How sadness and longing make us whole
By Susan Cain
The engine of America’s factory for mass-market ideas to be processed and packaged into book sales is usually a single word (or two shorties if you absolutely must): thrive. Grain. Lean in. poke.
These tweet-sized concepts, often developed by authors polishing elite college references and workshop concepts in Ted Talks and the like or viral essays (these authors aren’t “wasting away”), are based on the premise that readers will be more enriched ( emotional and financial) if they better understand the deep meaning, wrapped in an underrated word.
In this canon comes Susan Cain’s ‘Bittersweet’. A great eminence of the genre, Cain is the author of a groundbreaking one-word manifesto, “Quiet,” a 2012 book with an accompanying Ted Talk, which made a loud (and sustained) noise on bestseller lists.
Now, a decade later, Cain has given us another word to ponder and analyze. In ‘Bittersweet’ she explores the idea that ‘light and dark, birth and death – bitter and sweet – are forever linked’.
Cain believes that the power of “bitter sweetness” to encourage creativity and fulfillment is “dramatically overlooked,” and that it stops people and businesses from achieving their goals.
Dealing with grief and loss
Experiencing the loss of a loved one is a universal experience. But the ways in which we experience and deal with the pain can be vastly different.
She shares her relationship with grief and sad music (especially Leonard Cohen songs) 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 lawyers” or immortals); learns from guru figures such as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (she watches his videos and then attends his retreat on the mystical practice of Sufism); interviews friends (including Susan David, a psychologist and management consultant who studies “emotional agility” and who, like many of the people Cain mentions in this book, is a Ted Talker); and reports on studies centered on the belief that embracing grief, 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 only those that I thought were true.” After that, it’s hard to know how seriously to take this book as a document of science or reportage.
But as a package to sell, “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 achieve their goals by embracing the word.
There’s even a quiz that will help you with questions like, “Do you get scared easily from touching TV commercials?” and “Do you feel uplifted 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 challenge myself to become aware of the struggles of others in the midst of my own moments of joy. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I am very sentimental. I am prone to melancholy. I feel all the feelings.
Perhaps that’s 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 spent the past two years thinking about the classes the pandemic has forced on us, you might feel the same.
While I don’t assume that everyone operates in a state of emotional openness, I think our culture today is well aware that a conscious appreciation of the good is an antidote to or at least a diluent of the bad. And you would have to be pretty disconnected from modern discourse not to be exposed to the idea that unspoken and unexamined sadness can poison mental health.
But an important feature of this book is that it seems to be detached from the contemporary reality of our culture.
First, the most important: “Bittersweet” is being published just as many Americans are beginning to emerge from a two-year pandemic shutdown in which we sought even the smallest blessings at a time of great loss. And yet Cain completely misses the opportunity to connect the lessons of her research with this global catastrophe. The first mention of the pandemic comes on page 64, about a quarter of the way into the book. It’s a passing reference (“When the pandemic started, I got into the habit of ‘doom scrolling’ Twitter,” she writes).
For the next hundred pages we will find little more about the pandemic. But then, as the third and final part of the book opens, Cain drops a bomb. Her brother, a doctor in New York City, died of complications from Covid-19. Then a second: Her father also died of Covid-19.
Even as she makes these revelations, she misses the opportunity to connect the dots of her own experiences, her research, and the losses her family has suffered from the wreckage caused by Covid. Cain has a right to deal with her own grief in private, but she has chosen to write a book full of personal anecdotes and family stories. It suffers from her selective reticence.
There are other instances where Cain appears to be out of touch, including her claim that her enjoyment of sad songs is somehow abnormal, something her friends see as a quirk. Has she ever been on the internet, where you relive immersing yourself in sadness every time? TikTok is full of viral posts about books that promise to make you cry; playlists of sad songs are a big thing on Spotify; “Sad quote” pages on Instagram have millions of followers. (One of Cain’s highlighted examples of bittersweet content is the 1992 book—which became the 1995 Meryl Streep/Clint Eastwood movie—“The Bridges of Madison County.” Enough said?)
Overall, Cain’s heavy reliance on anecdotes and studies from Ivy League (plus Stanford!) sources on the Ted Talk circuit (I never realized how much those circles of the Venn diagram overlap until I read this book) narrow perspective, as the viral elite’s life experience and opinions are largely limited to those of extreme privilege.
The best parts of “Bittersweet” explain the “tyranny of positivity” — that particular American obsession to emphasize happiness over sadness, at the expense of our emotional connections or obligations. We fake smiles in photos, we send saccharine greeting cards to mark even sad occasions, and we ignore our rituals of “impermanence and sadness” while other cultures and societies embrace them in meaningful ways.
But to learn more about the tendency to portray happiness on social media while suffering from fear and insecurity in private, Cain refocused 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 think we don’t have permission to mourn—the losses psychologists now call ‘disenfranchised mourning’.”
Cain writes most poignantly (though ironically rather stoically) about her own pivotal moments — including, at the book’s end, the process of letting the demise of her legal career give way to her dream of becoming a writer and listening on sad music as a balm for the pain of a Covid goodbye over the phone of a dying parent. Some sweetness to help transcend the bitter.