Bittersweet, Susan Cain. New York: Crown, 2022.
Summary: Describes the state of bittersweetness, where sadness and joy, death and life, failure and growth, longing and love intersect and how this deepens our lives and has the power to draw us together.
About ten years ago, Susan Cain published Quiet, helping the extroverted world discover the power of introverts and what they bring us all. In this work, Cain explores why at least some of us like sad songs, rainy days, and react intensely to art?
She helps us enter into understanding bittersweet by telling the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, who during the worst of the shelling, appeared every day and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. It is a beautiful, sad, and evocative piece that capture both the beauty of pre-war Sarajevo and the terrible loss of the war. This is bittersweet, this embrace of sadness and the longing for beauty, for something beyond our fractured existence. Holding together these seemingly disparate experiences, Cain believes is the pathway to “creativity, transcendence, and love.” Bittersweet can draw us together in the shared experience of longing for the transcendent.
Cain explores the sources of our longings for the good, the true, and the beautiful, the wonder of those moments and yet their transience. She contends that it is the place of creativity. She talks about how we live with bittersweet in a world of relentless positivity whose mantra seems to be, “be happy.” She offers an insight into the mental health crisis on university campuses, where everyone has to project a put-together, perfect Instagram image of effortless perfection that no one can live up to. She contends that our understanding of bittersweet can transform workplaces, where we understand the other side of fantastic success is the risk of failure, where allowing workers to acknowledge their struggles releases them to work more freely and productively, knowing that we’re all strugglers here.
The material of the third part on mortality, impermanence, and grief was the most thought-provoking for me. It is framed with the death of her brother and father from COVID-19 and the descent of her mother into dementia, a mother with whom she has had a bittersweet relationship. In between, she narrates attending RAADfest, a gathering of people into radical life extension, who are in revolt against aging and death. While Cain, like all of us would like to live longer, she doesn’t believe the pursuit of deathlessness will lead to peace and harmony, but rather the acceptance of mortality and walking together in it has the power to draw us together. She believes that the embrace of bittersweet is the way out of inherited trauma, when we face and embrace the pain in the lives of our forebears and live with gratitude for their resilience and the gifts they passed on to us.
I found myself reacting in several ways to this book. One was that I recognized a strength Susan Cain has is to name what is often an inchoate sense many of us have. While her “quiz” at the beginning of the book suggests some score higher on the bittersweet scale than others, anyone who has lived enough life, or even through a pandemic grasps this tension of sorrow and wonder, of longing and hope within which we live. Cain’s genius is to name it and give the lie to the American (and often Christian) focus on being happy.
Cain develops her ideas through a series of stories of travels around the world and interviews with a number of insightful people. She is a storyteller, and sometimes, it is hard to keep track of the larger story she is rendering for all the stories. Only in going back over the book for this review did I get any sense of the development of her ideas. With that, I also found the book somewhat repetitive as she makes again and again the point that bittersweet gives meaning, and creativity, love and union with others to our existence. It felt to some degree that this is the world she wanted to be so.
Cain describes herself as moving from an agnosticism to something different, not exactly faith or belief in a particular conception of God. Yet it seems in the end, in an attempt to identify with universal human experience, all she can do is believe in the longing for something more. She quotes C. S. Lewis from Surprised by Joy, noting that “we have hunger because we need to eat, we have thirst because we need to drink; so if we have an ‘inconsolable longing’ that can’t be satisfied in this world, it must be because we belong to another, godly one” (pp. 53-54). Yet Lewis found the fulfillment of his longing not in longing but in God. I fear Cain’s argument is to embrace the hunger and the thirst, but not go on to where there is food and drink. I sense she believes that longing or bittersweet is its own satisfaction. I can’t help but wonder if there is a dark side to bittersweet not discussed here, the disillusionment and despair of a life of longing without finding. I found myself praying that she would find, and have the courage to accept, the “other” that she longs for.