We’re living, famously, through a time in which we have trouble connecting with others, especially outside our “tribes.” And Keltner’s work shows us that sadness–Sadness, of all things!–has the power to create the “union between souls” that we so desperately lack.
Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book that felt, in its quiet way, life-changing to me, with its underlying message of it’s ok to be how you are if you’re like this.
I was so looking forward to her newest, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole (April 5, Random House) although I knew nothing could live up to the impact Quiet had.
Cain was inspired onto the multi-year journey of researching and writing about the specific feeling of sadness crossed with joy by the music of Leonard Cohen, her favorite musician. It takes some effort, but she ultimately describes quite well a feeling that I think can be stubbornly indescribable, that unique mix of sadness mingled with joy that can be so moving — something “rooted in brokenness, but point[ing] at transcendence.”
She finds a lot of ways to encapsulate the feeling of bittersweetness and its iterations, including using the German Sehnsucht, a combination of “yearning” and “an obsession or addiction”, and draws on other people’s experience of bittersweetness, like C.S. Lewis calling it “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
I was actually a bit hazy — or maybe unconvinced? — about exactly what the feeling was, or the significance of it, because although I love some Cohen songs I don’t have that specific connection as she does. But it’s hard to argue with much of the above, and Cain also links to an accompanying playlist, which solidified the concept for me: “Landslide” was the song that most defined it for me.
Towards the end, she describes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” written “to a young girl who’s upset that the leaves are falling from the trees in ‘Goldengrove'” and that was the icing on the cake. I read that poem for the first time in AP English in high school and I can still remember how it made me feel back then, and still does every time I encounter it. It made me love the entire book and endeavor a little more, because as intangible and strange as this entire concept is, it’s still lovely and affecting.
My issue with it is that aside from capturing these feelings well and validating them — so, showing where they can fit in our lives or in the big scheme of things and what benefit they can have for things like coping, grieving, or just managing bad days — this didn’t feel as actionable or informative as Quiet (unfair to constantly compare them, I know, but the structures and formats are so similar). I think it’s intended only to highlight the benefits of embracing sadness or melancholy, especially considering the particularly American relentlessness of happiness and positivity. (A chapter covers this as well, a topic I’m always interested in since it’s so emotionally and psychologically toxic, but Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided hits it more thoroughly and makes a good companion read.)
Cain braids memoir throughout the cultural and psychological research, including a detailed look at her relationship with her mother and its fracturing, never to be the same throughout the rest of her mother’s life. Her mother now has dementia, and Cain’s description of what’s significant to her — so what remained after the rest of the bitterness fell away — is hauntingly lovely and I think says a lot about what matters to people, ultimately. Her research points are fascinating as always, ranging from the scientific and academic to pop culture, like the story of how the entire script of the Pixar movie Inside Out was retooled to focus on Sadness.
I guess that’s really what this is about emphasizing — that life is never a series of high highs, it’s always tempered and it’s best to get used to that and in fact, to expect it. It’s absolutely worth the read, even if it does feel less innovative or revelatory. There’s a lot of power in these kind of subtle explorations, too.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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