In this podcast (episode #475) and blog, I talk to bestselling author and speaker Susan Cain about sorrow and mental health, embracing bittersweet moments and feelings, how longing makes us whole, her amazing new book Bittersweet, and so much more!
As Susan notes in her book, bittersweetness is a tendency toward 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.
In Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan uses 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. She describes how a bittersweet state of mind is the quiet force that helps us transcend our personal and collective pain, whether from a death, breakup, addiction, or illness. She also explains how we can end up inflicting our own heartache on others via abuse, domination, or neglect if we don’t acknowledge it. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward one another.
Susan calls this a “bittersweet state of mind”: the power we find in longing and sorrow and how it can shape our mental health and lives. This sense of bittersweetness, whether we are watching a sad movie, listening to a sad song, or thinking of something that has happened in the past, allows us connect on a deeper level with both ourselves and others, shaping our lives in ways that enhance the beauty of being alive—of being human.
This sense of sorrow and longing also includes inherited grief. All of us carry around our own losses and sorrow, as well as grief inherited from our parents and ancestors which affects us as well. Indeed, emerging evidence shows how inherited grief even impacts our biology through epigenetics. Biological responses to environmental signals can be inherited through the generations via epigenetic markers in our genetic makeup.
However, epigenetics does not mean that we are trapped by our past. Our brains are neuroplastic, which means they can change. If we remove the signal, the epigenetic mark can fade. If we choose to add a signal, on the other hand, the epigenetic mark can be activated. We are not merely our genes or biology. Our past doesn’t have to be our destiny. How we think and choose to live our lives impacts a big part of the picture, including how we let our inherited grief shape and impact us as individuals and our relationships with our parents and ancestors.
Unfortunately, in our society today, there is often no room to allow for grief and sorrow. We tend to overemphasize positive thinking and overlook the power that human feelings like sadness and longing have to shape and heal us and help us grow. As we see in different religions and wisdom traditions, sadness and grief are powerful aspects of the human condition and can help us connect with some of the most fundamental parts of who we are.
It is okay to experience emotions like sadness, longing and grief. It is through embracing these emotions and understanding what they are telling us about ourselves that we come to understand who we are on a deeper level. We should not just try to replace these feelings with something “positive”. It is only by going through what we experience that we can heal and grow.
Especially when it comes to grief, there is a difference between moving on and moving forward. Moving on implies the need to march on—to move past something or bury what happened. Moving forward, on the other hand, acknowledges the pain and sorrow of what happened while understanding that life continues. It helps us acknowledge that who we are today has been forever changed by what happened to us, but that loss is not something that stays in the past—who we are today moves forward with the love and impact that what was lost had on our life.
For more on sorrow, longing and mental health, listen to my podcast with Susan (episode #475) and check out her amazing book and work. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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1:55 Susan’s journey
5:45 What a bittersweet state of mind is & why it’s important
9:31 Epigenetics & inherited grief
17:45 The downsides of positive thinking
28:30 Mental health & sorrow
31:30 Why everyone should watch the movie Inside Out
35:30, 40:10 The difference between moving on & moving forward
45:00 How sorrow & grief can create meaningful connections
48:50 The deep joy & deep sorrow of being human
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