Author Susan Cain explains how bittersweet adds flavor to everyday life
Writer Susan Cain has a knack for revealing deep emotions and undervalued personality traits.
In her bestselling book, “Quiet,” she argues that introverts have a quiet power and moral integrity that is often ignored by a culture obsessed with extroverts. In her new book “Bittersweet,” she says that experiencing sadness can help us feel whole, even though no one really wants to be sad.
Cain says “bittersweet” is one of those words we use without really understanding what it means.
“I think we tend to use it to describe a particular moment in time, but to me it also describes a kind of state of being,” she said. “A kind of intense awareness that in this life, joy and sorrow and light and dark are always associated. In fact, there is a wonderful Arabic proverb that says: “The days of honey, the days of onion.””
Cain says that bittersweet feeling has other rewards: “It’s an intense realization that not everyone and everything we love will live forever.. The amazing thing that comes with this awareness is an intense sense of beauty – the beauty of the world and the joy of the world that comes almost mysteriously with this apprehension of its bitter sweetness.”
Susan Cain spoke with Steve Paulson for “To the best of our knowledge.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Steve Paulson: There is an expression that philosophers use: they speak of the “paradox of tragedy”. We are often drawn to things that make us sad, like movies or songs, even though most of us would say the last thing in the world we want is to be sad. How can you explain that?
Susan Cain: This is something philosophers have wondered about for thousands of years. I explain it this way: when you look at the kind of art that people connect to – whether it’s sad songs or sad movies or Greek tragedy or whatever – what you realize is that those things we tune into are not only sad, they are sad and they are beautiful. These are the two combined.
The researchers actually looked at what happens when we look at a series of photos of pure sad faces. We don’t really like that. So it’s sadness and beauty together that we love. The romantic arrows piercing through the clouds. That’s what we like.
SP: Why don’t we just want beauty in itself? Why does sadness have to come with it?
CS: The reason is that we are all creatures born into this world with a basic desire for a more perfect and beautiful world. And we know this because each of our religions has told us this story. We yearn for the Garden of Eden or yearn for Mecca or yearn for Zion. The Sufis call it the desire of the soul’s lover.
And then we see it in our art. Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” longs for somewhere over the rainbow. Or Harry Potter enters the story at the precise moment he has just been orphaned and he will spend the rest of his life longing for those parents he does not remember.
It’s fundamental to the human condition, and that feeling of nostalgia is also one of our greatest strengths and powers. It is our creative source. It is also our spiritual source. Our religions tell us. So whether we are atheists or believers, it makes no difference. This remains fundamental in our DNA.
SP: What you say seems so true to me. And yet, in the United States, we live in a culture obsessed with positivity. You call it the “culture of positivity”. We are supposed to put a good face on a bad situation. That’s a problem, isn’t it?
CS: It is a problem. This leaves us particularly ill-equipped when difficult times occur, such as the one we have experienced in recent years. Well, you could say the last two years with the pandemic, or you could say, more broadly than that, with the broader social unraveling that we have.
The problem with being only positive is that we are not telling the truth. We are not tuned into some of the deepest states that we have – our ability to connect with each other, which depends to some extent on our ability to respond to each other’s suffering, for what humans are designed for.
It’s not just a Sunday school teaching. We are evolutionarily designed to react when we see another being in distress. And it started because we needed to be able to take care of our crying babies. It was the only way for them to survive. But this impulse is greater and wider within us. So, to agree only with the positive, one could call it spiritual impoverishment.
SP: What would our culture look like if we didn’t always put a good face on everything? If we show that life is really hard, if it’s just there for everyone to see?
CS: Well, on the one hand, that would just be more interesting. People would talk to each other in a more real way. I’m also hopeful that it might mend some of the frayed social bonds we know.
In our body we have the vagus nerve – it’s the biggest bundle of nerves we have. And it’s so fundamental. It regulates our breathing and digestion. It is a very old part of the human body.
Our vagus nerve also reacts when we see another being in distress. So if we could find a way for people on opposite sides of political divides or class divides to just tell each other their stories – in the absence of any discussion of politics or politics, just to talk about who they are really – I think it could move us forward to see ourselves as humans again.
SP: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your thinking on this whole bittersweet thing? Did it complicate things for you?
CS: For me, it’s actually simplified things. I’ve been working on “Bittersweet” for years now, long before the pandemic. I’ve been wondering about sad music for decades.
So to me, before the pandemic, it had always felt odd, that if times were good, that was all everyone thought was real. And then when times go bad, that’s all everyone thinks is real.
So for me, the pandemic is a bit of an opening to talk about all aspects of the human experience.
SP: But you were also personally affected by it. Your brother died of complications from COVID-19, right?
CS: Yeah. My brother and my father, both. My brother was a doctor in a hospital in New York – it was at the very beginning of the pandemic. And then my dad about a year later. So the pandemic has certainly been full of sorrow, but no surprise.
SP: It makes me wonder if the wound isn’t sometimes too deep to heal.
CS:I think there are too deep wounds. But many wounds heal much more than we think. I think both of those things are true.
SP: Do you have any thoughts on how we as a society can collectively become whole again after so much grief and trauma? I mean, most obviously because of COVID-19, but also because of all the other things going on in our culture.
CS: I think we have to do two opposite things simultaneously.
One of those things, like I said, is making a lot more space than us to be able to tell ourselves how we really feel. I walk in and talk to a lot of workplaces – I’m going into a Zoom meeting, and before I start, someone will ask, “How’s everyone doing today?” Everyone is typing in the chat box about how they’re doing so well and they’re so thrilled and they’re so excited and they’re so grateful.
And it’s fine if they all feel those things, but I often wonder, what are the chances that everyone really feels what they claim? So on the one hand making a lot more space than us would be incredibly helpful.
Then, on the other hand, we need more gateways to connect not just to superficial happiness, but to deeper states of beauty and joy. Really actively work them into our days, to begin our days tuning into beauty. And that’s something people could do in their workplace, sharing daily beauty snaps with each other. I think we need more space for that too.
SP: How do you try to do that in your own life?
CS: I actually started this during the pandemic – I started actively following many art accounts on Twitter. So my feed is now full of art. Especially while I was writing the book, every morning I would start the work day by choosing a favorite piece of art and then sharing it on my social media. I would usually associate it with a favorite poem or quote or idea or something.
It often took a while to put together, but it was such a grounding and uplifting way to start my work day. What it has really done is connect me with this whole community of people who are also pointing in that direction. And it was just an amazing gift.