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Taking the Bitter With the Sweet

Let me say right off that I probably don't qualify as a "bittersweet" person, as author Susan Cain describes them. I've never liked Leonard Cohen (sorry, Susan) and, while I do love the occasional minor key piece, my musical tastes run to the upbeat. I consider myself an incurable optimist--although also a realist.

Yet I highly recommend this book. For all my optimism, part of me has always revolted against America's jingoistic positivism. I'm a guy who mutes commercials because I can't stand the hype. In Bittersweet, Cain takes on what's wrong with our sadness-denying culture. In terms fearless and personal, this book shows the way to a fuller life.

Cain does not argue we should all become angst-infused poets, denying the spontaneous joy and sincere happiness we all crave. Rather, citing many of the world's great religious and wisdom traditions, she claims we must take the bitter with the sweet--that both are essential parts of life, the yin and yang linked forever in the dance of life.

I could not agree more. As a history teacher who regularly taught about the Holocaust, American slavery, and the rest of the past's horrors, I always sought to balance those tough lessons with the many heroes history also provides--many of them responding to the very same horrors.

A theme Cain returns to often in the book is the world of perfection we all long for: heaven, nirvana, call it what you will. Even as life deals each of us its inevitable sorrows, we can respond with hope. We don't need to deny the sorrows--in fact, they paradoxically bind us together in a shared humanity. Facing life's bitterness openly, and creating workplace and public cultures that allow us to do so, is healthy, and Cain lays out many wonderful suggestions for making that happen.

Cain bravely reveals many of her own darkest moments--this book is part memoir, and richly so. But she also shares how she found her way forward. This book may well help you do the same.

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