On this episode of Unlocking Us
This conversation is a bittersweet breath of fresh air for me. It’s the first of two episodes with Susan Cain, the best-selling author of Quiet, about her new revolutionary book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. This is such an important book and a needed counterbalance to our society’s toxic push for constant positivity. It gives a high five to those of us who know that melancholy is our secret strength, and it gives the rest of us permission to lean into our bittersweet feelings, which actually make us more hopeful and more whole.
Listen to the episode
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
In her new masterpiece, the author of the best-selling phenomenon Quiet reveals the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, and why we’ve been so blind to its value. 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. Susan Cain employs a mix of research, storytelling, and memoir to explore why we experience sorrow and longing, and how embracing the bittersweetness at the heart of life is the true path to creativity, connection, and transcendence. At a time of profound discord and personal anxiety, Bittersweet brings us together in deep and unexpected ways.
“The Hidden Power of Sad Songs and Rainy Days” TED talk by Susan Cain
A bittersweet Spotify playlist on Spotify
Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: Ugh! I get to talk to my dear friend, Susan Cain, in a two-part interview about her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Oh my God, this book, y’all. I don’t even know what to tell you about this book. If you don’t know Susan, she’s the author of four books, including Quiet: The Power of Introverts, which also was a game changer for me. This book is about the power of loving a sad song, the power of a rainy day, the power of melancholy, and we talk about that a lot, and actually how all of these things, including bittersweetness, they make us more hopeful and more whole. This is again part one of a two-part series. Before we get into it, I want to tell you that Susan just had a new TED talk drop. It’s called “The Hidden Power of Sad Songs and Rainy Days.” It’s beautiful. It’s just… If I sound biased, it’s just because I’m totally biased. I score off the charts on the Bittersweet survey, the scale. I have a deeply bittersweet state of mind all the time.
BB: It’s almost like how being an introvert was a bad thing before people started talking about it and people started saying, “Oh, this just is who we are, and this doesn’t mean this,” and I don’t know, it just… Claiming my introversion and now claiming my bittersweet kind of ness, my bittersweet, melancholic mind sometimes has been so powerful and affirming for me, so I’m so glad you’re here.
BB: Before we jump into the conversation, let me tell you a little bit about Susan. She is again the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent seven years on the New York Times best seller list and has been translated into over 40 languages. She’s got a great TED talk on introversion. LinkedIn named her one of the top influencers in the world. She has partnered with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club, they donate all the proceeds to children’s literacy programs. And we’re going to talk about her new masterpiece, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Let’s jump in.
BB: I just want to start by saying, I’m so happy to see your face, even though it’s on Zoom.
Susan Cain: Oh my gosh, I feel the same way. As I was just saying, I think we get to cross paths every two years or so, and I feel like every single time we do, there’s two things that happens, at least on my end. One thing is that I always learn something that I didn’t even know I needed to learn. And the second… Like you answer a question I didn’t actually have going in, and then the second thing is, I always laugh. So I love it, and I’m so happy to see you.
BB: I feel the exact same way. When did we have coffee in New York?
SC: Oh gosh. Do you know what’s so funny about that? I sometimes date COVID in reference to that coffee date, because I know… Well, that had to have happened before COVID. And I think it was not that long before. I feel like it was maybe a year before. Right?
BB: Maybe in 2019.
SC: Something like 2019. That’s what I think.
BB: Yeah. That’s what I think, too. Yeah.
BB: We laughed, but I always think, when I leave being with you, and whether it’s physically with you or I’m reading something that you’ve written because I’ve read it, Quiet, since the day I got it, I go back to it all the time, and I’m going to go back to Bittersweet all the time. I’m going to have a hard time in this podcast just because I just think about the book and I get tearful and I want to start crying.
SC: Wow. Why? Can you say why?
BB: It’s so important. It’s so good, it’s so… I’m like the highest number you can get on your Bittersweet scale. And my whole life, I thought that that was secretly a strength, but hid it from the world, my, that kind of bittersweet state of mind…
SC: Exactly. Yeah.
BB: And approach to life.
BB: But I hid it from the world because it didn’t fit into a ‘elbows out smiles on’…
BB: And so when I read it, it was like when I read Quiet. It was like, Oh… I don’t know, we’re going to get into this, but I think maybe… Maybe… You make me feel at home.
SC: Wow. I mean, I love that, and thank you. And I think it’s a different version of the way you make thousands and thousands of people feel at home, because what strikes me is, it’s funny to me in a way to hear you say you haven’t felt like you could express your true bittersweetness, because I feel like you express it maybe in a different language, maybe actually in the exact same language. I mean, when you’re talking about vulnerability and shame and all the things that you talk about, that’s an aspect of being willing to go there.
BB: Yeah, maybe it is. I guess I just always thought, we’re going to get to it. But I will say this going in, that the two things that have actually made me feel shame, but I secretly… I mean, but I never understood because secretly, I thought they were the best things about me are my introversion and my bittersweet state of mind.
SC: Holy moly. Wow.
BB: Yeah, so you can only imagine the impact you’ve had on my life.
SC: Oh my gosh. Well, you know what’s amazing about that. I mean, in your beautiful book, Atlas of the Heart, you open it by sharing with us that essay that you wrote, I think it was in college, right?
BB: Yeah. [chuckle]
SC: That essay, where you were talking about emotions from the very beginning. First of all, that was just fascinating to me, the way we are, who we are from such an early age, but specifically, to this point, the emotion that you focused on in that college essay was sorrow.
SC: I was so struck by that. It was like you had some kind of instinct.
BB: Yes, I was 18. Yeah.
SC: Yeah, I wanted to ask you, I have your book here, I want to find the exact sentence if I can pull it up really quickly.
SC: “Although my explanations are personal and based on my own needs, I feel they are good guidelines to help others who have not been able to understand the reasoning behind sorrow.” And I was so struck by that. It was like, “Okay, well, that’s why I wrote my book. So Brené’s been thinking that since she was 18.” And why was that the emotion you think you chose at that age that you felt you needed to explain the reasoning behind sorrow. You didn’t pick joy, you didn’t pick anxiety. There’s a thousand emotions you could have picked.
BB: Because I think I knew sorrow by that age, and I think my parents were in the middle of divorce, and I didn’t understand why we had to hide it all the time, because I didn’t think it meant turning away from joy. I thought it meant walking deeper into joy.
BB: Do you know what I’m saying? Of course, you know what I’m saying. Okay. We can’t start now. We got to back people up. Okay. I’m going to start with this because I really am so excited about this question before we get into the book. Tell us your story, if you will. Start like baby Susan.
SC: Oh gosh.
BB: Yeah. I want to know your story. Like, who are your people? Where are you from? What were you like when you were little?
SC: Well, I think I’ve always been, when I was little, the way I am now, actually, so I hardly… That’s such a big question that I hardly know where to start, but I will say this, that I was always a sensitive kid. I mean, you know, I was an introvert. I made friends easily, but was shy and introverted, and to be with people one-on-one, just the way I like to do right now. But, in terms of the bittersweet side, I think… I know… that I have always felt a kind of deep understanding that life is equally sorrow and joy, and that’s just how it is. And I’ve been a huge reader all my life, and the reason that I love reading the way I do is because of those moments where the author expresses something that you deeply know to be true, and you’ve never heard it articulated before, and that they’re telling the truth of what it’s like to be alive. I think that’s really the thing.
SC: It’s like telling the truth of what it’s like to be alive, and there’s something about various creative expressions that allows us to do that, whether it’s music or writing or whatever, so I was always really drawn to that, and I grew up in a family of people who revered the book. And so I wanted to be a writer from the time that I was four years old, and the reason I wanted to write is because I wanted to create those moments of telling that truth and having that communion, and the crazy thing about the communion of an author and a reader is that you don’t even have to be alive at the same time.
BB: No. It transcends that, doesn’t it?
SC: It transcends that. It transcends that, but I think it’s also very relevant, this whole topic of bittersweetness. That I come from a family that is suffused in loss in various ways. On both sides, my mother’s side and my father’s side, we lost most of our family in the Holocaust, almost all of it, really. So that was always a kind of backdrop for me that that kind of thing could happen at any moment, even if it wasn’t at the time, and then I had an experience that I write about in the book, where I had this incredibly close relationship with my mother. It was a kind of garden of Eden, perfect love, really, all through my childhood, she… All the strengths that I have, I feel like, are partly because she poured so much love into me and into our relationship, and then for various reasons, she had a really difficult time when I hit adolescence and we had an incredibly painful break-up, you could call it.
SC: And I can tell you later if we go there, the story of that break-up, but…
BB: Tell us the story of the break-up.
SC: Oh, okay, okay.
SC: Basically, for reasons of her own life, she had a really hard time when I became an adolescent and started to separate, which meant, the usual things of wanting to spend more time with friends and having different views of the world, different outlooks. And instead of that being just the standard sort of parent-child separation, she reacted with a storm, with a storm of emotions, in which we were both swept up and it almost tore us apart. And I didn’t know what to do with that storm. I was so heartbroken because I was aware that I was the one causing the person I loved most in the world, pain, even if I didn’t really understand at the time exactly what was going on, so I just felt this terrible burden like, okay, somehow I have to find a way to ease this pain, and so I never could really speak it so much out loud. And what I ended up doing instead, I wrote everything down in my diaries, which is, I’ve been writing in my diaries all my life. So I wrote it all down and went off to college and kept writing, and then, at the end of my first year of college, for some reason, I had to stay on campus a few days later, but all my belongings had to be sent home. And so, my parents came to take home my belongings for me and I was going to stay for another few days.
SC: And so they’re helpfully taking all my suitcases, and then at the last minute, I take my stack of diaries and I hand them to my mother, and I say, “Oh, can you take these home for me also?” And I swear, at the time that I did that, I had no conscious idea that she was going to read them or that I was doing this. I just thought… Yeah, mom would never read someone else’s diaries and they got to get home. That’s all I thought on a conscious level, but of course, she did read them and although for the decades after, we were still mother and daughter and still did holidays and all the rest, there was a way in which our relationship was never the same again, and a way in which I felt like I had lost the Garden of Eden forever, and a way in which I could not speak about my mother without crying. I couldn’t even say, “My mother grew up in Brooklyn,” without crying. And it’s really only in the last few years that I’ve learned… Well, first of all, we’ve had a real reconciliation in her old age, but also, I feel like I’ve learned partly through the process of thinking so deeply about bittersweetness to come to terms with the imperfection of the relationship that we had and to really celebrate the love that we have.
BB: God! There’s so much healing that’s accessible to us when we put down illusions of perfection and positivity, don’t you think?
SC: I do. I do. I mean… When I first went on this quest to explore bittersweetness, and maybe it’s worth kind of defining what it is, it’s the recognition that light and dark and joy and sorrow are always going to co-exist, and that’s what life is, and it’s an awareness of passing time, and an awareness of the impermanence of life, but it’s also a kind of piercing joy at how incredibly gorgeous and beautiful life is, and then it’s this… To answer your question, what I’ve come to believe through this quest that I went on to understand the nature of bittersweetness is, we are creatures who are born to transform pain into beauty. That is something we have the ability to do.
BB: Say that again. You have got to say that again.
SC: Okay. We are creatures who are born to transform pain into beauty, because one thing is certain, we are all going to experience pain at some point, probably we all have already, like some kind of profound pain. And there’s two things we can do with that. One thing is to not really acknowledge it, and then we end up consciously or unconsciously taking it out on other people through abuse or passive aggression or whatever it is for us, and then the other thing that we can do is accept that pain is part of life too, and what can we do to transform it into something else, into some kind of healing state. Maybe for other people who’ve experienced the same kind of pain that we have, maybe into some kind of creative expression, but somehow to turn it into beauty.
SC: And this isn’t just me saying this. I really went on this quest for the last five years to understand all of this, and there’s a 2000-year tradition of artists and musicians and writers, and all of our wisdom traditions have been grappling… All the poets, they’ve all been trying to tell us this. All our stories, all our religions are all telling us the exact same thing, and yet our culture is somehow blind to it.
BB: Okay, I want to go back to your story.
BB: I’m not going to let you out of the story. So you’re in college. I want to ask you two things. Take us from college through where you are now, and tell me if on that journey, there were awakenings to bittersweet that were surprising to you. So, you’re at Harvard, right? In undergrad?
SC: Princeton. Actually.
BB: Princeton. Okay. And then do you go to law school?
SC: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Then you go to Harvard Law?
SC: Yep, that’s right.
BB: Are you out in terms of being bittersweet at that time? Do you understand what that is? Or have you named it yet?
SC: Oh, well, it’s funny you should say that because no, I have definitely… I have not named it, but I had a very kind of, seminal is the only word I can think of, there must be a better one, but I had a very seminal… [laughter] But I had a very seminal experience during my first year of law school, where I was in my dorm room and some friends were coming to pick me up for class. We were all going to go together, and I was blasting music from my stereo speakers, and the music that I was blasting, it was something very minor key and bittersweet. It was probably Leonard Cohen with whom I’ve been obsessed for decades.
SC: And so my friends came to my dorm room and they were like, “Why are you listening to this music?” And one of them said, “Why are you listening to funeral tunes?” And I laughed when he said that. And we went to class. And you could say that was the end of the story, except it wasn’t the end of the story because literally, for the next 25 years, I kept thinking about that moment and why it is that I love to listen to that kind of music, and what in our culture made his joke about funeral tunes such a normal joke to make.
SC: And the thing is that, when I hear that kind of music, and I know Brené, that you feel this too, when I hear it… Because we talk about this all the time. When I hear this kind of music, I don’t feel sad. I feel like, first of all, an amazing gratitude of that thing about the musician telling the truth about what it’s like to be alive, and I feel love. I feel like a kind of communion with all the other people in the world who know the sorrow that that music is expressing, and that we’re all in it together. And the fact that the sorrow has now been transformed into something beautiful is like… I really can’t describe it as anything other than sacred, which is a whole other thing we could talk about because I have been deeply agnostic all my life and have only recently come to realize that this reaction that I have to those kinds of moments in time, actually, is what sacredness is, and it’s the same thing that our religions are teaching us of these expressions of…we’re banished from the Garden of Eden, but we’re longing to be there, and that longing for that perfect and beautiful world is what we’re here for, so…
BB: So I keep thinking about that. I think we would have been such good friends, we would have just been listening to Leonard Cohen together. Yeah, [inaudible]. And people would think we were really weird. This is what we do y’all, if you’re listening, Susan and I send each other texts of like really moving music, often sad, but so beautiful. And then I think, “Oh my God, someone gets it. Someone sees me, they understand.”
SC: Yeah, I do want to break in and say, I know you do, and you may not know that I do, I also really love dance music too, I love cheerful and fun music, so it’s not like… It’s joy and sorrow. Right, so I don’t want anything to come away and think where you’re saying, “Well, you have to be situated in this place of minor key music and sorrow,” that’s not the thing, it’s that you want to expand into both.
BB: Yeah, and that the ability to straddle the tension of both is what magnifies the beauty of both.
1 SC: Yes
BB: Like yesterday I was on a Yaz tear. All I listened to was Yaz… for like three hours. I was dancing around my house.
SC: Oh my gosh, I used to love that Mania song, whose name I can’t remember. But yeah, that was the best.
BB: So you get out of law school. You’re a high-powered lawyer. Tell us about that to Quiet?
SC: Oh, from there to Quiet. Well, that was the whole thing.
BB: I know I’m not letting you off the hook because this is the story, because the story is in itself a living, breathing example of the Bittersweet work.
SC: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think it’s also true of everyone’s story, but I’ll tell you mine.
BB: Yeah I do too.
SC: And I’m going to tell you mine only so that you all can now think about what your stories are and what parts you might have been leaving out because of our culture, wanting us to tell our stories in a pretty narrow way. Okay, so I actually inexplicably loved law school and being a lawyer for a while, I say inexplicably because I’m the world’s least likely lawyer in so many ways, but I did kind of like it, and I’m a kind of ambitious person by nature, so I was at this law firm, and I was like, I’m going to make partner. And I had this dream the whole time that I wanted to make partner, the real reason that I wanted to make partner was because on the very first day, or I don’t know, the very first weeks, let’s say…
SC: Of being at this law firm, the new associates at the firm were invited to dinner at the home of one of the partners who lived in this beautiful little red brick, Greenwich Village townhouse, in this little neighborhood of cafes and curiosity shops and trees and all through this neighborhood, this is in New York City, there are plaques all over the houses that tell you the names of the 19th century poets who used to compose their poetry there, and I just felt like I needed to live in one of those houses. I had to have one of those houses, is what I thought, and so I literally dedicated the next few years of my life to trying to have a career that would enable to me to live in one of those houses.
BB: In a poets house? [laughter]
SC: In a poets house yeah.
BB: Let me just laugh for a second.
SC: I know, I know and it’s like I knew, I knew consciously that getting to live in that house didn’t mean that I was going to be able to write 19th century poetry. I knew that, but it didn’t matter. I was motivated by that, but I was also a highly ambivalent and conflicted lawyer, and the day came during the year that I was going to be put up for partner, that one of the partners came to my office and he knocked on my door and sat down and he reached for the stress ball on my desk and told me that I wasn’t going to be making partner after all, and I really wanted the stress ball too, but he had it.
SC: He was using it so I couldn’t. And so I burst into tears, which is not really what you’re supposed to do if you’re a lawyer. And then I asked to take a leave of absence, and I left that very afternoon, and a few weeks after that, I ended a seven-year relationship I had been in that had always felt wrong, and so now I’m about 33 years old. And this dream that I had of living in the poets house in Greenwich village, and I had always wanted children, all of it, it was all gone, no love, no career. It was very unclear whether I’d be able to have children, which had always been a goal for me, what my career would be, and so I’m kind of floating. I actually started writing a memoir at that point called Freefall because I felt like I was in freefall.
SC: I actually, I should say, I started writing the very next day after leaving the law firm, I had not written or thought about writing that whole entire time I was a lawyer, I had thought that that was a childhood dream and not realistic, but I started writing instantly, the minute that the law stopped, and then I fell into a kind of obsessive relationship with a musician who I really loved and who wasn’t fully available. I write about this in the book. I can still remember, you know the nature of that kind of obsession.
BB: Oh yes.
BB: Right, so this is the time before smartphones, and I spent my days walking through New York City and stopping into an Internet cafe on every single block, so I could see if he had sent me an email. It was one of those things.
BB: Oh Yeah.
SC: Yeah and I had a friend who I’m sure … bored silly with all my descriptions of this person I was completely obsessed with, until one day, she said to me, “If you’re this obsessed with someone, it’s not really the person you’re obsessed with, it’s because they are representing something you’re longing for.”
SC: And what is it that you’re longing for? And I realized it was like, this really was one of those cinematic epiphany moments, I realized instantly that what I was longing for was a writing life, and that he… This musician, I know when you’re a lawyer, when you’re a Wall Street lawyer, you don’t meet musicians, you don’t meet poets, you don’t mean writers, you meet lawyers and bankers. So this musician who I had fallen in love with represented everything that that Greenwich Village house with the poets plaques on the walls…
BB: Of course.
SC: Had represented all of it, and suddenly I didn’t need the house and I still loved him, but I didn’t need him anymore. And I was free and I started writing. And that was it. And I’ve never stopped ever since and a few years later, I started writing Quiet.
BB: Then Quiet, really… This is a pretty singular thing, you can’t say this about everything. Quiet changed the world. I mean there was no global conversation about introversion before Quiet.
SC: Yeah, and I can tell you during the years, while I was working on it and leading up to it, I thought that I was working on the weirdest, most idiosyncratic project, because of exactly what you’re saying, that there was no conversation about it. So it seemed really weird to be talking about feeling quiet, feeling shy, feeling that you’d rather spend time in solitude, than in a group, all of that seemed weird, just the way… I’m going through the exact same thing now as I’m getting ready to usher this Bittersweet book into the world of feeling like, Oh gosh, here we go again with a conversation that has not really felt acceptable for a long time.
BB: Let me ask you about what led to Bittersweet. Why Bittersweet? Why now?
SC: Well, why Bittersweet is because I guess I just have a tragic view of life when I felt that we had been living in a culture for so long that only wanted to talk about what was going well and would position things that weren’t going well as a detour from the main road. Whereas, what seems real to me, what seems truthful to me is that all of it is the main road…
BB: God, yes.
SC: It’s all the main road. All of it.
BB: Yes. Let me just stop and say, yes, the pain is not a detour from the main road… The pain is part of the main road.
SC: The pain is part of the main road. Yeah, and it so happens that right now… Gosh, we’re seeing that way more than we all wish that we were, we’re recording this at the dawn of this invasion of Ukraine, and after two plus years of COVID and all of everything that the world has been through over these last couple of years, and so many other things besides. Now, suddenly it so happens, that I think the world is maybe ready to talk about who we really are as humans. I actually started writing this a few years before that, because I thought we needed to talk about it all along… I do, I think that even when we’re in the good times, that’s really when we need to talk about it.
BB: Let’s go to a different story, it’s a story that you open the book with the cellist of Sarajevo. Can you tell us the story?
SC: Yeah, okay. So we tend to think here in the US, we often remember the 1990s as being a time of relative peace, but of course, that was not the case in many countries in the world, including in Sarajevo, where there was the civil war and a terrible siege of the city of Sarajevo. And this was a seige where people would hole up in their houses and they’d have to come out every so often to find bread for their families, but they would be looking for bread and there would be a sniper on the building trying to shoot them as they looked for their bread, that’s what it was like. So in the middle of this terrible siege, a building is bombed, and it so happens that this building is right next to the apartment building of the lead cellist of the Sarajevo orchestra. His name is Vedran Smailović, and he helped take care of the wounded, and then later that day, he comes back and he’s wearing his tuxedo, he’s dressed as if he’s about to perform, and he sits down in the middle of the rubble that was caused by this bomb, that killed 22 people.
SC: And as if he has all the time in the world and as if no sniper could possibly touch him, he sits down and he takes out his cello, and he plays the Albinoni in G minor, which I hope you who are listening right now will stop at some point and listen to this music, it’s so incredibly haunting and exquisite.
BB: Haunting, yes.
SC: And so beautiful. And this is the music that he chooses to play in honor of these 22 people who are now gone, and he comes back every day for 22 days and sits there in the middle of this city, beset by snipers and bombs, and he plays this gorgeous, haunting minor key music, and it becomes instantly iconic, and people come to listen to it, and I thought when I heard about this story… Well, first of all, it’s just like, Yeah, it’s the most incredible gesture that he made, and you think, “Why did he use that music to make this gesture, why didn’t use cheerful music to cheer the people up?”But there’s something about this music and you’ll hear it when you listen to it, there’s something about this music that expresses the human aching for the heavens, and I believe we are always aching for the heavens, and we see it at its most stark at moments like the one that we’re passing through right now, but we always are.
BB: There’s a quote, when I hear this story about the cellist of Sarajevo, I think about this quote from your book… Gosh the quotes in your book. I just, I really just want to print them all out and put them all over my house and just live in them.
SC: It’s so funny that you say that because I have a lot of them, like I’m in my office right now, and I have them taped to my walls, a lot of those quotes. Yeah.
BB: You write, “It’s not that pain equals art, it’s that creativity has the power to look pain in the eye and decide to turn it into something better.”
SC: Yes, we have in our culture, I think, wrestled over the question of what the heck creativity is, and I think we send… We often see a kind of connection that many hyper-creative people seem to wrestle with mood disorders or whatever it happens… Or different struggles in life. We know that a lot of super creative people have been orphaned when they were younger, and then other people dispute that and say, “No, actually when you’re really depressed, you can’t be creative,” which is true, it’s very hard when you’re truly depressed, but I believe… And we can talk about sort of all the evidence for it, but what I believe is happening is that we are all beings who long for a more perfect and beautiful world, the most fundamental state of being human is wishing to return to a Garden of Eden, that’s like our source code. And when you look at creativity through that lens, you start to see that what creativity is really doing is saying, “Okay, we’re here in this highly imperfect situation, and I’m going to reach for something that approximates that Garden of Eden that we’re all longing for,” and that’s really the heart of the creative impulse, Leonard Cohen, who we both love so much, the musician, his son talks about this, Adam Cohen, he talks about what his father did, he really had this philosophy of everything being kind of simultaneously broken and beautiful.
SC: And he saw music as a way to… The way Adam Cohen put it was something like… It’s a transcendence delivery machine, so it’s like, I’m going to express all this and I’m going to turn it into something transcendent, I’m going to turn it into the best approximation that I possibly can of that world that we’re all yearning for and I really do hasten to say for people who are listening, the point is not, “Well, if you’re a lifetime Grammy award winner like Leonard Cohen, then you’ve pulled that off.” No, the point is just that the state of existing and creativity is the state of doing your very best to approach that garden, so it doesn’t have to be good even, it just has to be the act of wishing to transform.
BB: It’s so true. I think about this whole genre of music that I write about actually in Braving the Wilderness, and it’s called High Lonesome, and it’s a form of Bluegrass music, and I think about Townes Van Zandt and I think about the pain of some of that music, but also what you feel in your gut when you listen to that, a man of constant sorrow, what you feel in that music is a grasp toward that garden, you feel the reach toward that thing. It’s incredible, isn’t it?
BB: Yeah, it’s the most incredible thing. And we, in our culture, we are taught that the state of longing, okay, if I say that word to you, it immediately conjures up ideas of gloominess and passivity, you’re mired in longing, that would be a word that you might think of, but if you look at the etymology of the word longing, it literally means what you just said, it means to reach, it means to reach for. And that’s actually what our tradition teaches us too, in ancient Greece the word for this was pothos, which meant a kind of yearning for that, which was unattainable, but here’s the thing, that yearning, like in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus who goes out on this epic journey that… That has changed the world in many ways, fictionally speaking, that journey was caused by Odysseus having pothos.
SC: The poem starts with him home sick, he’s crying on a beach, homesick for his native land, just kind of a metaphor for whatever it is, we’re fundamentally homesick for. It starts with him in that state of home sickness, and that’s what starts the adventure, that’s what starts the adventure, so longing is actually this incredibly active force that we’ve been blind to, except that our poets keep telling us about it, this is why all the protagonists in all or most favorite children’s stories, they’re always orphans.
SC: And why is that? It’s because they come in to the story, they’re already broken, they’re already in the state of longing, and now they have their adventure, and now they find their hidden birthright. And it’s a metaphor for all of our experiences.
BB: You know what I find? I wanted to ask you about this. I made a note of it actually when I read an early copy of the book, I know I’m going to tangle this up, but I know you can help me untangle it.
BB: I look at the literature that my kids loved and just dystopian in many ways, there was the Harry Potter of it all, but there was The Hunger Games, and there was… And they wanted the truth…
BB: There’s something that you talk about, they wanted the truth about how hard it is to live knowing that we and everyone we love will die, they wanted that in the books, they were reassured by that in the books.
BB: And I know some parents were like, “Wow, it’s so dark and it’s this… ” But they didn’t want to be lied to about their feelings, are we wired for longing and bittersweetness and melancholy, and then it’s driven of us by capitalism and marketing. Do you understand what I’m asking like…
SC: Oh, I know exactly what you’re asking.
BB: Yay! Good.
SC: I don’t believe that it’s driven out of us, I believe that we don’t reckon with it because we’re taught that it’s not acceptable. But of course, it’s still there. It’s still there. Yeah, when you talk about our kids reading those kinds of works and so on… Yeah, I think that what they want to know is that what they see is true and that they’re not alone in seeing it.
SC: That’s the thing, because otherwise, they think they’re the only ones who feel it.
SC: They think they’re the only ones… I tell a story in the book of a very kind of minor heartbreak that my children went through. We rented this house in the countryside when they were little, and it was right next to this field inhabited by two donkeys, and the kids made friends with these donkeys and they spent the whole week bringing them apples and carrots and the donkeys would come to the fence the minute they got there, and it was this beautiful romance. Okay, great. And then two days before it’s time to leave, the kids start crying themselves to sleep at night because they know that they have to say goodbye to the donkeys. And there are all different things that we as the parents can and try to tell them to make them feel better, maybe we’ll come back and other people will come and take care of the donkeys too.
SC: And all of this. And what I found was the only thing that really helped was when we said, “This is part of life, this saying goodbye, and it’s painful when it happens, but the pain lessens and then you’re going to have great memories afterwards, but it’s part of life and you’ve had it before and you’re going to have it again, and everybody has it.” And that’s when they stopped crying. There’s something about the normalization of our experience, and again, that idea of the detour, I think especially for children who are growing up in relative comfort, they’re absorbing the idea that life is not supposed to be with pain, and anything that happens that’s painful is like, “Oh my God, something’s terribly wrong with me, with everything,” as opposed to as parents, being with them as that happens and teaching them that that’s normal, and then we move on to joy too. It’s a very profound distinction, I think, in how we parent. You’re having a reaction, so tell me what you’re feeling.
BB: No, I just think you’re right and think it’s Pema Chödrön it’s that our compassion is not a relationship between the wounded and the healed, it’s knowing our darkness well enough to sit in the dark with others. It’s not flipping on the light and saying, “Well, maybe we’ll come back next summer and visit the donkeys,” or… It’s just sitting in the dark with the kids and saying, “God, goodbye is a hard part of loving something or someone.”
SC: Right, right. And I think there’s something in our culture that’s afraid of that because it feels like, “Oh well, are we teaching them then to wallow in it?” And we’re not at all, we’re just saying this is part of the experience, and now we’re going to move on to the next experience, and it’s all a normal part of life.
BB: I understated in my experience, just because I take on hard things like shame and fear, that the response of, “Oh, let’s not teach them to wallow,” is people’s fear of pain.
SC: Yeah, I do.
BB: It’s a self-protection thing, I think. Can I ask you a technical question?
BB: What is the difference between bittersweetness and melancholy? And why is melancholy a good teacher?
SC: Huh, maybe there’s a difference and maybe there isn’t, between those two words, actually.
BB: Okay, good.
SC: I actually thought for a long time about calling this book The Happiness of Melancholy, because that’s actually the way I experience it. I think of myself as a happy melancholic, and this is kind of interesting, just as a meta thing for what we’re talking about with our culture, that I was counseled not to call the book The Happiness of Melancholy, because the very word, melancholy, is so difficult for people, it’s just like, “Oh gosh, I don’t want to go there.” But I also think it’s because we… In our psychological tradition, we do not distinguish between melancholy and depression, even though they’re completely different states. I am not advocating for depression, it’s a terrible thing for people to experience, so I really want to be clear about that. But they’re completely different states.Melancholy is more of a sense of everything we’ve been talking about, understanding what the limitations of this life are, but there is that joy of communion in it, of us all being in that experience together. So yeah, I don’t know that I really distinguish so much between melancholy and bittersweetness, but I will say Aristotle, 2000 years ago, asked this question. He started to notice, he said, “Why is it that the great poets, philosophers and even politicians all have a melancholic temperament?” And I thought that was a really interesting question. And in some ways, I wanted to answer that in this book. It’s not a question that we think to ask nowadays.
BB: What is your answer?
SC: I believe it’s because there is… In grappling with both of these aspects of life, the joy and the sorrow, and the impermanence and the love, all of it, I believe that is our best route that we have to creativity and to connection and to communion. There are a bunch of different pathways that we have to get to all those different states, but this is one of the strongest ones we have, and the so-called greats that Aristotle was talking about, I think were willing to walk that path.
BB: Okay, this is a really important conversation for right now. It’s so funny when I talk to my husband, I said, “I think I move through life with a bittersweet state of mind,” and he goes, “You do, but it’s weird because you’re funny and you’re positive, and you’re so hopeful.” And I said, “Yeah, but I think it’s weird because I think my bittersweetness is the source of those things for me.”
SC: Oh, that’s interesting. Okay, why do you…
BB: Do you know what I mean?
SC: I know exactly what you mean, but I’m curious how you would describe it.
BB: Maybe it’s because of the research I do, because hope is not a gauzy feeling of positivity, which people think it is. Hope is actually a function of struggle, people with the highest levels of hopefulness have experienced, embraced and understand struggle.
BB: I am a joyful person because I’m a grateful person, but I’m a grateful person because I have a very clear understanding of pain and sorrow and loss, so I don’t think my outlook on life is completely informed by a realistic understanding of time, which is hard. Do you know what I mean?
SC: No, wait, say that last part again. Your outlook is not informed by a realistic…
BB: It is.
SC: Oh, it is. Okay.
BB: It is very informed by the impermanence of life.
SC: Oh, yes. Okay, that makes perfect sense.
BB: Yeah, I was in upstate New York a decade or more ago, and I was talking to a woman whose son was killed in 9/11, and we were talking about gratitude, and she said it’s really hard because people won’t share how grateful they are about their kids in front of me, because I’ve lost my son. And she said, “The irony is that when I see how grateful you are, when I hear your stories of gratitude, I know that you understand the magnitude of what I lost.”
SC: Yes, that makes perfect sense.
BB: I kept thinking about that when I was reading this book. I want to hold us here, I want to come back, I want to talk about toxic positivity.
SC: Okay, okay.
BB: And I want to talk about how a nation formed on so much heartache turned into the sunshine states.
SC: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Can we do that?
BB: Okay, we’ll be back for part two. Thank you for being here, Susan. Bittersweet. God, just how sorrow and longing make us whole, this is a whole-hearted book, just cue up your book clubs, families, get ready to read this together. This is an important book. We’ll be back for part two.
BB: Okay, if you’re like me, you’re dying for part two of this conversation. I just… I can’t get enough. You know how it’s like when you feel really seen? You think there’s something about you that makes you weird or different, and then not only do you find out you’re not alone, but that it’s a really good thing, it’s a powerful thing, it’s a whole thing, it’s an integrated thing? That’s how I feel about Bittersweet[ness]. You can find her book Bittersweet[ness], it’s out on April 5th, wherever you like to buy books. You know we love our independent bookstores. Don’t forget that Susan’s new TED talk, The Hidden Power of Sad Songs and Rainy Days is out on TED right now. And to celebrate all the Bittersweetness, there’s a Bittersweet Spotify playlist that we’ll evolve and grow over time. It’s going to be so fun, and catch us next time for Part Two of Susan Cain on Bittersweet. You can find all the links, all the information on the episode page on brenebrown.com, and I will see you next time. Stay awkward, brave and kind, and bittersweet.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil, and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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