A year ago I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and I wrote that it was the most I’d felt known by a book in a long time. Well I recently read Cain’s next book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole and… it’s the most I’ve felt known by a book since Quiet. I could not believe how much I resonated with the book, how it put words to parts of who I am that I didn’t quite understand before.

The book is about a concept she calls Bittersweet, related to the ancient concept of melancholy. Some ancient Greeks classified personalities into 4 types: sanguine (warm, pleasant), phlegmatic (calm, peaceful), choleric (excitable, aggressive), and melancholic (analytical, quiet). Cain goes on to define a concept of Bittersweet that is like the melancholic type: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorry; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. Bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death–bitter and sweet–are forever paired. Bittersweet is also about the desire for communion, the wish to go home. As with Introversion, it’s the type Cain personally identifies with most.

I’ve always thought of myself as phlegmatic, but I realize now that I’m melancholic, because after reading the description in the book, there’s so much about it that I resonate with. First, I’ve come to realize that I always have a touch of sadness. My counselor told me a few months in that he thought I had mild depression, nothing clinical, but just a general low-level sadness. I didn’t understand or believe him – I chalked it up to me being tired and having accordingly low energy. But now I think he’s right. As he said, it’s not depression per se. It’s just a pervasive sense of melancholy that I have. My counselor also had me read this Brene Brown book: Atlas of the Heart. I’m not good at identifying my emotions in the moment. This book is exactly what it sounds like, just a list of a bunch of emotions with descriptions. The idea being that if you can recognize what different emotions look like, you can identify them in yourself and others. I think it’s really unusual an emotion in the book I resonate with maybe most of all: Foreboding Joy. That’s when you’re afraid to lean into good news, wonderful moments, and joy – you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop. That emotion is truly me. I am honestly joyful most of the time. But it’s nearly always coupled with a sense that it may disappear, that something bad is going to happen. Jieun learned this about me pretty early on in our marriage – when she calls she learned to start by saying there’s no emergency, because there’s always in the back of my mind a worst-case scenario possibility lingering. Was there an accident? Did something bad happen?

Why am I like this? It’s really complex. Part of it is my Christian conviction that following Jesus must involve suffering, and frankly, I’ve barely suffered in my life so I feel like it’s due. Another is a related emotion I frequently have (Comparative Suffering) that others have it worse so I should be prepared? But at heart, I think it’s just that melancholy I have. For me everything will always be tinged with a touch of sadness.

Additionally, Bittersweets are fundamentally filled with longing and that’s completely me. Like, I’m intensely nostalgic. There have been times when I’ve observed myself being nostalgic at the tail end of an event (trip, event, etc.) that I’m still actually experiencing – that’s how strong my longing for the past can be. My absolute favorite music tends to be sad, stuff that makes me cry, not dance (this is a big part of the intro to the book: why people – Cain in particular – like sad music). My favorite Beatles song is If I Fell. I love Elliott Smith and occasionally get in moods where I listen to XO for hours on repeat (my favorite line on the album – “I wish I’d never seen your face”). And Cain points this out, but Bittersweets are frequently religious because their longing has a transcendent quality. C.S. Lewis (a melancholic) articulated this as an “inconsolable longing” that points to something higher. It’s the heart I think behind St. Augustine’s famous phrase: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” I resonate deeply with this type of longing, and in truth it’s the emotional underpinning of my faith. I feel so strongly in my bones that there is something wrong with this life, with this world, that cannot be fully addressed here, that there just has to be something more, and there has to be a reason I feel this way. It’s not logically defensible, but I can never shake the feeling that there must be more.

Why I loved the book though is not just because it put words to how I feel, but it also convinced me that this sadness is not bad. American culture is centered around the sanguine and choleric – these are seen as productive. Being melancholic, longing for the past, accordingly seems counterproductive. And it’s so centered on positivity that being sad seems unhealthy. It wasn’t always this way and isn’t this way in most places. (Random related fact from the book – Americans smile more in photos than people from other cultures.) The tyranny of positivity in the U.S. causes people to suppress difficult feelings, but research shows that expressing these feelings, integrating pain and suffering in general, actually makes people stronger.

In general, I realize that I had seen my melancholy as a flaw, something to be fixed, and I don’t anymore. There are times it can go too far. Like being so intensely nostalgic for the past that it leads to retroactive fantasizing. Or crossing the line from sorrow to depression. But sorrow and longing are OK. Many people are this way. It is correlated with artistic creativity, a greater sense of compassion, empathy, faith – all good things that make the world better. The book made me happy to be sad.

I have some friends who hate being boxed in, so they chafe at anything – a book, personality test, whatever – that might characterize who they are. I’m exactly the opposite. When I encounter things that describe who I am – this book, the Enneagram – I get completely excited. For me, I don’t feel boxed in; I feel known. That’s a fundamental desire I have, and I think most people have, to be known. But it’s interesting why people respond differently to things like these.

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