One of the hardest things I’ve dealt with in the past few years has been losing my dad. He was young — 69 years old and went in for corrective back surgery to deal with unbearable daily back pain from a botched procedure a decade earlier. Living on pain meds … hunched over and suffering with extreme vertigo — barely able to stand up and walk for five minutes — is no way to live. This was his shot at a return to a quality of life he used to know. The surgery was actually a huge success, and I saw him stand up straight for the first time in years. But shortly after recovering and relocating to the physical therapy unit of the hospital, he caught a common virus. His body was weak from all the trauma and not able to fight off whatever was attacking his system, and he died the next day. I’ve been reeling and reflecting on his life and death ever since.
When I found out Susan Cain had a new book on the subject of sorrow and melancholy, I reached out immediately to get an advance copy. I’m so glad I did, because it has helped me sit with and process my feelings quite a bit. Cain is a prolific writer, speaker, and thinker and one of my favorites. She wrote a book several years prior that had a profound effect on me called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She’s worked with the Next Big Idea Club with Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. She’s given hugely popular Ted Talks, and now she continues her work with her latest offering, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.
For Cain, the idea of longing is something she’s very familiar with. As a child, she knew she wanted to be a writer, but that dream took a long time to come to fruition. She tells me that in her youth, her father encouraged her creative expression with writing, but also encouraged her to take a career path that would provide for her financial security. So, even though she longed to be a writer, Cain practiced law for many years.
“My father sat me down one day and said, ‘You know, it’s really nice to dream of being a writer, but when you’re 30 and 40 and you can’t pay the bills, it’s not going to feel that great, ‘ she says. “As he said it, I was resisting fiercely, but I was also thinking in the back of my mind, Well, he kind of has a point. And so the practical side of me rose up, [and] I went to law school. I really was the most likely lawyer in so many ways, but I actually ended up loving law school. I found it completely intellectually fascinating, and my first few years of practicing law I also really loved too.”
Eventually, there was a moment of clarity for Cain where she realized that writing was where she needed to be, and she’s never looked back. For her, the power of her longing to write was more powerful than a desire to be “financially stable” and have a law career.
I ask what kind of symbols spoke to her to make this abrupt career transition, and she says that the entire time she was practicing law she had this dream of living in a specific neighborhood of Greenwich Village that had been the home to many writers and poets in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“You felt everywhere the ghosts of the artists and the writers who had lived there,” she says. “The streets were lined with plaques dedicated to them… I just really wanted to live in that place and in one of those homes.”
After that, she experienced a pretty major life transition. She left the law firm she was in and she also left a long-term relationship. She said around that time she fell into a kind of “obsessive” relationship with a lyricist and musician. She says she had never felt so consumed over a partner and she couldn’t shake why. It was a loving friend who helped her get clarity on this.
“It was one of those obsessions that you can’t get your mind out of, and I confided in a friend about it and I would always be regaling her with stories of him, and one day she looked at me and said, ‘If you’re this obsessed, it’s because he represents something that you’re longing for. What are you longing for?’ And the second she said it, I realized I was longing for the writing life, and he represented that to me because he lived in this world of words and music and art, and it was the world I had wanted to live in all along. “
Cain said in that moment the obsession over the guy she’d been dating disappeared and she realized that if you’re longing for something then you need to pay attention to it and figure out how to carve a path toward it. If something in your heart or mind won’t shut up, listen. After that moment, Cain started writing seriously and oriented her whole life around writing.
Even now that she’s achieved the career goal and life she dreamed of many years ago, Cain tells me that the longing continues, in different ways, and it became a topic she had to explore for this latest book.
“I have been on the path of longing,” she says. “I have been looking at our wisdom traditions … psychology, neuroscience … and what I’ve come to realize is the most fundamental aspect of humanity is the longing for a more perfect and beautiful world. And we express that in a thousand different ways. Religions express it through the longing for Mecca or Zion … in the Sufi tradition it’s the longing for the beloved of the soul. The Wizard of Oz Expresses it as somewhere over the rainbow. Creative people see a gap between that which they desire and that which is, and the whole reason we’re creative in the first place is we’re propelled to fill that gap in whatever way we are given to do it. It’s going to look different for every individual.”
Cain tells me that one of the ways her spirit experiences longing is through music. She explains to me that it’s not just the fun and happy music that gets her, it’s the more sad, melancholy music that stirs deep emotions in her. This is something I can relate to myself, and I’m sure many of us can. Of course, upbeat, positive, major-key music is fun and exciting, but sorrowful music can often tap into something deeper. An emotional feeling that yanks at the heartstrings and allows us to contemplate our own life and state of being.
“All my life, I have been drawn to minor key, bittersweet music,” she says. “Leonard Cohen is my patron saint. That song ‘Hallelujah’ I’ve been listening to for decades. When I was actually still in law school, some friends came to my dorm room to pick me up for class and I was blasting out Leonard.” Cohen on my stereo speakers, and my friends were like, why are you listening to this funeral music? And I laughed and we went to class, but I thought about that question for the next 25 years. culture a funny joke to be listening to music like that, but more to the point, what is it about that music? Because that music does not make me feel sad, it makes me feel uplifted. a kind of awe that a musician could transform the sorrow and pain that all humans must know into something that beautiful. And you feel connected with all of humanity.”
Cain wanted to explore this idea. The power of sadness. She tells me she did a huge amount of research, including talking with Pete Doctor, writer and director of Pixar’s Inside Out. She wanted to understand the power of melancholy, and it all stemmed from this question she had of why do we, as a people, like to listen to sad music.
“I discovered that these states that we don’t necessarily want to inhabit, but that we do, these states of sorrow and longing, which are part of life experience, are one of the great gateways that we have to creativity and to connection and love. We are living in a time … in a hopelessly divided time, and also in a time that tells us not to express that aspect of human experience. It’s a waste of a hidden power, because if we could freely be accessing these states it would be able to bring us together and bring us to joy and creativity. Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make that your offering, your creative offering.”
I love the idea that Cain is presenting here. So many of us grew up sort of fearing pain and sadness, and now we’re learning more and more through our own experiences, but also through work like Susan Cain’s, that sorrow, melancholy, and longing are just part of the whole experience of being a person. And not shying away from these more painful emotions makes us better people and leads us toward more well-rounded lives. Still, as much as Cain loves the idea of leaning into the melancholy of life, she feels that it’s important to see a difference between that and struggling with depression.
“I think it’s really important to make a distinction between depression and bittersweetness. My point is not to glorify depression; it’s extremely painful. I believe the issue is that we do not have in our culture a way of distinguishing between depression, which is a kind of emotional black hole, and melancholy, which is a normal part of human experience and one of the most generative parts of human experience. , and the difference has been there for thousands of years, but we’ve lost it in very recent times. Aristotle asked the question of why it is that so many of the great philosophers, politicians, and poets of his age were melancholic by nature And yet you look at modern psychology and that’s all erased. The difference between a generative, productive melancholy versus an unseeded depression. g back that language.”
More with Susan Cain here: