filled with a kind of love beyond what we’ve been able to muster up on our own.
When we are humbled, help us receive it as a gift from you.
Move us from entitlement to gratitude and generosity.
Transform how we consume.
Help us recognize your voice and be able to clearly hear what you are saying to us.

God, you are always changing us. Help us be willing to be changed.

God, we lift up our hopes to you. 
Our hopes to travel.
Our hopes for a dream job.
For those who hope to be parents, please bless them with children. 
We hope for safety — for all of us and especially for the children and youth among us. 
Bless our young people as you ready them to be the new voice in your world.
We hope for peace.

God, you hold our hopes, the ones named here and the ones in our hearts. Help us hold tight to your hope and extend that hope to others.

God, we thank you.
For the ways community has shown up for us.
For the ways we’ve been welcomed.
For the ways you’ve helped us and helped those we love.
For the ways our gifts have blessed others.
For your promises that have come true in our lives.
For bringing us together into this community.
Your blessings are countless. Thank you.
May our gratefulness overflow.

God, every good gift comes from you. Thank you.

Holy God, we praise you and we praise your name. Help us to live lives that praise you.

Prayer: prepare

I wrote this prayer back in Advent, but it feels about right for the last week or so. Grieving for and with those most impacted by violence, by power moving through our world in perverse ways.

The original Advent prompt word was “prepare.”

Prepare

God, the weight of the world is still here. 
I know I was not meant to bear it all, but I still feel it.
I often want to do something, anything, but am not sure what to do. 
And I don’t want to move just to assuage my guilt about my own comfort 
while others suffer in a violent world. 
I want to move with you, in you, through you, in your spirit, 
in your confidence, guided by you, in your love. 
Healing will not come through frantic directionless striving, 
but through quieting myself to listen to your voice, 
and through quieting the world to listen to myself, 
and through quieting everything to listen to the labor-pain groaning of the world. 
I have finite time and power and energy and gifts. 
I want to find what I have to offer and offer it fully. 
I don’t want to bear the weight of anything else.
God, prepare me for the work you have for me. 
I am so easily distracted by people’s approval or disapproval, 
by respectability, by societal notions of success. 
Help me move, help me wait, help me be patient, help me be bold. 
Guide me with your wisdom. 
And help me learn to trust my own wisdom, the kind you’ve given me, again. 
Amen.

A prayer for 2022

I wrote this new year prayer for my church community and thought I’d share it with you all as well. (Hopefully six days in isn’t too late to still feel like it’s a very very new year.)

I also have two links to offer. The first is a piece on Trumpism and some of Jesus’ words in the book of Revelation that I wrote and shared a year ago on the day of the insurrection. I offer it as one way to reflect on that day now that a year has passed.

The second is a piece Christians for Social Action posted on their website, which is super exciting, because they’re great. It’s an adapted (mostly much shortened…like, from >3k words to <900 words) version of a sermon I preached a while back on Elizabeth and Mary as marginalized women who speak bold prophetic words. Here’s the link, hope you enjoy!

Wishing you a sense of God’s care and presence in 2022.

God,
You are God of open doors and new beginnings,
and you are our comfort in the face of closed doors and endings.
You have been with us in the joys of 2021, and in the sorrows.
There have been so many of both.

Our hearts have been full to bursting with wonder and delight.
Our hearts have been scarred, broken, spilling out tears of loss, pain, and sadness.
Our hearts have been numb, when everything is too much.

This year has been a rollercoaster for some of us and a deep sea of grief for others.
Hold us all together in beloved community through it all.
Give us kind, caring people to process the year with us—to hold it, to hold us.
Give us courage to face the past honestly, and give us friends to face it with.
May we be those who unbind one another’s graveclothes. 

God, at times your gospel of love and justice has burned brightly, fully alive among us.
Other times it has felt dim and distant. 
You love us through it all, and you teach us how to love one another.

God, community is hard. 
You are with us in the tension. 
You are with us in the misunderstandings, the hurt and apologies and forgiving and transforming and healing. 

God, you have removed many scales from our eyes. 
And you just keep doing it. 
Sometimes the journey is exhausting, but it is also good. 
Would you give us strength, give us rest, give us gentleness—with ourselves and with others.

God, thank you for the community partnerships that have been forming and flourishing. 
We ask for continued favor and guidance. 
For relationships that are mutual and lifegiving and breathe shalom in our community. 

God, our needs are many. 
Would you take care of us, and help us take care of one another.
Would you help us welcome the newcomers among us, warmly.
Would the children and youth among us know they have a home and will always be loved.
Would the older ones among us know they have so much to offer and are not forgotten. 
God, help us see the gifts you’ve given us and offer these gifts freely. 

As our thoughts turn toward resolutions and hopes and dreams, we look—to you and to one another—for wisdom, guidance, solidarity, partnership. 
Give us vision to look forward with creativity and integrity. 
Give us energy to keep moving into your gospel fully alive.
Give us grace when we have no energy. 

God, bring us closer together this year—closer to you, closer to our communities. 
Closer to people different from us, uncomfortable as it may be. 
Closer to our true selves, in bold authenticity. 
Closer to justice, to equity, to beloved community. 

God, we look toward a new year with hope, cynicism, love, fear, excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, anticipation. 
Thank you for being with us in all these things.
Thank you for giving us yourself and one another.
Amen.

Place of Manna, Place of Silence (a Good Friday poem)

This poem sits somewhere at the intersection of Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, and George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin, and the reflective wilderness-themed space currently set up in the sanctuary at my church.

Place of Manna, Place of Silence

Wilderness spaces
forlorn places
take a rock 
and toss
it in the river
plop
and now it’s gone.

Life is 
that short.
Some have 
no shame.

And some are murdered
by the state
in broad daylight
with everybody 
watching.
Many want to help
but are not able.

And some double down
on their excuses
for the inexcusable
while others 
double over 
in their pain.

And the “if only”s
are too much.
How could they not be?

Questions 
at the cross
unanswered
pour like blood
like water 
from the sides
we hardly dare 
to show
they’ve been so
wounded. 

Sound
the breath
the silence.

Did you want 
your death 
to be an object 
of reflection
subject of our art
subject to our
wounded imaginations?
And which parts
of all that
honor you?

So many questions.
Bring them.

And so 
many limitations.
Bring them 
here.

This is the place
this is the site
where what has 
gone to waste
may someday sigh
and struggle shivering 
with signs
of life.

This is the time 
of tombs
of spacious 
grasping
gasping yawns 
of trauma.

This, the place 
of manna
daily 
not too much.

And though I hunger
for a feast
tonight I’ll settle for
the knowing 
gnawing
through my soul
that you were not alone
and so
it's possible
neither am I.

So see the river
in the distance
wilderness
so stop and listen
stay a while
let it flow
for now
away.

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

A poem reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, the subsequent protests, and my hope to stand in solidarity with my Black siblings in their weariness, grief, and anger.

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

I do not wish to perform my grief
as if it could be part of a persona
crafted carefully to please and curry favor, 
as if it wasn’t real and raw.

I wish to honor memories of
lives locked in as targets of police,
locked up by racist structures and
those willing to execute them,

yes, execute, another murder,
another life destroyed by the
perverse pseudo-logic of 
white supremacy, all-pervasive,

suffocating, not dysfunction or 
anomaly but locked from the beginning 
in our nation’s DNA. 
I shed my tears in private and 

do not know what to do when 
people talk about it like it’s just 
another distant bad thing on the news
and not our sin to claim. 

I’m not the type to weep and wail 
on a Facebook wall, a perfect pose, 
mascara dripping down a made-up face,
that’s not my style, but I will 

walk with you, and hold your grief,
and not paint thinly over it with platitudes
or try to force it into shallow resolution.
I will be angry by your side, 

a quiet rage that burns into the night
and understands why protests sometimes
color outside bounds of order
drawn by whiteness. 

I will not move on too quickly 
or affix myself to the convenient lie 
that white supremacy is only real 
and violent and destructive 

just a few times every year, 
just when it’s captured
on an iPhone for the internet to see.

I do not wish to perform my grief, 
but I will let my weariness hold yours, 
let you embrace me if you wish, 
or stay away―I understand.

In all these things I have 
no interest in attempting 
to police the ways you grieve.

John and the Bethel Worship Leader’s Daughter

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:1-6)

Today I read this passage about John the Baptist and Jesus while thinking about Bethel worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her two year old daughter Olive who passed away last Saturday. Kalley, as well as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other popular Christian musicians with charismatic leanings such as Kari Jobe and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, have been praying and asking Christians around the world to pray―and are still praying and asking people to pray, almost a week later―for Olive’s resuscitation.

Kalley posted on social media, “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

The passing of a young child is tragic. I can’t imagine the family’s grief, and I mourn for them.

At the same time, the response of people who believe a certain set of things about physical healing, including revival from the dead, is disconcerting.

Christians believe in a Messiah whom, as Jesus told John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1-6, gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, restores hearing for the deaf, brings good news to the poor…and raises the dead. And this Messiah says, blessed are those who take no offense at me.

Am I being offended at Jesus when I read about influential Christian leaders expecting (and influencing others to expect) a two year old to be raised from the dead, even after almost a week in the morgue, and I think not so much “what faith!” as “what lunacy”?

Or perhaps, “what denial”―and if denial is part of the grieving process for the family, I think I understand. But I feel angry that so much of the charismatic Christian community around this family is pushing them to stay in that denial rather than making space for them to acknowledge and grieve their loss.

What do we do with all this in conjunction with what Jesus said about the dead being raised?

One thing to note, which I think is really important, is that Jesus’ words are in direct response to John’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is not answering the question, “how should Christians respond to death?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might imply that we should keep praying for resuscitation as long as it takes. He is not answering the question, “what should a normal Christian life look like, in the US, two thousand years in the future?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might set up an appropriate expectation that untimely losses like Olive’s would be reversed on a regular basis.

Rather, Jesus is answering the question, “are you the one who is to come?” And he says, in effect: yes, I am that one. I am that Messiah, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected. I am the one who brings healing, and power, and life, and good news for the poor. I raise the dead as a sign that points to these things.

Jesus is the Messiah―God incarnate, God dwelling among us. Jesus has powers that we do not have. We can pray for miracles, and I absolutely believe that God still does miracles. But we do not have the power to control when or whether or how miracles happen. We do not have the ability to say with any authority something like, “it’s time for her to come back to life.” We are not the Messiah.

John the Baptist must have known this. After all, Jesus came (among other things) to set the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18-19)―and yet there John was, having to send his followers to Jesus with his questions because he himself was stuck in prison. Part of me wonders if John began to feel uncertain about whether Jesus was the Messiah because John expected that a Messiah could and would have gotten him out of jail.

Jesus the Messiah came to set the prisoners free―and yet John was thrown in prison and remained until the day of his death.

Jesus the Messiah came to raise the dead―and yet little Olive remains in the morgue, despite the fervent, days-long prayers of hundreds of thousands of charismatic Christians.

As much as we try and fail to comprehend death, and as much as we hurt from the pain of it, and as much as we may want desperately for our deceased loved ones to return, these things are ultimately beyond our control.

My prayer for Kalley and her family in this time, as well as for everyone else who knew and loved Olive, is for freedom to grieve. For love and support to surround them and flow freely, more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. For the loss of their daughter to be mourned in community, with lots and lots of listening ears and supportive shoulders to cry on, and no one suggesting awful falsehoods like “your daughter could have been raised if we had all just prayed longer or harder or had more faith.”

I believe that God walks closely with people who are mourning and grieving loss. God is present, somehow. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even when we have questions for God, even when we have things we would like to yell at God. God welcomes these things. God welcomes and holds our grieving selves, exactly as we are.

Christian hope―my hope, and the hope for Olive and her family―is for bodily resurrection into eternal life, the kind of resurrection that Jesus pioneered and now invites us into. The kind that does not come immediately, but when it does come, it lasts. The kind that looks forward to a day when Jesus wipes every tear from our eyes and dwells among us, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, may we hope in our Messiah. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). May we make space, for ourselves and for one another, to acknowledge loss and grieve it. May we pray and hope and keep wrestling with God regardless of whether or how our prayers are answered. May we face our grief and know that somehow God is with us as we do.