Pursue What Matters
Episode 186: Book Review – Bittersweet
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Have you ever wondered why you liked sad music? Why you love a rainy day? Or why you react intensely to music, art, nature or beauty? Maybe you’re bitter sweet?
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:15
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So I am so excited to bring this book review to you. This book just came out. And when I discovered it, I was so excited because I love this author. She does really compelling work. And it was such a great topic. So what is the book we’re reviewing today? So the book is bittersweet how sorrow and longing make us whole. So I love it. And it is by Susan Cain. Of course, she is the number one New York Times bestseller of the book quiet. So let’s learn a little bit about her and about the book. But first, just keep in mind that every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you strengthen your confidence to lead in one of three ways helping you lead with clarity. What are you doing and why doesn’t matter, leading with curiosity, so building self awareness and self leadership, and leading at building a community. And so just like she did with her book, quiet right, where she introduced us to the virtues of introverts, right, which had really been appreciated for so long. With this book, she helps us to look at the virtue and the value of bittersweet. And so let’s learn a little bit about her.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:00
So she has been named one of the top 10 influencers in the world by LinkedIn. She’s a renowned speaker and author of the award winning books, quiet power, quiet journal, and quiet. The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. So quiet has appeared on many Best of lists spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list seven years. That’s pretty remarkable. And it was named the number one best Book of the Year by Fast Company, which also named Kane, one of the most creative people in business. Her TED talk on the power of introverts has been viewed over 40 million times. So right she’s, she’s good at her craft. And with this book, so quiet, right, she had some add ons to the book quiet but quiet was really what she has best been known for. And so now, she has this book bittersweet. And so 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. And so, description of the book bittersweetness is a tendency to states of longing, poignancy and sorrow and acute awareness of passing time and a curious, curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark birth and death, bitter and sweet are forever paired. And so she really helps us to take a look at this. We have a bittersweet quiz to kind of see where you’re at on that. And then she talks about the virtues of being bittersweet and how that can strengthen our relationships, our experiences at work and yes, the world we live in. So she shows how a bittersweet state of mind is the quiet force that helps us transcend our personal and collective pain. If we don’t acknowledge our own heartache, she says we can end up inflicting it on others via abuse, domination, or neglect. That if we realize that all humans know or will know, loss and suffering, we can turn toward one another. So you know, I think for many of us in life, we tend to avoid what’s sorrowful we tend to avoid grief and loss. And it’s interesting, right? Like in the world of psychology and clinical work. You have a population of professionals who move toward the painful who move toward the sorrowful who moves toward grief. It takes a lot to be able to tolerate another person’s pain, to be able to sit with them in that to help them grieve and make sense of it make sense of the unsensible the insensible and, and so it’s interesting because I do think professionally, clinicians who are on the frontlines doing therapy probably strike higher on that bittersweet meter I know for me over the years I have become more bittersweet. But there’s this kind of this intense beauty and sadness around witnessing another person’s life. And to be part of that to be a witness to that. It’s just it’s such a privilege.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:16
So let’s look at some of the advanced praise for bittersweet. So this first one comes to us from Dr. Brene Brown. Susan Cain’s bittersweet grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go. I’ve thought about the depth and beauty and Kane’s research and storytelling every day since I finished the book, I will always be grateful for how much quiet and bittersweet have helped me understand myself, and how I engage with the world. And then from Adam Grant, who’s a great leadership thinker. He said, This is the rare book that doesn’t just open your eyes, it touches your heart and sings to your soul. Susan Cain gave a voice to introverts, and now she masterfully paints our heaviest emotions, and a light that’s long overdue. Bittersweet is the perfect cure for toxic positivity, and a sparkling ode to the beauty of the human condition. And so really, some some amazing, advanced praise, for bittersweet. And of course, this just came out a little while ago. I loved it, I think it’s, it’s got to be one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year so far.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:25
So I just want to give you a little bit of flavor for this book. Of course, we’re not going to go through everything. But it’s it’s a beautiful book. And there are some really incredible photos that just express so much of this, of this bittersweet experience that she speaks of that she writes about. And so you know, getting the book is super cool. So this definition of bittersweet comes to us from Oh Wickstrom, professor in psychology of religion at the University of Uppsala. So Gregory the Great, who live by 42 604 spoke about Come, come Pincio I’m sure I’m pronouncing that wrong, I apologize. The holy pain, the grief somebody feels when faced with that, which is most beautiful. The bittersweet experience stems from human homelessness in an imperfect world, human consciousness of, and at the same time, a desire for perfection, this inner spiritual void becomes painfully real, when faced with beauty there between the loss and the desired, the holy tears are formed. So I think that’s like such a beautiful description, that, that helps us to start to capture bittersweet. So I just want to quickly go over the structure of the book. So she has part one, which is all about sorrow and longing. And the question is, how can we transform pain into creativity, transcendence and love because that’s really what we’re looking at, when it comes to bitter sweetness.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:00
Part two is all about winners and losers. So how can we live and work authentically in a tiny of positivity? And so she talks about this toxic positivity, she talks about the positive psychology movement, and how sometimes that leads us to happy talking our way through life. And, and having real genuine emotional connection being blunted or shut down. And then part three is mortality in permanence and grief. So how should we live, knowing that we, and everyone we love will die? And so right? It’s, it’s, it’s confronting life’s realities, which always include death, right. And so this is a book that helps us to turn toward our emotional experience. It helps us to be brave, and face reality, and be generous and compassionate with the experience of others and the experience of ourselves. So in the book, she has a bittersweet quiz, which is super helpful. I’m just going to read a couple of the items just so you can kind of get a flavor of what do we mean by bittersweet? So do you tear up easily at Touching TV commercials? Are you especially moved by old photographs? Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature? have others described you as an old soul? And do you find comfort or inspiration in a rainy day? And I gotta tell you, one of my favorite things on the planet is a rainy day. So do you know what the author CS Lewis meant? When he described joy as a sharp, wonderful stab of longing, right? Because joy is all about connection, but it’s also this, this gap, this longing between us and the divine. So are you moved to goosebumps throughout the day? Do you feel elevated by sad Music? Do you tend to see the happiness and sadness and things all at once? Do you seek out beauty in your everyday life?
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:08
So those are some questions to kind of help you get a sense of this. So when it comes, so if you score high on the bittersweet quiz, right, these folks are usually they the trait that they’re identified with is high sensitivity, right? So your high sensitivity to others, which can make you a very compassionate and loving person. And sometimes it can mean like you’re, you’re wide, open and vulnerable to, you know, whatever life throws at you. And so there is a high correlation with the tendency to absorption, which predicts creativity, and moderate correlation with our self transcendence and spirituality. So right, people who tend to be more bittersweet tend to be more spiritually identified. And there is a small association with anxiety and depression, which also isn’t, isn’t too surprising, right, some melancholy. But she’s she makes the point that too much melancholy, can lead to what Aristotle called the diseases of black file. So you know, that’s, that’s where melancholy takes its name. And so she wants to be really clear that this is not a book about those afflictions, right. It’s not about depression and anxiety, real and devastating Bo they are, and it’s certainly not a celebration of them. So her message, if you think you’re experiencing depression, or severe anxiety, or even post traumatic stress disorder, please know that help is out there and seek it out. So this book is about the riches of the bittersweet tradition, and how tapping into them can transform the way we create, the way we parent, the way we lead, the way we love, and the way we die. I hope it will also help us to understand each other and ourselves. So she’s encouraging us to understand and embrace the bittersweet aspects of life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:04
So she really starts and gives a very solid foundation into a researcher named Keltner. So he really looks at the compassionate instinct, which is the idea that we humans are wired to respond to each other’s troubles with cat, right? Like, we are wired for social connection. And his research really focused on that. So our nervous systems make little distinction between our own pain and the pain of others. Isn’t that interesting? I think that’s so very interesting. So we react similarly to both right to the pain of ourselves and the pain of others. This instinct is as much a part of us as the desire to eat and breathe. So right it is embedded in us. It’s part of our nervous system. And so the compassionate instinct is also a fundamental aspect of the human success story. And one of the great powers of bittersweetness. So the word compassion literally means to suffer together. And Keltner sees it as one of our best and most redemptive qualities, the sadness from which compassion screens is a pro social emotion, right? So it’s pro social meaning towards connection, and Agent of connection and love. It’s what the musician Nick Cave calls the universal unifying force, sorrow and tears are one of the strongest bonding mechanisms we have. And so, her argument is that the combat compassionate instinct is wired so deeply throughout our nervous system that it appears to trace back to our earliest evolutionary history, right, and this comes from calendars research. So if someone pinches you are born, it burns your skin, this activates the anterior cingulate Ridge region of your cortex. And this is like the uniquely human part of the brain responsible for your ability to perform high level tasks. Your ACC activates, in the same way when you see someone else getting pinched or burned, right. So this is all about that compassion, instinct. And so something that right we want to cultivate and pay attention to. And it really goes back to the mother child relationship. So it right like it’s it’s so wired into us and right when I think about the most profound experiences of my life, almost all of them have been associated with loss have been associated with bittersweet experiences where it’s like this is so profoundly heartbreaking. And yet it’s beautiful. How, how can that happen? Right? And how does that help us make sense of life? And how does that help us to find meaning in life?
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:52
So for example, depression deepens our natural empathy because we start to see others with loving compassion instead of judgment, right? So our impulse to respond to a to another person sadness, sits in the same location as our need to breathe, digest food, reproduce and protect our babies. And so, of course, we want to cultivate that. So she also shares several more research findings around transcendence, and empathy. And this, this recommendation to honor sadness a little bit more right to to get away from false positivity, and that, that sadness becomes a bridge that we need to connect with other because it drives us towards connection. And that that can help us to be more generous with ourselves and others.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:53
So I just want to finish up with a couple more items. There’s a lovely quote from CS Lewis, she talks a lot about CS Lewis, he speaks so beautifully about sorrow, and longing, of course, he has his very famous book, A Grief Observed about his experience after the death of his wife. So this is what he says the sweetest thing and all my life has been the longing to reach the mountain, he’s got mountain capitalize, to find the place where all the beauty came from my country, the place where I ought to have been born. One of the best descriptions I think, are most profound to me. Descriptions of bittersweetness is about the longing for home the longing for a spiritual home, and have you had those moments in your life. I know I certainly have, when I have felt this deep longing for home. And it wasn’t the physical home. It wasn’t a regional home, it was a spiritual home, where we feel that distance from our origins, right? Whether that is a belief in God or a belief in a higher power. And that that sense of longing, that sense of bittersweetness can bring profound meaning and purpose in our lives, because it clarifies what matters most. And the final thing that I just want to wrap up with, of course, she’s talking about the benefits of bitter sweetness in all areas of her life. And she has a really great discussion of this in the world of work, right? That Brene Brown has taught us to bring our whole selves to work, right that we don’t cut ourselves off, artificially at work, and that we need to be able to talk about the gifts of failure, we need to show up and have good awareness and care for one another. And dare I say love those we work with, and that this opens up so many pathways to success and, and purpose driven. effectiveness at work that it just it, it transforms our experience of work. You know, this is happening mainstream, right. So Harvard Business Review is regularly talking about the virtues of Compassionate Leadership. We think about the servant leader model, and the importance and the value of melancholic leaders. Right. And so she has a lot to say about this, she has a lot to say about overcoming toxic positivity, about an approach that really embraces both the joy and the pain of life. And that this is, this is the only sane way to live in the world. And so it’s hard for me to really capture the beauty of this book. It’s really, it’s really powerful. And something that can really open your eyes and motivate even more compassionate in your life. And so I hope that it can do that for you for sure.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:56
And so, head on over to my website for more information about Susan Cain and a link to the book www.drmelissasmith.com/186-bittersweet. So one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/186-bittersweet Of course, join me on Instagram @dr.melissasmith I’d love to connect with you there. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai