How to Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole
By Susan Cain
The engine of America’s factory for mass-market ideas that get processed and packaged into book sales tends to be a single word (or two shorties if you absolutely must): Thrive. Grit. Lean In. Nudge.
Often engineered by authors burning elite university credentials and workshopping concepts in Ted Talks and the like or viral essays (these authors are not “languishing”), these tweet-size concepts hinge on the premise that readers will become more enriched (emotionally and financially) if they better understand the deep meaning packed into an underestimated word.
Into this canon comes “Bittersweet,” by Susan Cain. A grand eminence of the genre, Cain is the author of a seminal mono-word manifesto, “Quiet,” a 2012 book with a companion Ted Talk, which made a loud (and long-lasting) noise on best-seller lists.
Now a decade later, Cain has given us another word to ponder and parse. In “Bittersweet,” she sets out to explore the idea that “light and dark, birth and death — bitter and sweet — are forever paired.”
Cain believes that the power of “bittersweetness” to encourage creativity and fulfillment is “dramatically overlooked,” and that this stymies people and companies from reaching their goals.
Coping With Grief and Loss
Living through the loss of a loved one is a universal experience. But the ways in which we experience and deal with the pain can largely differ.
She shares her relationship to sorrow and sad music (Leonard Cohen songs especially) and her transcendence over the difficulties she has experienced in her own life, including a complicated relationship with her mother and a legal career that stalled. She also travels to conferences (a meeting of “life extension advocates,” or immortalists); learns from guru-figures such as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (she watches his videos and then attends his retreat on the mystic practice of Sufism); interviews friends (including Susan David, a psychologist and a management consultant who studies “emotional agility” and who, like many people Cain includes in this book, is a Ted Talker); and reports on studies that orbit around the belief that embracing sadness, vulnerability and mortality can lead to a greater appreciation of life.
On one of the first pages Cain writes, “I didn’t fact-check the stories people told me about themselves, but included only those I believed to be true.” After that, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take this book as a document of scholarship or reportage.
But as a package to be sold, “Bittersweet” has it all: a catchy word, a culture that doesn’t appreciate the power of that word and a call to action for individuals and businesses who can better meet their goals by embracing the word .
There’s even a quiz to help with prompts like, “Do you tear up easily at touching TV commercials?” and “Do you feel elevated by sad music?”
For me, the answer is yes — to these questions and others like it. I try to look for the gifts hidden in loss and push myself to bring an awareness of others’ struggles amid my own moments of joy. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I’m cloyingly sentimental. I’m prone to melancholy. I feel all the feels.
Perhaps this is why I found the premise of “Bittersweet,” and most of the anecdotes and evidence in the book, obvious. If you’ve attended religious worship or even a yoga class or have spent any time in the last two years reflecting on the lessons the pandemic has forced upon us, you might feel the same.
While I don’t presume that everyone operates in a state of emotional openness, I think our contemporary culture is by now well aware that mindful appreciation of the good is an antidote to or at least a diluter of the bad. And you’d have to be pretty disengaged from modern discourse to have no exposure to the idea that unexpressed and unexamined sadness can poison mental health.
But a big feature of this book is that it seems disconnected from the contemporary realities of our culture.
First, the major one: “Bittersweet” is being published just as many Americans are beginning to emerge from a two-year pandemic shutdown during which we searched for even the smallest blessings in a time of profound loss. And yet Cain completely misses the opportunity to connect the lessons of her research to this global catastrophe. The first mention of the pandemic comes on Page 64, which is about a quarter of the way into the book. It’s a passing reference (“When the pandemic started, I fell into the habit of ‘doomscrolling’ Twitter,” she writes).
We find little more about the pandemic for the next hundred pages. But then, as the opening to the third and final part of the book, Cain drops a bombshell. Her brother, a doctor in New York City, died from complications of Covid-19. Then a second: Her father also died of Covid-19.
Even as she makes these revelations, she bypasses the opportunity to connect the dots of her own experiences, her research and the losses her family suffered with the wreckage wrought by Covid. Cain is entitled to process her own grief privately, but she has decided to write a book filled with personal anecdotes and family stories. It suffers as a result of her selective restraint.
There are other examples that make Cain seem out of touch, including her assertion that her enjoyment of sad songs is somehow anomalous, something her friends see as a quirk. Has she been on the internet, where immersing yourself in sadness is memefied at every turn? TikTok abounds with viral posts about books that promise to make you sob; sad song playlists are a big thing on Spotify; “sad quote” pages on Instagram have millions of followers. (One of Cain’s spotlighted examples of bittersweet content is the 1992 book — which became the 1995 Meryl Streep/Clint Eastwood movie — “The Bridges of Madison County.” Enough said?)
As a general matter, Cain’s heavy reliance on anecdotes and studies drawn from Ivy League (plus Stanford!) sources on the Ted Talk circuit (I never realized how much those Venn diagram circles overlapped until I read this book) renders a very narrow perspective, since the life experience and opinions of the viral elite is largely limited to those of extreme privilege.
The best parts of “Bittersweet” lay out the “tyranny of positivity” — that particular American obsession with highlighting happiness over sadness, at the expense of deepening our emotional connections or commitments. We fake-smile in pictures, we send saccharine greeting cards to mark even sad occasions and our rituals ignore “impermanence and sorrow” while other cultures and societies embrace them in meaningful ways.
But, in order to learn more about the tendency to portray happiness on social media while suffering privately with anxiety and insecurity, Cain again focused on a rarefied subset and subculture of people. She interviewed students at Princeton University, her alma mater, to learn about “everyday losses, the kind we feel we have no permission to mourn — the ones that psychologists now call ‘disenfranchised grief.'”
Cain writes most poignantly (though, ironically, quite stoically) of her own pivotal moments — including, at the end of the book, the process of letting the demise of her legal career give way to her dream of becoming a writer, and of listening to sad music as a balm for the pain of a Covid goodbye said over the phone to a dying parent. Some sweetness to help transcend the bitter.