Living in the bittersweet
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
I got thinking about the word ‘bittersweet’ after using it in reference to the holiday season for those who have sad anniversaries around this time - and there’s a lot.
I like the word because it’s not just hanging itself on one thing, it’s equally spreading its weight across both ends of the scale.
One definition is: ‘being partly bitter or sad and partly sweet or happy.’
Then I thought to myself. Is everything in life bittersweet? As in, isn’t everything in life open to being bitter or sweet to us. Apart from soft toys and pandas, what on earth could be bitter about them?!
So I started thinking about things we need for survival.
Food. Can literally be sweet, and mostly is thoroughly enjoyable for us in the West, plenty of choice (too much some might say), lots of things to tickle the taste buds, healthy options, enjoyable options, meat, non-meat, dairy, non-dairy, gluten, gluten-free etc etc. Everything to suit what we need. But then too much of it, or too much of the wrong type leads to self-perpetuated obesity, heart disease, diabetes, unhappiness, muffin tops, cankles, fat jokes and moobs. Did you know you can eat yourself to death? King Adolf Frederick sat down for a rather large meal in 1771 on Shrove Tuesday and ate a huge pleasurable feast to prepare for lent, which included: lobster, caviar, kippers, sauerkraut, boiled meats, and turnips (Ha! Who includes turnips on that list?!). Anyway, digestive problems followed which killed him. A lesson to us all. And another reason I won’t be eating turnips anytime soon. See, bittersweet. I don’t need to tell you the bitter side of chocolate and cake, we’ve all been there.
Water. I love water, I love watching it, listening to it, drinking it, showering under it, bathing in it, freezing it, pouring it, splashing it and paddling in it (I’m not really a swimmer). The human body can only survive for about 3 days without water, whereas it can go up to 21 days or more without food. Water is vital to life for everything on the planet. Sweet. And yet, in 2019 236,000 people drowned and lost their lives across the world, 50% of those are people under 30 years old. It’s a leading killer every year. That’s a pretty bitter statistic.
Sex. Vital to human life continuing on the planet, and I won’t go into details on it but it runs the scale from one of the most intimate acts of love and connection between two human beings, through to one of the worst assaults you can commit on another person.
Money. Bit like sex, it’s probably obvious the scale of the amazing works it can achieve and the blessings it can shower on people, literally bringing life, hope and restoration to dire situations. Whereas the abuse of it or the dependence on it, or the withdrawal of it, or the unfairness of it, or the addiction of spending or gambling with it, destroys lives.
Electricity. Enabled people to work after it got dark. Sweet. Enabled people to work after it got dark. Bitter. Both blessed and destroyed us as a human race.
Vehicles. Enabled people to get places quicker, streamlines transport of goods, helps us home with the shopping, allows travel and exploring other cultures, and so much more . Sweet. Kills around 1.3 million people across the world each year. Bitter.
The Internet. Opened up communication like never before, transformed every aspect of our lives. Sweet. Yet 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography, in the UK around half of all 16-17 year olds have recently seen pornography and some figures say a tenth of all 12-13 year olds are addicted to porn, with 75% of parents not knowing this was the case. Bitter statistics that wreck lives in more ways than one.
Relationships and love. I love my husband, we’re great friends, soulmates (if they exist) and mostly it’s on the ‘sweet’ side of the coin, but it won’t always stay there. There are bitter days, hard days, tough times, and sacrifice. One day he or I will die first and that amazingness will be gone, leaving the other one with the knowledge of that absence, making the time left in comparison, bitter. Families - well, you tell me one of those that’s always sweet and I’ll eat my hat, and some people never see a sweet side at all (yet there is the dream of what it could be and the potential of sweetness that always sits there somehow). Even romance - sweet while it’s there, but it can’t last in the same way - bitter. Love - ever known the feeling of truly loving someone but knowing they’re not right for you? A bittersweet emotion if ever there was one, and unrequited love - heartbreakingly bittersweet.
Friendship. A special relationship because it’s a chosen one, not forced upon you, people who want to be with you and know you. Very sweet. Yet when it goes wrong, as it often does when humans are involved, the betrayal is that much more painful, leaving a very bitter taste.
It seems to me almost everything you enjoy in life has the ability to bless and destroy.
Experience life in all possible ways — good-bad, bitter-sweet, dark-light, summer-winter. Experience all the dualities. Don’t be afraid of experience, because the more experience you have, the more mature you become. Rajneesh
So I started thinking about everything we go through in life, is there anything that doesn’t have a bittersweetness to it? I have to admit, if there is, I’m not sure I’ve found it. Apart from pandas.
Anniversaries of deaths. Obviously bitter because of the loss and the sadness, yet they are only sad if what you had, was sweet. If there was no sweetness there, the sadness is not the same, not on that specific day anyway, it might be about the relationship as a whole. Memories of loved ones turn from sweet into bittersweet when they die.
Birthdays. Sweet because it’s a day to celebrate you. Often bitter because you lost another year, someone’s not there, you’re getting older, time is passing you by, there’s no one to celebrate with, it’s raining, no one turned up to the party, you’re not where you hoped to be, the card you’d have liked didn’t come, no one remembered.
So what do I take from all these musings? It strikes me that rarely is something always thoroughly and lastingly sweet, but things can feel thoroughly and lastingly bitter. Or is that all just about how we see things personally?
Can there always be something good to be found in the bitter? Even if it’s that the bitterness has to end at some point?
Can there always be something bitter to be found in the sweet? But we just don’t look for that, because, well, that seems negative.
There’s a plant called Bittersweet Nightshade, a vine-like plant native to Europe and Asia, and widely naturalised elsewhere, including North America. It’s in the same family as tomatoes and potatoes apparently. Anyway, the stem can be used to make medicine and the leaves and berries are poisonous. It literally can bring new life and death in one plant.
It strikes me that a balance in life is key for everything and the same goes for bitter and sweet.
Do not cry because they are past! Smile, because they once were! Ludwig Jacobowski
Which has been paraphrased as; “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” And attributed to all kinds of people who never said it, including Dr Suess.
If your life is looking bitter, I want to encourage you today to find the sweet. And that’s not easy, you might even have pressure from others to stay in the bitter. Sometimes relationships are the bitterness in your life and they need culling or cutting back on, there’s plenty of people that would rather you stay in them and suffer than do something like protect yourself, because it makes them feel better about the situation. I’m learning that sometimes it’s healthy to protect your heart and take one step back, and whenever you step back from something you see the bigger picture, and in my experience that makes it a lot easier to see the sweet things.
When looking up the definition of ‘bittersweet’ I found there’s a book with that title by Shauna Niequist, so I’ve used some of her quotes.
I understand the temptation to draw an angry X through a whole season or a whole town or a whole relationship, to crumple it up and throw it away, to get it as far away as possible from a new life, a new future. But I think that’s both the easiest and the most cowardly choice. These days I’m walking over and retrieving those years from the trash, erasing the X, unlocking the door. It’s the only way that darkness turns to light. Shauna Niequist
And if your life is looking sweet right now, well, cherish it. If there really is two sides to this coin in everything, then those moments that feel completely and entirely sweet need to be held onto and bathed in and truly appreciated, because you know, not everyone gets those in life.
When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow. Shauna Niequist
But don’t live in the sweet, scared of the bitter. And it’s not a bad thing to search for the bitter in the sweet and be aware of it. Sometimes if we only focus on everything going well, when it doesn’t it derails us, rather than strengthen us.
I love the bittersweet. There’s something honest about it, real, realistic. There’s a comfort about knowing life isn’t all happy or all sad, there’s recognition that every time you celebrate it’s ok to feel a bit blue about an aspect of your joy, and every time you’re down it’s healthy to look for something to be thankful for and the small mercies in it. Most of what life throws at you is outside of your control, and many of the sadnesses will fall in that category, so don’t take it personally and beat yourself up for it. If you have a situation in your life that you’ve tried your best in but it still brings you tears, moments of sadness, and a blue feeling when you see something beautiful, then know that it’s ok, and normal, and feel those feelings, name them and be kind to yourself.
Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness. Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Shauna Niequist
I don’t know if this is a season of sweetness or one of sadness. But I’m learning that neither last forever. Shauna Niequist