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Savor the light and the dark

Betty Firth
Posted 12/20/23

Here in the midst of the holidays at the darkest time of the year, it feels right to explore the layers of light and dark that we experience in many ways in our lives. Author Susan Caine, through her …

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Savor the light and the dark


Here in the midst of the holidays at the darkest time of the year, it feels right to explore the layers of light and dark that we experience in many ways in our lives. Author Susan Caine, through her book, “Bittersweet,” has helped me process and articulate some of my perceptions and life experiences. She had long appreciated and even felt love listening to music that others considered sad or funereal; she felt awed by the artists’ abilities to transform pain into something beautiful. Her history and research brought her to the realization that she was experiencing melancholy, which she calls “bittersweet: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world.”
She points out it is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired, as articulated in an Arabic proverb, “Days of honey, days of onion.” A parallel Buddhist saying is “No mud, no lotus.” I have long recognized that while my roller coaster, intense moods were sometimes troubling and exhausting, they could also be exhilarating, and that if I didn’t experience the lows – the darker moods, empathetically feeling the pains and sorrows of the world around me and within me – I wouldn’t be able to feel the intense awe and joy that pierce my being when encountering beautiful music, art, sunsets, thunderstorms, the love of a friend. Thanks to Caine, now I have names for that mixture of feelings.
Philosophers and artists have long been inspired by the painful beauty in awe-filled experiences and often wondered about this “paradox of tragedy.” Aristotle wondered 2,000 years ago why the great poets, philosophers, artists, and politicians often have melancholic personalities. Ordinary people experience the sharpened focus and appreciation of things that are fleeting or that they are losing, such as a beautiful symphony or a friend moving away. People who are dying often report the peace they feel, savoring the time left to them, relieved of other pressing concerns.
Neuroscientists have shown that people respond more deeply to sad or melancholic music in minor keys than to happy tunes in major keys, associating them with “profound beauty, deep connection, transcendence, nostalgia, and common humanity––the so-called sublime emotions.” A kind of catharsis and homeostasis can happen as we listen to yearning music, a balancing of our emotions and physiology. Lullabies around the world are often mournful or bittersweet, and studies have shown that babies in intensive care listening to such music have stronger breathing, feeding patterns and heart rates than babies hearing other kinds of music.
As Caine continued to ponder and research life’s persistent questions, she realized something more elemental and profound about sadness: it triggers compassion, and compassion is what brings us together, allowing us to empathize. The literal meaning of the word “compassion” is “to suffer together.”
Furthermore, Caine learned from Dacher Keltner’s research that human beings are wired to respond with care to each other’s troubles, which he called “the compassionate instinct.” Keltner, psychologist and founder of the University of California Berkeley Social Interaction Lab and Greater Good Science Center, is one of the world’s foremost emotion scientists with over 200 scientific articles and six books to his name. He explains that “sadness generates compassion, a pro-social emotion, an agent of connection and love.”
He discovered that our nervous systems make little differentiation between our own pain and that of others. Testing of the vagus nerve shows one of the several ways our nervous system demonstrates compassionate responses. The vagus nerve is the largest bundle of nerves in our bodies. It connects the brain stem to the neck and torso affecting multiple, critical functions of digestion, breathing, sex, heart rate, skin sensations, taste, mood, and immune system. Keltner discovered that while the vagus nerve reacts to our personal pain, it also fires when we witness others suffering, even in a photo, such as a person cringing in pain or a child crying. Just think of the fundraising appeals with images of emaciated, large-eyed children pleading for your help. Have you felt the pain and sorrow in your own body when you see war-torn cities and people? Perhaps you are even moved to tears.
C.S. Lewis wrote of the “insoluble longing for we know not what.” Many interpret this as longing for a soul mate, believing that would make their lives complete. But the longing goes beyond that, searching for belonging and meaning in our lives. The Sufis express it as the longing for the Beloved, God, or “the One.” Artists and writers often strive to express that ephemeral something, just out of reach. Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” speaks eloquently of our longing: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…wherever you are, no matter how lonely…the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Listening to the geese honking overhead in their lovely, organized flight pattern as they migrate south can elicit that sense of beauty and loss: Wait, don’t leave! It’s too soon!”
America has a culture of positivity (some would say toxic positivity) and so tends to fear the emotions of sorrow and longing. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association see melancholia only as a subtype of major depressive disorder. We are encouraged to look on the bright side, put on a happy face... things are bound to get better, and for goodness sake, don’t talk about difficult things in your life or show who you really are in your workplace or other gathering places. The cost to our well-being is considerable, and studies have shown the benefits of increasing authenticity in the places we inhabit, but that’s fodder for another column. How that relates to this season is that I think the Christmas season allows us to freely express more, smiling, laughing, loving, and crying; to give good wishes and gifts even to peripheral people in our lives. Freedom to exult in and complain about all the hubbub: gifts to be purchased, travel plans, challenging weather to overcome; to reveal the values and importance of their faiths; to sing together; to celebrate together; to miss family and friends far away; to face the dark together and yearn for the light. Even the grinches and curmudgeons can find like-minded others to commiserate with.
I think this season of Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstice, and Kwanzaa, with the new year about to begin, brings a communal longing for better lives, a better world. We ask ourselves, “Why can’t we carry the Christmas spirit throughout the rest of the year?” “Why can’t we do better?” The fighting and oppression in other countries comes into sharp contrast with our freedom and relative peacefulness. The bigotry, racism, polarization, and greed in our country are heartbreaking. Why is it so hard for us to recognize our common humanity, when at the heart of it, we all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones? This is indeed a bittersweet season when joy and sorrow abound. As of Friday, we will have one more second of daylight. May peace be with you.