Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole
“Bittersweet grants us permission to explore and experience sorrow and longing by transforming them into acceptable, inspiring, even hopeful emotions that help us heal and grow.”
In Bittersweet Susan Cain explains why it’s crucial to embrace all our emotions, especially those that are bittersweet. She takes on this nation’s pursuit of perpetual positivity with the same gusto, erudition, compassion, and thoughtfulness that made her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a bestseller.
Cain describes the emotion of bittersweet as “longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world” along with recognition that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.” She even provides a short quiz to help readers determine if they lean temperamentally toward sanguine or bittersweet or travel between the two states.
A lifelong devotee of Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, Cain uses examples from his life and evocative works to illustrate how sorrow and longing come together time and again to produce something altogether beautiful and magical. Born of Cohen’s own pain, his work manages to touch us all deeply and remind us of our suffering while at the same time lifting us out of it because it is shared. His is among the numerous fascinating stories, including her own very personal one, that Cain uses to bring home her points.
Part one of the book is about sorrow and longing. Cain describes all the good sadness can do for us, including triggering compassion, which is hardwired into humans to help us bond with each other. Experiencing our own sadness allows us to empathize when others feel sad, increasing our connection to them.
The author details how “negative” emotions, those that cause pain rather than pleasure, have been viewed through the lens of modern psychology. While Sigmund Freud analyzed angst and neuroticism, psychologists Abraham Maslow and Martin Seligman aimed to lift our spirits by teaching us to focus on positive emotions such as gratitude.
Cain and others in the field have intentionally swung the pendulum back to embrace sorrow and longing, giving these feelings their rightful place in the emotional arena. She explains that longing and sadness should not be conflated with depression or malaise, maintaining that “If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it—rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage—as the bridge we need to connect with each other.”
Exploring longing, Cain explains how yearning for a “soul mate” is perhaps universal, but not reality-based where the best we can do is appreciate the partners we have. She explores creativity born of longing—in art, literature, poetry and music—as movement from darkness to light and as desire sparking momentum in a quest for union or transcendence. And in both theoretical and practical terms, she teaches us how best to cope with longing due to lost love.
Part two of the book examines how our culture came to fear emotions like sorrow and longing and single-mindedly embrace positivity while other societies opened their hearts and minds to a fuller range of emotions. She views American contempt for “negative” emotions as stemming from our rigid cultural beliefs about rugged individualism in which “we’re encouraged to see ourselves, deep down, as winners or losers—and to show, with our sanguine-choleric behaviors, that we belong to the former group.”
She illustrates how this country has buried the horrors of its history and spun its tragedies and failures into distortions to avoid feeling discomfort and shame: The point of our American exceptionalism is to blind ourselves and others to everything but our successes and the good we’ve done and to outrun failure by achieving perfection. Sadly, this has turned us into a culture so bereft of compassion that we must distance ourselves from our losses and those who are losers and, in doing so, have forsaken our humanity. Paradoxically, this armored mindset has left us with more, not less, depression, anxiety, anger, addiction, and suicides, as ghosted emotions come back to haunt us as we should have known they would.
Cain describes how the “tyranny of positivity” in the workplace squelches authentic emotion—especially vulnerability and sadness which are equated with weakness—and refuses to accept failure. She then provides examples of workplace and community leaders who are reversing this trend by using self-expression, compassion, and sharing emotional pain to help people become more whole and mentally healthy to fulfill their roles more successfully.
Part three takes us more deeply into bittersweetness: the recognition that what once was will never be again and accepting that life is impermanent while trying to live it to its fullest. Cain examines the growing Immortalism movement—death defiers who believe we can and should live forever. And she gives voice to their challengers, some of whom fear we would be less human without mortality.
Cain’s resolution for the dilemma of having life thrust upon us while knowing we will die is human connection. “We transcend grief only when we realize that we’re connected with all the other humans who can’t transcend grief.” She proposes that “living in a bittersweet state, with an intense awareness of life’s fragility and the pain of separation, is an underappreciated strength and an unexpected path to wisdom, joy and especially communion.” We do this by allowing ourselves to enter a state of poignancy, by letting our perspective narrow and deepen to what really matters, which generally happens as we age.
Last, Cain tackles “how we can transform the sorrows and longings we inherit from the generations who came before us.” This inheritance is all too real, passed down from parent to child, according to research, psychologically and physiologically and exemplified by a genetic effect called “preconception parental trauma.” Because of this inheritance, post-traumatic stress travels through generations, but Cain explains, so does transgenerational healing which comes through understanding traumatic inheritance, helping others who are wounded, and making meaning of suffering.
The book ends with Cain describing her own longings to write and what made her finally honor them. Encouraging readers to identify and attend to their longings and dreams, she asks, “What is the thing you long for most, your unique imprint, singular mission, wordless calling? What is your closest approximation of home?” She asks readers to question who they love and admire, what their melancholy is trying to wring from them, and what is left for them to do or be in life.
Challenging our individual and cultural beliefs, Bittersweet grants us permission to explore and experience sorrow and longing by transforming them into acceptable, inspiring, even hopeful emotions that help us heal and grow.