When I was very young, after losing my first tooth, I first experienced bittersweet. I gently wrapped the tooth in a tissue and placed it beneath my pillow. I awaited the tooth fairy to come and claim my small tooth in exchange for a mere quarter.
I couldn’t sleep.
There was excitement, yes. However, there was something else. I suddenly had the realization that the tooth that had served me well to this young juncture in my life would soon be gone, out of my reach forever. It was…bittersweet. In a moment of intense emotion, I pulled the wrapped tooth from my pillow and unwrapped it before the dim light of my nightlight, and said goodbye one last time.
For the first time, I was experiencing the knowledge of impermanence. I was grateful, excited, and yet …sad. From this point on, I’ve always enjoyed melancholy. A fact I’d periodically be ashamed of. I loved sad songs best. Sad movies wrenched at my heart, an experience I longed for. A truth was revealed in these works that I could not put my finger on.
When I heard Susan Cain on a podcast note that she had a similar predilection, the instinct to both be drawn to and conceal this love for the sad, I was immediately interested.
What Is Bittersweet?
In Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole, Cain explores the significance of the mournful through a cultural, scientific, and experiential lens. The general theory is that what we consider sad or melancholy is often a longing for what is or was possible. Often, melancholy is an expression of potential or connection, even if missed or lost. It is a mechanism of how we begin to let go of and create meaning out of our experience.
The idea that it’s strange for liking melancholic music appears to be debunked in current research. Research finds that when people listen to their “happy song”, they generally listen to it about 175 times. However, their “sad song” is listened to almost 800 times (on average).
More and more, current pop songs are written in a minor key. Minor keys are often associated with melancholia. We love melancholy, sad, and tragic movies and theatre. The emotional states of some of our most cherished artists correlate with creative output. The more sadness, the more creative output. This research shows that sadness is the main negative emotion predicting creativity.
It seems obvious once pointed out that the experience of bittersweet or melancholy is universal. Not only is it widespread, but it is also a milepost in the process of meaning-making.
The Book’s Journey
The book sets the stage for the material with the story of the cellist of Sarajevo. In 1992, Vedran Smailović, lead cellist of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra played the Adagio in G minor amongst the rubble of the war that had taken the lives of twenty-two civilians. In honor of the twenty-two killed, he repeated his performance for twenty-two days. Though he sat in the wartorn, destruction in the midst of war, no violence ever found him. The war seemed to honor the bittersweet recognition of the impermanent. Even in the most extreme of circumstances, we honor this experience as bittersweet.
The book explores the utility of sadness, its association with art and music, its strong link with love and lost love, and more. The text asks if our culture ventures into toxic positivity. The relationship between death and bittersweetness is fleshed out. Our culture often suggests ‘getting over it’ when it comes to grief and lost love, but is this necessary, helpful, and/or possible? Is it really a sad story if a life is lived with melancholy? The book looks into current research studying epigenetics and its potential to pass on trauma and pain to future generations.
The book uses stories, experiences, allegories, mythologies, and research to investigate this common yet somewhat taboo experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone who sees the value in the sanguine, even though it never quite felt right. This one’s for you…