02 | Bittersweet Melancholy and Deep Sensitivity

Are you drawn to “sad” music? Do you get deeply moved by bittersweet literature, film, and art?

If so you’re not alone. Life’s bittersweet edges have been enjoyed by human beings throughout history. But why?

What is it about what Susan Cain describes as bittersweet melancholy, that moves us so deeply? And why are we drawn to the enjoyment of what we often refer to as “sad songs”?

I’ve felt the pull of bittersweet melancholy for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I wanted to revisit music and films that had previously made me cry. This kind of beautiful ache and painful beauty has underpinned my relationship with the music I enjoy and the music I create.

Powerful emotions like yearning and longing can shine a light on why some of us find energising, generative and creative joy when we spend time in the melancholic realm of the bittersweet.

In this episode of the podcast, we are going to explore this stuff more deeply. Where do we get the joy of “sad songs and rainy days?” What purpose does this serve? Why is this attributed in particular to highly sensitive people? And how can we cultivate a positive creative relationship with “the inconsolable longing for we know not what”?

Bittersweet Melancholy and Deep Sensitivity
“The Sunset” at Wilpena Pound in South Australia

Bittersweet Longing | 0:34

A recent Haven Sunday Kota meeting was dedicated to this topic. Yearning and longing had come up in our conversations several times over the years. So when we saw that Susan Cain sharing her research around this idea, it felt like a perfect opportunity to dig a little deeper into it.

It was amazing to spend time listening to stories about how art moves us all in different ways. We chatted about memories of hearing particular pieces of music for the first time. And we shared our experiences with so-called sad songs, deep conversations, and poignant experiences in our lives.

What Does Yearning Feel Like? | 3:47

The word ‘yearning’ seems to capture the essence of bittersweet melancholy. It shares the in-between spaces around the edges of our lives with gentleness.

We know how it feels to yearn. We recognise its beautifully painful ache. Yearning is the deep longing for something we know is missing. But this longing is accompanied by the awareness that we can never acquire that missing thing. Because it can’t be perfectly conceptualised, articulated, or defined.

Yearning takes us on a journey through the silence between the notes. It’s the gaps around the words on the page. The space between the brush strokes. Yearning is the emptiness that asks life questions about its meaning and form. And life itself asks the endless question to us…how can we capture the essence of the undefinable?

Fleeting Moments of Bittersweet Beauty | 5:00

Have you ever witnessed something so beautiful it was painful?

A few years ago I visited Wilpena Pound in South Australia with some close friends. On the night we were there, the conditions were perfect for what in my view was an obscenely beautiful sunset.

I felt a bizarre mix of emotions as I paid witness to the moment. There was a deep appreciation of the beauty before me. It felt expansive and warm, like everything about the world was some kind of lavishly excessive gift.

But this was flanked by shadows of foreboding loss. The awareness that this moment would soon disappear below the horizon.

That was what yearning feels like. It both inspires and haunts us.

This is the “bittersweet” that Susan Cain talks about. It’s inside the bitter that the sweet belongs. Not as two sides of a coin, but as an interweaving web that tangles together and cannot be separated.

The important things are not precious despite their fleetingness or fragility, they are precious BECAUSE they are fragile.

The Snowman Will Melt | 8:04

I was five or six when I first watched the notoriously heartwrenching short animated film, The Snowman.

When it finished I didn’t know what had hit me.

But the following Christmas I wanted to watch it again.

I remembered how it felt. I hadn’t forgotten the pain and the tears. And yet something in me wanted to re-live the experience. What had drawn me in? It wasn’t a desire to be destroyed again. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I think I wanted to experience the yearning. The power of deep joy within the cloud of inevitable grief.

Why We Love “Sad” Music | 15:19

Susan Cain defines “bittersweet” as a tendency toward states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow. Where there is an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world.

We don’t have the right words in English to properly describe music. Especially in our everyday conversations. We call songs “happy” or “sad” but that’s not what we mean. Terms like bittersweet, yearning, melancholic, longing, poignant, and moving, help us get closer. But there’s still some way to go.

Bittersweet Art Doesn’t Create Emotion | 21:45

Art moves us when it gives expression to something within us that we’re unable to put into words. It provides fragments of language for feelings, thoughts, and sensations we’ve failed to define.

Despite what we might assume, poignant music isn’t creating a feeling inside us, it is giving our feelings somewhere to find their form. To belong.

What if “sad” songs don’t MAKE us feel sad, but rather they ALLOW us to feel the messy mix of emotions that we otherwise push down and keep at bay?

Everybody Hurts by REM was voted “the saddest song of all time” earlier this year in a survey of 2,000 music lovers conducted by OnePoll.

When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong

Everybody Hurts (REM)

It’s a reassuring, comforting, and compassionate lullaby. The lyrics speak a simple and universal truth that we can all identify with.

It’s moving, it’s emotional, and it might jerks tears. Not because it’s sad, but rather because it’s safe. It speaks to the human condition and the experience of life. EVERYBODY hurts sometimes, regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or what you have. It’s an emotionally cleansing experience.

Are You Homesick and Yearning For A Place That Doesn’t Exist? | 26:14

A lot of sensitive types describe feeling a sense of homesickness for somewhere that doesn’t exist. Or somewhere that they’ve never been.

This kind of homesickness is a way to describe this deep yearning. Susan Cain talks about the pain of separation and the longing for reunion.

This feeling of exile connects us all and drives some of the most wonderful human accomplishments, discoveries, and artistic creations. As well as some of the more dreadful, violent, and destructive projects.

Anemoia, Vellichor, and Mono No Aware | 29:12

Anemoia is nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. “Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.”

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Vellichor is the “strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annexe littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.”

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Mono no aware, while “often considered to be untranslatable, refers to the bittersweet realisation of the ephemeral nature of all things. It is the awareness that everything in existence is temporary. The fleetingness of youth, the fading of romance, and the changing of seasons are not to be mourned, but cherished and appreciated in their impermanence, for that is where their beauty comes from…It has also been referred to as the “ahhh-ness” of life.”

Culture Trip

These put words to something many of us will recognise having felt at times. Like art, they connect with something we feel but maybe struggle to articulate.

In the episode, I mention this beautiful clip of Sigur Ros playing in an abandoned fish processing plant. It’s the momentary return of life to a ghostly space where at some point everything had just stopped.

We Don’t Want What We Think We Want | 34:21

Declaring that the world is scared of the dark, Susan Cain points to the problematic message of toxic positivity in modern culture, which tells us to “smile, get over it, and move on”.

But if we pause and think about it for a moment, we realise longing is what gives life meaning. We find this truth in our favourite stories, in the world’s biggest religions, and it’s “the reason we play moonlight sonatas and build rockets to Mars”.

The Gap is Where the Magic Happens

The shadow is not just something we might embrace if we want to live more authentic lives. It’s actually the soil from which joy itself grows.

When Twin Peaks: The Return was released in 2017, it was the most painfully beautiful experience for me. With one episode per week between May and September, it went against the new norm of binge consumption that had developed over the previous five or six years.

Waiting is not just good for us. It’s the fuel of deep and meaningful enjoyment.

There was a beautiful pain in longing to know what happened next. A yearning for completion alongside the joy of not knowing. I was given the gift of dreaming, wondering, and exploring.

It’s the same pain as not yet knowing who the killer is in a murder mystery. And not knowing how a magic trick is done. It gives rise to a painful yearning. A desperate desire to know.

But the discovery never truly fills the hole. It never makes us whole. Because the joy is in not knowing. And that kind of joy is impossible to bottle. It’s the joy of the in-between and the inconsolable longing for we know not what.

The Inconsolable Longing For We Know Not What | 42:30

Our bittersweet melancholy reminds us that the thing we believe will change everything will only change something (if indeed it changes anything).

It might bring us a moment of satisfaction but it won’t extinguish our life’s yearning. And that’s OK. Because life is all about making peace with the gap between the lines, the silence between the notes, and the space between the brush strokes.

The yearning allows us to keep our dreams alive.

Our Life’s Work and Creative Offering | 51:54

Naomi suggested to Susan, “if you’re this obsessed, it’s because he represents something you long for.” And that sparked the realisation that “Raul was the writing life I’d longed for since I was four”. Her obsession dissipated and she began to own her longing and started out on her writing journey.

Our life’s work begins to grow once we identify where we have offset our personal longing into external things.

We often use objects, people, labels, events, relationships, and other peoples’ creative work as surrogates for our own question of longing. But what do these kinds of obsessions represent?

“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering”

We think we’re waiting for the pain of loss to clear away or disappear. But there are some feelings that can never be eradicated. The trauma and pain of life’s losses, changes, and many experiences of grief.

What if “we transcend grief only when we realize how connected we are with all the other humans who struggle to transcend theirs?”

And what if we can discover that “our broken hearts ARE what connects us” to the story shared by every human being throughout history?

What could this make possible? The creative offering that emerges not despite the pain, but THROUGH it.

Isn’t that why we resonate so deeply with the melancholic bittersweetness in the world around us?

Because it helps us give some definition to the beautiful pain we know life to be.

Further Exploration | 55:55

Patreon | 55:55

In this week’s Extended Play I go deeper into my own relationship with bittersweet melancholia. Why I am completely unable to finish writing “happy songs”. And yet I don’t I have a block when it comes to writing “comedy” songs?

Listen here: https://patreon.com/andymort

The Haven | 58:07


Join me to go deeper in exploring how to build healthier, happier rhythms in the face of a hostile world.

Learn more here: https://the-haven.co

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