Bittersweet: How Sorrow And Longing Make Us Whole

Anne Kearns

Described as “the perfect cure for toxic positivity and a sparkling ode to the beauty of the human condition” this book explores the beauty of the “bittersweet” side of life. Throughout Bittersweet, Cain explores the importance of sadness, how to transform pain into creativity, how to live authentically in a world only focused on the positive, and how to live knowing that we will die. The book is ultimately a defense of the melancholic side of life, proving that sadness can be beautiful and transformative. Through countless case studies, interviews, and scientific evidence she shows how a bittersweet state of mind is “the quiet force that helps us transcend our personal and collective pain.” Cain states “Bittersweetness is a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.”

When I read the book, I was reminded of a quote from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. When asked about joy and sorrow, the prophet responds, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?  When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” 

Ultimately it is this intertwining of joy and sorrow that is the basis of what Cain describes as “bittersweet.” Especially in highschool, the pressure to seem happy all the time is all too prevalent, which can lead to frustration and despair. But this applies to everyone, not just high school students. We all feel sorrow and longing, just as we all feel joyful and content.

 Cain argues that leaning too heavily on one or the other can have drastic consequences and affect our overall well being. As Shauna Niequist  put it, “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” If you feel weighed down by the “ tyranny of positivity” or commonly find yourself in a state of longing or sorrow, you will find comfort and delight in Bittersweet.

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