In today’s culture of “toxic positivity”, Bittersweet by Susan Cain can be read as an antidote. Everyone experiences loss. It is part of the human condition. The world often convinces one for the need to always wear a happy face and brave through the storm. However, bittersweetness is a tendency to the states of longing, sorrow and poignancy. It is an acute awareness of passing time. You probably identify with the bittersweet state of mind if you find inspiration and comfort in a rainy day; or if you have ever wondered why you like sad music; or if you react intensely to art, music, beauty and nature.
The book states that “Sadness, of all things!”, has the power to create a bond among people. Keltner’s “ compassionate instinct” has been explained in detail. It is the idea that we humans are wired to respond to each other’s troubles with care. "Keltner also found that people with especially strong vagus nerves—he calls them vagal superstars—are more likely to cooperate with others and to have strong friendships." One of the strongest bonding mechanisms we have are tears and sorrow. Helping people in need stimulates the same brain region as winning a prize or eating a delicious meal.
The author has added a quiz in the book for the readers to gauge how inclined they are to the bittersweet sensibility. The quiz has been developed by Cain along with research scientist Dr. David Yaden, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and cognitive scientist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Center for the Science of Human Potential. Exploratory studies by Yaden and Kaufman show a high correlation between high scorers on the Bittersweet Quiz and the trait identified by psychologist and author Dr. Elaine Aron as “high sensitivity”. 15 to 20 percent of babies inherit a temperament that predisposes them to react more intensely to life’s uncertainty as well as its glory.
Susan Cain explores different answers to the experience of grief: Realizing that we’re more resilient to grief than we thought. Learning to let go. And connecting to others through the shared experience of grief.
“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of…make it your creative offering.”
Susan Cain, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Crown Publishers, 2022.
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif is a satirical take on the US Foreign Policy. The book was first published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2018. The story is set in the post 9/11 Middle East/Central-South Asia. A teenaged refugee, his pet dog and a US war pilot narrate the story, which encapsulates the absurdities of war, and it's aftermath.
A US pilot, Major Ellie, crash lands in a desert camp and finds refuge in the same camp that he was originally supposed to bomb. Within the camp, a teenaged lad, Momo, is waiting for his elder brother, Bro Ali's, return. Bro Ali vanished following a mysterious transaction with American occupants of the nearby "Hangar".
Besides, Momo is plotting to amass wealth as quickly and smartly as possible. The boys parents are at loggerheads with each other. Meanwhile, Momo's pet dog, Mutt, is least impressed with the current situation at the camp.
A standout character is "Lady Flower body", a keen USAID consultant that aims to study the "teenage Muslim mind". As with every other of Mohammed Hanif's books, there are many relatable and quotable passages. The narrative sheds light on some of the local viewpoints regarding such foreign surveyors and studies. "First they bomb us from the skies, then they work hard to cure our stress..."
The Red Birds, laced with the author's quintessential wit, is an exacting critique of the US policies towards the region post 9/11.
A lecturer and lifestyle consultant by the day; an avid reader and writer by the night, I am a student of life.