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Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole PDF

Author: Susan Cain

Publisher: Crown


Publish Date: April 5, 2022

ISBN-10: 0451499786

Pages: 352

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

One night, I dreamed that I was meeting my friend, a poet named Mariana, in Sarajevo, the city of love. I woke up confused. Sarajevo, a symbol of love? Wasn’t Sarajevo the site of one of the bloodiest civil wars of the late twentieth century?

Then I remembered.

Vedran Smailović.

The cellist of Sarajevo.

It’s May 28, 1992, and Sarajevo is under siege. For centuries, Muslims, Croats, and Serbs have lived together in this city of streetcars and pastry shops, gliding swans in parkland ponds, Ottoman mosques and Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. A city of three religions, three peoples, yet until recently no one paid too much attention to who was who. They knew but they didn’t know; they preferred to see one another as neighbors who met for coffee or kebabs, took classes at the same university, sometimes got married, had children.

But now, civil war. Men on the hills flanking the city have cut the electricity and water supply. The 1984 Olympic stadium has burned down, its playing fields turned into makeshift graveyards. The apartment buildings are pockmarked from mortar assaults, the traffic lights are broken, the streets are quiet. The only sound is the crackling of gunfire.

Until this moment, when the strains of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor[*] fill the pedestrian street outside a bombed-out bakery.

Do you know this music? If not, maybe you should pause and listen to it right now:​watch?v=kn1gcjuhlhg. It’s haunting, it’s exquisite, it’s infinitely sad. Vedran Smailović, lead cellist of the Sarajevo opera orchestra, is playing it in honor of twenty-two people killed yesterday by a mortar shell as they lined up for bread. Smailović was nearby when the shell exploded; he helped take care of the wounded. Now he’s returned to the scene of the carnage, dressed as if for a night at the opera house, in a formal white shirt and black tails. He sits amidst the rubble, on a white plastic chair, his cello propped between his legs. The yearning notes of the adagio float up to the sky.

All around him, the rifles fire, the shelling booms, the machine guns crackle. Smailović keeps on playing. He’ll do this for twenty-two days, one day for each person killed at the bakery. Somehow, the bullets will never touch him.

This is a city built in a valley, ringed by mountains from which snipers aim at starving citizens in search of bread. Some people wait for hours to cross the street, then dart across like hunted deer. But here’s a man sitting still in an open square, dressed in concert finery, as if he has all the time in the world.

You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello in a war zone, he says. Why don’t you ask THEM if they’re crazy for shelling Sarajevo?

His gesture reverberates throughout the city, over the airwaves. Soon, it’ll find expression in a novel, a film. But before that, during the darkest days of the siege, Smailović will inspire other musicians to take to the streets with their own instruments. They don’t play martial music, to rouse the troops against the snipers, or pop tunes, to lift the people’s spirits. They play the Albinoni. The destroyers attack with guns and bombs, and the musicians respond with the most bittersweet music they know.

We’re not combatants, call the violinists; we’re not victims, either, add the violas. We’re just humans, sing the cellos, just humans: flawed and beautiful and aching for love.

A few months later. The civil war rages on, and the foreign correspondent Allan Little watches as a procession of forty thousand civilians emerges from a forest. They’ve been trudging through the woods for forty-eight hours straight, fleeing an attack.

Among them is an eighty-year-old man. He looks desperate, exhausted. The man approaches Little, asks whether he’s seen his wife. They were separated during the long march, the man says.

Little hasn’t seen her but, ever the journalist, asks whether the man wouldn’t mind identifying himself as Muslim or Croat. And the man’s answer, Little says years later, in a gorgeous BBC segment, shames him even now, as he recalls it across the decades.

I am,” said the old man, “a musician.”



Title Page



Author’s Note


Introduction: The Power of Bittersweet

Part I: Sorrow and Longing: How can we transform pain into creativity, transcendence, and love?

Chapter 1: What is sadness good for?

Chapter 2: Why do we long for “perfect” and unconditional love? (And what does this have to do with our love of sad songs, rainy days, and even the divine?)

Chapter 3: Is creativity associated with sorrow, longing—and transcendence?

Chapter 4: How should we cope with lost love?

Part II: Winners and Losers: How can we live and work authentically in a “tyranny of positivity”?

Chapter 5: How did a nation founded on so much heartache turn into a culture of normative smiles?

Chapter 6: How can we transcend enforced positivity in the workplace, and beyond?

Part III: Mortality, Impermanence, and Grief: How should we live, knowing that we and everyone we love will die?

Chapter 7: Should we try to live forever?

Chapter 8: Should we try to “get over” grief and impermanence?

Chapter 9: Do we inherit the pain of our parents and ancestors? And, if so, can we transform it generations later?

Coda: How to Go Home





By Susan Cain

About the Author

A Reader’s Guide

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