6 min read

Beauty in sadness

Beauty in sadness
Photo by Grant Whitty / Unsplash

In her new book, Bittersweet, Susan Cain delves into the mysterious power and beauty of melancholy and sorrow. Why do people listen to sad songs on our playlists more often than happy ones—in other words, why are we drawn to states of longing? This tendency towards bittersweet, she argues, “is about the desire for communion, the wish to go home.”

bitter sweet

Susan Cain is not religious—not conventionally in any case—but she draws from religious literature across diverse traditions, as well as the work of psychologists, scientists, and artists, to unpack the deep sense of longing that we carry within us, the yearning for something unattainable. And yet this longing may betray a deeper promise—it points to something we are made for. In the words of C. S. Lewis, whom she quotes, it is an “inconsolable longing” for “the place where all the beauty came from.”

Our sorrows and longings can be transformed—into art, music, healing, innovation. If it goes untransformed, our pain can become something we inflict on others through violence, abuse, domination; but it can also turn us towards each other. “[O]ur longing,” Cain says, “is the great gateway to belonging.”

[L]onging is momentum in disguise: It's active, not passive; touched with the creative, the tender, and the divine. We long for something, or someone. We reach for it, move toward it.... The word yearning is linguistically associated with hunger and thirst, but also desire. In Hebrew, it comes from the same root as the word for passion. The place you suffer, in other words, is the same place you care profoundly—care enough to act.

These themes of longing, passion, and suffering have been on my mind recently in relation to some of the music that has deeply moved me in the last few days. In the Christian tradition, we're just about to celebrate Easter (which is tomorrow as of this writing), and I'm trying to put together things that connect in my head but it's still half-baked. I hope these reflections will be generative in some way, even if you don't consider yourself religious in any way.


The musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s famous Pieta may be the 13th century song Voi Ch’amate Lo Criatore. It’s an especially apt hymn for Good Friday, a haunting lament that expresses the pain of Mary, mother of Jesus, who has just watched her son’s brutal execution.

The translation goes something like this:

You who love the Creator / Turn your thoughts to my sorrow
For I am Mary, whose heart is sad / Whose son was Christ: / He who was my hope and dearest possession / Was crucified for sinners
O beautiful and delicate head / How I see you bowed down / Your hair is encrusted with blood / Even your beard is stiffened
O beautiful and delicate mouth, / I see you completely shut / You were quenched with gall and vinegar / How sad and sorrowful is my heart
You who love the Creator / Turn your thoughts to my sorrow

I don’t have (and hope never to have) the personal experience of watching my child suffer and die. It’s a horrific thought. So how is it that we are able to experience beauty in this? How is it that art is capable of transforming pain into beauty?


A second example is more contemporary, My Mind by Yebba. Even if you've heard the song, you've really got to watch this performance:

I came across it a few days ago and it moved me to tears. I tried to figure out why and here's the best I can come up with: Her expression of the emotion that the lyrics convey is so perfect I can’t imagine what it would mean to transmit them any better. Sadness, heartache, and rage—all are translated into music, reflected in everything from the melody to the vocal inflections to her expressions and gestures.

But clearly, the experience that the words represent is not beautiful. In both laments, there is ugliness. In the first song, there’s the cruelty of crucifixion and death, the pain of the mother who watches her son’s torture and execution. In the second, there’s betrayal, heartbreak, grief, and rage.

A key aspect of beauty here is in the ability of art to make solidarity possible. It helps me know that my deepest pain is not something I bear on my own. Someone else understands me, knows my pain. Not only is it a recognition of my own pain, but it creates the capacity to empathize even when I have not shared the same experience of pain.

It’s been decades since I’ve experienced anything even close to the kind of heartache that Yebba conveys in her song. But her performance allows me to imagine (and even vicariously experience) something I might otherwise struggle to. It helps me connect to the pain she conveys; it makes me capable of greater compassion. This is another key theme in Cain’s book. As she quotes the words of Berkley psychologist Dacher Keltner: “Sadness is about caring. And the mother of sadness is compassion.”

Reading Bittersweet, it strikes me that compassion and solidarity are also at the heart of various works of art that reflect the theme of Good Friday. They call us beyond sentimentality (“Poor Mary!”) towards solidarity with those who suffer and are in pain.

The Christian claim is that Jesus in his Passion (i.e., suffering) takes on the suffering of all humanity—not only all the sorrow, rejection, and abandonment we experience, but also all the pain we inflict on others. He experiences both the pain I experience when I am betrayed, but also the pain caused by my betrayals. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me,” he says. Works of art depicting such suffering can open us up to recognize both that we do not suffer alone and that we, too, cause others to suffer. And they can help us to recognize, in all who suffer, the crucified one.

They are also an invitation to transform our pain into beauty. “Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering,” Susan Cain says. Christians, similarly, are called to unite their pain and suffering with that of Jesus, which opens the possibility, through their suffering, to be in solidarity with others, at the service of others.

Even if you are not a Christian or a theist, there is a strange beauty in this story—at least, this is something that struck me before I became a Christian: all the pain I experience and all the pain I cause coincide. And the point at which they coincide is a man who has completely emptied himself for the sake of love.

But the story moves beyond the beauty of tragedy. The possibility of redemption in this story only exists because of the resurrection, because the crucified man conquers death and is someone we can encounter. Peter experiences forgiveness for his betrayals of Jesus (simply with the repeated questions, “Do you love me?” without any punishment) only in his encounters with the risen Jesus.

The beauty in this story is that it moves from catastrophe to what JRR Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe,” the reversal of tragedy. As he defines it, it is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears." He goes on to write that euatastrophe "produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

This is the inconsolable longing, this return to home, that Lewis and Cain write about. As Tolkien puts it:

The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story–and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

I wish you all a Happy Easter – i.e., may you experience the joy of eucatastrophe, the joy that fulfills your deepest longings.

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