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House Calls Podcast
How Do We Navigate the Joy and Sorrow of Being Human?
With guest Susan Cain,
Author and Speaker

Description

What is the feeling you get when a sad, familiar song tugs at you? Or the exquisite pain that comes with the awareness of passing time and loves lost? Best-selling author Susan Cain identifies the simultaneous mixture of joy and sorrow in life as 'bittersweetness'. In this conversation with the Surgeon General, we learn about harnessing the forces of sadness and grief as ways of connecting. Light and dark, birth and death, the bitter and sweet are forever paired. Accepting this balance can bring comfort and solace to the experience of loss, which Cain sees as part of life's journey. Join in to understand how we can transform pain into beauty and longing into belonging.

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Transcript

Vivek Murthy

Hello and welcome to House Calls. I'm Vivek Murthy and I have the honor of serving as U.S. Surgeon General. I'd like to introduce you to Susan Cain, bestselling author and award-winning speaker. We believe conversations can be healing. And today, we'll be talking about the power of a bittersweet outlook. and how we can transform pain into beauty. In this episode, we explore the simultaneous joy and sorrow of life. I have been so excited to talk to Susan Cain. She's well known for her bestselling book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.” It struck such a powerful chord around the world, including for me as an introvert. And it's been translated into over 40 languages. And her TED talk on that subject has been viewed more than 40 million times. I wanted to speak with Susan on House Calls about her latest exploration, bittersweetness. This is the simultaneous experience of joy and loss. Susan explores this in her new book, “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.” And I wanted to explore with her what bittersweetness means for our lives, how we can move through pain, and how recognizing this in a culture so focused on happiness might help us get through the deeply challenging times together. Susan experienced her own deep losses during the pandemic. So part of this conversation is about her journey with grief and how she feels connected to pain and beauty at the same time. We explore how Susan understands the coexistence of these seemingly conflicting emotions as part of life, and how she integrates that understanding into daily practices we can all use. What I love about this conversation is Susan's honesty and realness as she talks about experiences that we've all had but often don't share. And what I hope you'll take away from this conversation is that pain and sadness are part of the human experience and can in fact sharpen our ability to find beauty and experience compassion and empathy. Just like life in general this morning didn't pan out as planned. My kids woke up sick, so I needed to stay home with them. It turns out Susan had a similar situation, so we started talking about that and jumped into the recording in a conversation about bittersweet as we thought we would let you in on this “cold open” and experience with us the rawness and unpredictability of life.

Vivek Murthy

I woke up this morning and my son had a fever and I thought, you know, we just have to keep him home. So I'm with him today. So if you hear any noises in the background or anything like that, or if a small child crawls into my lap, you know, about halfway through our conversation, you'll know why.

Susan Cain

Yeah, I totally understand. Don't you feel lucky that you can be home with him?

Vivek Murthy

Oh, incredibly lucky. Absolutely. You know, it's I know for so many parents, that's their instinct when their child is sick to be home with them. But it's so hard for so many parents who are working jobs where they don't have flexibility. And and I think that’s a real challenge. It's one of the many things, I think that has made parenting so tough even before the pandemic is that lack of flexibility with work to be there for your family?

Susan Cain

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I hope I. How old is he?

Vivek Murthy

He's six, just turned six.

Susan Cain

Oh, okay. Okay. I hope he gets better soon.

Vivek Murthy

Thank you. And I hope your son feels better, too. I’m so sorry he has COVID.

Susan Cain

Yeah. Thank you. Okay. Mm hmm.

Vivek Murthy

And Susan, we can just jump into our conversation, which I'm so excited about having. First, congratulations on the book, by the way, which was absolutely amazing. My wife and I downloaded the audio version of the book and listened to that, and it was just so beautifully done. Not surprisingly, because your first book, “Quiet” or your your prior prior but Quiet was just such a masterpiece. And for my wife and I as introverts I know that book really spoke to us and I know to millions of other people around the world. So I think we're also glad that you wrote another book, although I know how much it probably took out of you in terms of just time and energy. But thank you for for doing that.

Susan Cain

Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much. Yeah. You know, it's funny, we were talking a little bit before, I guess we, you know, hit the record button. But for me, the actual writing of a book, even though “Bittersweet,” just like “Quiet,” took me years and years and years and years. The actual writing is like no problem whatsoever. It's when I go into book promotion and publicity mode that that that's more what takes it out of me. And I really notice the difference because when I'm just writing a book, I never feel like I need a vacation. I'm not particularly looking forward to vacation. It's something that I do because I enjoy the time with family and my family needs it, but I don't need it for my own self. But then as soon as I get into publicity mode and like when and when is that vacation? When is that trip? It's just a completely different mentality.

Vivek Murthy

That is fascinating. I, I wish I had your writing's sort of skill set then, because to me it's like with book writing that is actually the painful part for me is the actual writing itself and sharing it with the community feels easier in some ways. So that's we're all different, I suppose. So Susan, for so many people feeling sad and feeling down and experiencing melancholy is is the negative in their minds, a state that has no benefit, a state to be avoided. And one of the things that I really love about your book is you're helping us think differently about those moments of sadness. And even the title of your book, “Bittersweet,” I think, is is powerful because that title itself conveys that there are two sides to that experience, and there may be something positive that we can glean from that. But as know if you could talk a little bit about the inspiration for writing this book and why did you feel called to help us deepen our understanding of sadness and melancholy?

Susan Cain

Well, so I don't like feeling sad and melancholic any more than any other human does. And at the same time, there there is something there. And I first noticed it through music, and it's something that I've noticed all my life that if you start paying attention to so much of the music that we all listen to, there's so much longing in it, there's so much melancholy in so much of our beloved music, you know? And this is whether it's classical music or pop or rap, doesn't matter what we're listening to, you know, there's there's longing there. And I couldn't figure out why this was not not just that the longing was in it, but that there's some there's an experience that we have when we listen to that kind of music where it's like you're not just enjoying the music, you're feeling like transcended above your normal self and you're feeling a sense of uplift and a sense of connection to humanity. And I thought, what the heck is that? And why does it feel so incredibly profound? And at first I was just kind of curious about that question of music, but as I started digging into it, I realized that there's this whole tradition and all our wisdom traditions and their artistic and literary traditions that for centuries, all over the world have noticed that this, this experience of bittersweetness and this understanding that this is a world in which joy and sorrow are forever paired and that everything is impermanent, that there's something in that awareness that unleashes our creativity and our sense of connection to each other and our sense of transcendence, frankly. And yet we're living in a culture that tells us not to talk about those kinds of emotions. You know, you're only supposed to talk about the positive experience side of the ledger. And in doing that, I think we're really impoverishing ourselves. I mean, first of all, we're telling we're basically saying don't, don't tell the truth of who you are and how you feel. But we're also cutting off some of our best selves, you know, the selves that are the most creative, the most kind of tender, the most connected to the divine. You could say whether you're an atheist or a believer, it doesn't matter. There's a sense of a kind of magic that comes with those moments.

Vivek Murthy

This point about us hiding our moments of sadness or even at times feeling ashamed that we're not upbeat and positive all the time, I think is such a real thing in society. And I worry, you know, about our kids. I mean, you and I both have children. And I think a lot about what they're learning and what cues they're taking from the folks around them. And I do worry about our kids feeling that they can't express or acknowledge the actual feelings that they're going through. The other piece you mentioned, though, which I think is so powerful, is that is about our music and our art and how these moments of sadness and melancholy are reflected in so much of the music that we enjoy. One of the things in your book that made me laugh is I know that you're a big Leonard Cohen fan and love his music, but there's a line where you also mention that your friends, I believe, asked you why it is that you seem to gravitate toward funeral music, I think, as they put it. But tell us a little bit about that, that musical journey for you. Like, why does Leonard Cohen's music speak so deeply to you and and what do you feel it evokes within you?

Susan Cain

So yeah, I've been listening to his music for decades, literally, like I've just loved him for decades, and I never really paid too much attention to why that was. I just knew it was so. And and it was really only with researching this book that I kind of tried to figure it out and, you know, maybe his son said it best. His son did an interview with the legendary producer Rick Rubin, and Leonard Cohen son, Adam Cohen, who's also a musician. And and Adam Cohen talked about how in all of Leonard Cohen's music there is like this sense of of this being a broken world, but at the same time, like at the same time, that there's always a hallelujah in it. And so he he described all of his music as a transcendence delivery machine. And he said, like, the way the way that cigarettes are a delivery system for nicotine, that Leonard Cohen's songs are a delivery mechanism for transcendence. And so you think that you're going into it listening to something that's kind of gloomy or an erotic song, because he wrote a lot about that and it's really like taking you straight to transcendence. He had a quote that I just came across not long ago, or he said something like, you know, I don't remember the exact words, but basically this is a world that we can't make sense of and a world that disappoints us in so many ways. And you can either shake your fist at it or you can say Hallelujah. Mm hmm. And yeah. And I think that's what the philosophy of bittersweetness tells us. Like, you know, not not to ignore the problems of the world and not to ignore its broken bits, but to to see them and embrace them and try to do something about them and see all the beauty at the same time.

Vivek Murthy

Mm hmm. That's so powerful and in anything, the word bittersweet itself. I think it was such a great choice, I think, for the title for this book, because it really does help, I think, underscore this notion that there there is another side to the sadness and pain and something that it can add to our lives, a dimension to our vision that it can add. And there was something a part of your book, which I what really struck me, which is where you talked about the experiences, sadness and pain as a as opening a doorway to more compassion in our lives. And that I found very interesting for a bunch of reasons, but in particularly when I think about where we are now as a country and as a world, we're experiencing so much pain, so much sadness in part because of this pandemic that we've gone through, in part because of the hardships that people are experiencing. Yet we know that we need more compassion, like in the world that feels often like we're so divided that we don't understand each other. How could we transform that experience of of pain into deeper compassion? Curious what you think that might look like.

Susan Cain

So the word compassion, it literally means to suffer with to suffer with someone. And we do know, you know, as I wrote about in the book, especially from the work of Dacher Keltner at Berkeley, we know that human beings are actually primed kind of viscerally and physically to respond to each other's distress with with compassion. And he he traces how, you know, Darwin was was actually one of the first people to notice this and write about it. He wrote about it in The Descent of Man and how Darwin is known as, you know, he's basically known for survival of the fittest. But Darwin, but Darwin was actually this very gentle, melancholic type of personality who noticed all the the cruelty in the animal world and among humans and was kind of distressed by it. But he also noticed at the same time how among mammals and humans we have this kind of visceral thing that we do when we see another being in distress. We kind of like we feel it ourselves, we feel it vicariously and we react. And Dacher Keltner, his Berkeley professor, has traced that in the vagus nerve that that are vagus nerves, which are like the biggest bundle of nerves in our bodies, react upon the sight of someone in distress. So all of that is to say that this is very visceral and fundamental. It shouldn't take us that much, really, to tap into it, because it's so much wired into us. I actually thought what we need is to find ways to come together to tell each other our stories, you know, especially especially if we're talking about group, you know, red to blue, blue to red, you know, groups where there's conflict just to tell each other stories about quite apart from policy prescriptions or ideas or political programs or anything like that. We need ways to just, like, relate to each other and share and open up. And, you know, in in the book, I talked about various kind of case studies of places where people had done this, even in cultures where you would think that that kind of talk would not would be kind of frowned upon. I talked about a Harvard Business case study of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which is very kind of traditionally macho culture, where the leader his name was, Rick Fox, decided he needed to shift the culture. And he brought his colleagues and his guys together in this program where they from morning till night, they were kind of like opening up to each other and talking about their their stories. And as a result, not only did they come together more, but the accident rate on that rig plummeted. I think it was by 84%. And their productivity went up because suddenly people were now comfortable telling each other not only about their personal lives, but also, you know, if they didn't know how to do something, like if they didn't know how to particular piece of machinery worked, they were now more comfortable to be able to say so instead of, you know, having to have the facade of everything's okay, everything's positive. I think it's the facade that gets us.

Vivek Murthy

I loved that story, by the way, about Rick Fox and the and the oil rig. It was it was just incredibly powerful to see the impact that openness can have on the work environment. And actually, it turns out on productivity and safety and so many of the things we care about in the workplace. It makes me think that if we want to do that, like not just in workplaces but in schools, that we've got some work to do. I was really struck by your interviews with when you went back to your alma mater, Princeton, and talked to students there, how they were talking about this sort of illusion that they're often essentially compelled to follow of effortless perfection, of showing that somehow they can get everything done but never break a sweat, never have a doubt, never feel fear that somehow everything just works out in their lives. And nobody's life is really like that. We all know that. Yeah, my life, at least certainly is not like that. But where do you think that comes from? That sort of pressure to pursue effortless perfection and and keep up a wall that prevents people from seeing our struggles?

Susan Cain

It's a very hard question to answer because I could answer it equally by going back, by tracing our cultural history, you know, back to the year 1800. And I can answer it by pointing at, you know, this morning's latest Instagram post, because it's really both of those. Those are almost bookends for how we got to this place, you know, because if you go back in our cultural history, basically, as we became a more mercantile culture, the question of who succeeded and who was failing in business became ever more important. And people started more and more asking the question of when a person goes bankrupt, or when a person becomes a wild success, is that because of external factors of luck or good fortune or whatever? Or is it because of something inside the person? And increasingly, the answer people, the consensus that people agreed upon was that it was something inside the person that had determined this fate. And so so basically people started seeing each other and themselves as winners or losers. And the more you feel that pressure, the more you see yourself that way, the more it's like not only do you want to strive to succeed, but you want to strive to be the kind of person who succeeds, which is a very different thing, you know? And that kind of person has to appear to be effortlessly perfect because that's going to predict their success. And so that's like our cultural legacy. And you can trace this, you know, as I say, all the way back to the 1800s. And as this became more and more of a phenomenon, you know, people like William James started the great psychologists started observing that it was becoming out of fashion, even to notice that there is bad weather outside. Like you shouldn't comment on the bad weather because like you wanted to be someone who only saw what was cheerful and and positive. You know, it said that's like history. And then we look at the present and the future and we've got social media where, you know, we all know you can like scroll down an Instagram feed and and no matter how good a day you're having, it never seems like it's as good a day as what you're looking at on other people's Instagram feeds.

Vivek Murthy

That resonates because I had this memory, that flashed, you know, in my head when you were talking about college and I had a roommate who was brilliant and he managed to like study for incredibly difficult, like, you know, chemistry tests and everything while also just being on, on chat, like with his friends and like, you know, in between, like when he would type a message, send it while they were replying, he would just glance at his chemistry textbook and then go back to chatting. Like it was, I can't imagine how he studied, but yet he would ace all his tests. He was just, it seemed to me from the outside that he was effortlessly perfect. And I remember I was one of those kids in college who had to study hard, like I had to work hard. But I almost felt embarrassed to tell people how hard I was working because it felt like so many people around me were just breezing through and doing well. Now, for all I know, they felt the same way, you know, that they couldn't share how hard they were working, but it does feel like there's a toll of not being able to be real with people around us. And it's, I think, an emotional tax we pay.

Susan Cain

I would I would bet a lot of money that those people you were talking about were all working harder than they made it sound. And in fact, I was one of the first things I told my kids. My kids at one point were like, yeah, you know, you go into school and this one says they don't study and this one says they don't do work. It was like, don't don't listen to any of that. People people are all going to tell you that. And it's never the case. It's just it's just something people feel compelled to say or to present is really the the right way of putting it.

Vivek Murthy

That's right. And you mentioned social media as well. And I know for many young people and older people that the experience of social media is one of almost like being dropped in this ocean of hyper comparison, where you feel like you're comparing yourself to other people all the time, even though you know what they're presenting isn't always real, that it's a curated version of their life, yet it still can feel poorly. You did something with your social media experience. You sort of in a way took control of it, changed it so that it actually brought you joy. And I was I'd love if you could share with us, like, what you did, because it was such a powerful and compelling example to me.

Susan Cain

Oh, yeah. I would wake up every morning and just start doomscrolling on social media. So it wasn't so much the problem of, you know, comparing my life to other people's seemingly perfect lives. It wasn't that. It was more just like, you know, reading terrible news or, you know, outrage tweets and that kind of thing. So I put out a call on Twitter asking people to tell me which artists they follow and who I should be following. I took everybody's suggestions, and the next thing I knew, my whole feed was full of art, which, you know, if you know Twitter, that's like not what you usually get. And it was it was such a transformative experience to have that filling my feed. And and so the next thing I knew, it wasn't like I set out to do this, but the next thing I knew, I started this daily practice where every morning, especially while I was writing my book, I would choose a favorite piece of art and then pair it with a with a favorite poem or quote that I thought went with what the artist was trying to express. And I would just share that on my social media feed. And that attracted this whole, you know, collection of people who love to start their days that way, you know, like kindred spirits, who do love the art and the poetry and and I guess implicitly were hungry for that. And social media. I do it on all my platforms now, you know, including LinkedIn, where there's not much art on LinkedIn. And so many people tell me how much it means to them and the fact that they're reacting that way to like the simple posting of a beautiful painting, like how much that small thing could mean, I think, tells you how parched and hungry we are for it, for for more beauty and for more like turning in that direction in general.

Vivek Murthy

There's just so much wisdom in that example you shared of one how to take a person experience we have and transform it into something that truly speaks to us and serves us. But also there's something powerful, I think, about the role of art in what you're saying, that I think especially in times of pain and crisis, that we need beauty around us and sometimes we can’t work our way through that pain solely with words. And that's where I think music and other forms of art are so, so powerful.

Susan Cain

Oh, absolutely and I also I talked in the book about this research that I came across, which is we when we hear about art and its power, we tend, again, because we're such a kind of success oriented society, we tend to feel like, okay, the way to interact with art is that, you know, you have to be the creator of it like you have to be the one whose art is exhibited on the gallery walls or your you know, your symphony is played in the concert hall or whatever it is. There's this feeling of like, that's what that unless you can be that you're not really an art person, you're not really an artist. But like that, there's actually research showing that the benefits that we get from art are the same, whether we're the creator or the consumer of it, you know, simply to consume art, like to gaze at a painting, it it releases the same reward, a reward networks in our brain as feeling in love. It triggers those same kinds of emotions and the same neurochemical pathways. And also, you know, like on the on the bittersweet idea, I think that art is a place where we can go to tell the truth about what it's like to be human, which is the joy and the sorrow, both of it equally. It's sometimes hard to talk about that, you know, online at the grocery store, but in art, that's a safe place to express it.

Vivek Murthy

Susan, I’m gonna, my son is is sick today, so I'm actually working from home and so he's, he's getting bored and so he's come to hang out with me. So I put him on my lap, if that’s ok with you, while we continue to talk. Say hi to Auntie Susan, hi.

Susan Cain

Hi. Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry that you're not feeling well today.

Vivek Murthy

Oh, he'll be okay, but thank you for letting him join us.

Susan Cain

Of course.

Vivek Murthy

Susan, speaking of the personal and I know this is just real life, you know, we all have a children who are not well. We have other challenges to deal with. But I do want to for a moment just acknowledge that the loss of you have also experienced during this pandemic. I was so sad to hear about the loss of your brother and your father to COVID early on in the pandemic. And I want I want to ask how you're doing, you know, after such a profound loss and how your family is doing.

Susan Cain

Oh, thank you so much. Yeah. You know, it was just a big shock, really. But I don't know. We're all doing okay. So thank you so much for asking. Yeah, I don't know. We think of them all the time.

Vivek Murthy

Yeah, sure. You know, I'm glad you're doing okay. Although I imagine that the process of grieving and just processing that loss takes time. And it's striking to me that you were writing this book at the time that you experienced that loss as well. And how did that experience shape how you thought about this topic of pain and loss and maybe even the urgency with which you felt the message of the book had to be shared?

Susan Cain

Well, you know, I don't know that it changed so much. I honestly I felt the same urgency about the book from the moment I started it, long before there was there was any kind of pandemic on the horizon. I think that writing the book was helpful to me in working through the loss because I was so steeped already in the idea that this is part of life. So, you know, I think that we especially as a in the U.S., we go through the world, you know, kind of like with the message that the main everyday of life is everything's going well, everything's healthy, everything is, you know, everything's kind of just fine. And then when things aren't just fine, that's like a really big detour from the main road. And I don't buy that at all. I think it's all the main road, all of it, the the losses and the sorrows equally with the beauties and the loves. It's all part of the same road. And I was so steeped in that idea and in thinkers and philosophers and artists and wisdom traditions that talk about this idea that I think that was some kind of solace to me. I don't know. I mean, you go through the moments in grief where it's just like it's such a it feels like such a cataclysm that you're, like, transported out of any ability to think or process anything. But then, you know, you kind of come out of those cataclysmic moments. And I do think being steeped in this worldview is actually an incredible solace because you're processing the loss, but at least you're not processing like raging against it like that. This wasn't supposed to happen like this. The understanding that these things do happen is actually incredibly grounding. And the understanding that these things happen to everyone, you know, and that this is part of what makes us human. And all humans are united in this incredible ability to love. And also in this this reality of it, to love that much means you also have to experience searing loss. Like there's something about the fact that we all feel that can can be a real solace too.

Vivek Murthy

So I'm wondering, Susan, I think people out there who are experiencing loss, whether it's the loss of a family member or the pain that comes from loss of a dream or from other challenges in life, what do you think makes the difference between whether that pain ultimately erodes our sense of self and our well-being versus pain that can contribute to what you're saying, a sense of beauty and appreciation, compassion and love. And are there things that people can do or be mindful of as they go through pain to increase the chances that they perhaps gain some of the elements you're talking about which are so powerful, the beauty and the compassion, as opposed to going down the first path, you know, of feeling like their sense of self and their wellbeing is eroded.

Susan Cain

One of the great truths that I have found through immersing myself in all these traditions is that is the idea that you may never get back the particular love that you have lost, but that love itself has a way of returning in new and different forms, some of which you create yourself, and some of them they come to you, but to kind of have a sense of trust that the great gaping hole that you feel in your life, that person is never going to be returned to you or that dream may never be returned to you. But but there will be other kinds of love that can be just as powerful and dreams just as powerful. And that's really helpful to know. There's also there's a great way that the writer, Nora McInerny, I hope I'm pronouncing her name correctly, puts it. So she lost her husband at a very young age and she went on to remarry. But she talks about how when she first lost her husband, there was so much and she was so grief stricken and there was so much of a feeling that she was getting from people around her that the time was coming to, quote, move on. And there's something about that idea of moving on that feels very cruel. We don't want move on. It feels like to move on is to leave behind that person who we've loved so much forever. And so she distinguishes between moving on and moving forward. And with moving forward, you're actually carrying that lost person with you always. They’re always with you at the same time that you're moving forward with your life. And it's a way of like acknowledging what she says is, you know, with with her new marriage, she says the person who she is in that new marriage is is is the person she became through her lost husband. Like that she she became a different person through him. So he’s still with her in everything that she's doing. And I think that's a much better way to think of what we need to do when we face these kinds of losses. Nothing needs to and no one needs to get left behind. And I see this all the time with my father. I mean, there's not a day that goes by that I'm not thinking about him. And it's not like, Oh, now I'll think about Dad. It's it's like he comes in all different moments, you know, maybe it's a piece of he's the one who taught me to love music so much. So maybe it's music that I'm listening to or something that happens with the kids that I'd like to tell him about. And even though it's sad that I can't tell him just the fact of thinking, Oh, this is the kind of thing Dad would have loved to know, or this is the kind of thing Dad would have appreciated so much. But that that's that's part of us, part of me forever.

Vivek Murthy

I mean, just what a powerful way to look at loss. And I think to I love the distinction between moving on and moving forward because I think this sense that we have to leave people behind and put on this brave face and show that, okay, we're fine now, just feels very unnatural. I remember in medical training being taught at one point that there's a an appropriate period of time to grieve after someone you know is lost in your life. And then beyond that, then it becomes pathological. And that always bothered me a little bit, the way in which that was sort of defined because I remember thinking, how could it be that human beings at X number of weeks stop grieving and quote unquote move on? Like that doesn't mean that we all want to not be able to function in life. We want to be able to function at some point and care for your family, do the things you need to do. But the notion that that you wouldn't continue to grieve for a longer period of time just felt unnatural. So I love the way you're framing that grief, you know, as not necessarily always having to be a process of feeling or an experience of feeling like you are paralyzed, perhaps, but one where you can get to the point where you remember with joy, with even if it's bittersweet, as you put it, some of the beauty, you know, that that person brought to your life and still continues to bring to your life through the memories that you have.

Susan Cain

And thank you for saying what you said, too, because I do think it's important for people who are going through the most intense throes of grief not to feel like there's something wrong with that. And there's supposed to be some time limit on it. And look at the calendar. You know, time for me to be done with this. And people really do move through these things at at different pieces and at different times. You know, one person who I interviewed intensely for the book, she's actually a my my mother-in-law, my sister's mother-in-law. I'm sorry. And she lost her beloved daughter to ovarian cancer. And and she is by nature like an extremely upbeat, optimistic, you know, like outgoing out there kind of person. And she spent I don't know how long it was, two years, three years, you know, like not emerging from her house. And and then she felt it was time to kind of, quote, move forward. But but again, you know, carrying her daughter with her and thinking about her all the time and and the grief, it never fully goes away. It's part of you. It becomes integrated into you. And I think at the same time that you can move forward, forward with your life. And so I think not to be placing these arbitrary external ideas of when you're supposed to reach each milestone and not even thinking of it in terms of milestones, but maybe just in terms of integration. Into a new life.

Vivek Murthy

I love that, that sense of integration. And it reminds me, you know, we we know that when we break bones, that the healing that takes place can sometimes even make the bones stronger at that point, you know, of the fracture. And I wonder if we are able to look, you know, at loss in a similar way as something that does not necessarily always have to leave us weaker, but something that can leave us stronger, even more appreciative, even more reflective, even more present in the moment, because we recognize the power that we have, sometimes even more so after this loss than when we had it like that feels a way that pain can make us more powerful and and more more fulfilled.

Susan Cain

Yeah, I. I have heard so I have gotten so many letters from people who have been through one kind of grief or another talking about exactly that, you know, the ways in which it has opened them up or made them stronger or made them more empathetic. And at the same time, I really do want to be careful, like not to be sending a message out to people who are going through grief right now or in the future to say, you know, not only do you have this terrible grief, but now you have to like turn into some heroic person who's going to turn it into who's going to turn your grief into some kind of act of empathy or creativity or whatever. No pressure on that. It's just to say you're going to turn into someone else and and that someone else can be someone incredibly beautiful who has the particular gifts to give that new person who you're turning into. What I'm actually thinking of, as I say, this is and as you were talking about the broken bones, there's a Japanese art form that I'm sure I'm going to mispronounce, but it's called something like Kintsugi K-I-N-T-S-U-G-I and and it will take like broken shards of like, let's say a vase that had once been intact that breaks. And then the shards are woven together with strands of gold as if as if to say the break is still there. It's always going to be there. It's still going to be visible, but it's now turned into something new. It's no longer an intact vase. It's now a vase woven through with shards of gold. It's something different.

Vivek Murthy

That's beautiful.

Susan Cain

And beautiful.

Vivek Murthy

That is really beautiful. I love that image. As we're talking, I can't help but think, Susan, about not only all the people out there who are experiencing loss and grief, but about young people in particular who are whose view of life of how to handle hardship, adversity, etc. is being shaped right now by what they're seeing around them. And, you know, I recently last year had put out a Surgeon General’s advisory on youth mental health because I was very concerned about what was happening to the mental health of our kids with rising rates of anxiety, depression, suicide over years, even preceding the pandemic. And, you know, I think about the you've touched on something really powerful here that can give young people a foundation for how to think about dealing with those moments of pain. A reminder to be real, in a sense, or not to necessarily have to put up that facade. But I'm curious, when you look at when you talk to to young people or to parents who are trying to figure out how to raise a child in a way that allows them to approach grief and pain in a healthy way, what advice do you have for those parents as they when they encounter a child who's experienced a disappointment? Do you have any advice on how you would suggest they talk to their child about processing those moments?

Susan Cain

I think that the important message to convey is that this too is part of life. And for children to understand that from a very early age, because so much for children and for teenagers, when something bad happens there, there is, this feeling of like it wasn't supposed to be this way. There's something wrong with me that I'm feeling this way. Look over there at that person. She's not feeling that way. But to understand this is all part of the natural flow of it all. And there's a story that I tell in the book. It's it's kind of a small moment, moment in the life of our kids. And yet it's something that we talk about in our family over and over again, because it was so meaningful. We took this vacation when the kids were little, where we rented a house in the country and it was right next to this field where there lived two donkeys named Lucky and Norman and and the kids, like, fell in love with these donkeys. And so the whole vacation was about the donkeys. They were like running to the fence and feeding them carrots and apples. And when the donkeys would see the kids, they would come like right away. It was this big love affair. And and then like a day or two before we left and the kids realized we were going to be, you know, saying goodbye and we wouldn't see them again, probably, these donkeys, they started crying themselves to sleep at night like they were so upset at this impending goodbye. And I think they knew instinctively, like we know from the time we're kids, that that goodbye is like something profound and profoundly upsetting to us humans. We, the parents, are like trying to comfort them. All the usual things that you might say of like, you know, someone else will come along and take care of Lucky in Norman or maybe will come back here again and you'll see them again. Those things did nothing to to stop the tears. The only thing that helped was when we said to them, this is part of life. This saying goodbye. You felt it before. You're going to feel it again. You're going to feel better in a few days. Lucky and Norman will be fine. But this this is part of life. It's natural that you should feel this way. Saying goodbye isn't easy. That's when they stopped crying because it was like telling them what you're feeling is normal and natural and right and part of things. And I think we need to do more to convey that message, this kind of normalization, that life is hello and it's goodbye. And that's it's a never ending cycle of that. And it's not about dwelling on the tears at all. It's just about normalizing before you move forward.

Vivek Murthy

And that resonates with me a lot as a dad, because I find myself at times wanting to prevent my children from feeling pain and disappointment. And I think part of that is because I feel pain when they're in pain. And I don't want to feel pain. But what you're saying makes so much sense, which is that where we can help our kids develop a healthy relationship with those difficult moments in life, with the feelings of sadness that may come from it, the more we can normalize that, the better off probably our children will be. So I love that story about your kids and the donkeys and what a nice nugget of wisdom you had there.

Susan Cain

I do want to say it is so hard as a parent.

Vivek Murthy

Oh, my gosh.

Susan Cain

I mean, it’s probably less hard in a moment, like the one I just described, because you kind of know that your kid is going to get over it and, you know, and move on. I think when our children are going through, you know, more profound pain, that's a profound pain. But you know what I mean? Like a you know, a more life altering pain, let's say it's very, very hard for the parents. I think whatever the children feel, the parents feel at times ten and that to you is part of the natural course of things.

Vivek Murthy

You know, my wife tells me that I'm a big softy when it comes to kids. It's funny how you don't, I had this whole vision of who I thought I would be as a parent before I had kids. I thought I'd be like the parent who was disciplined, who was like, you know, drew the line, didn't let your kids cross the line, etc.. And it turns out that was utterly wrong. Thank goodness, you know, that that my wife is better that than I am. But but I think a lot of it does come from this this place of for me at least, not being sometimes sure about how to guide my kids around moments of disappointment and pain. So what you're saying is incredibly powerful because it's giving them a foundation for that will hopefully help them for the rest of their life to allow them to understand how to process that pain and think about it as part of the normal experience of life and not as something that's abnormal. There's one more thing, Susan, I wanted to ask you about is an example you raised in your book, which I found just really powerful. It was a metaphor, or teaching actually, that comes from the Kabbalah and it was about shards of glass. Right. And this beautiful model about how it tells us that, you know, that creation in a sense, I think and you have to correct me if I'm wrong in how I understand this, but that creation at one point had been like a divine vessel, and that at some point that was shattered, leaving these divine shards of glass, you know, everywhere. And it seems like we have a choice. We can either feel despair over the shattering of the vessel, or we can recognize there are still shards of glass, you know, pieces of beauty around us and seek them out and collect them. And I think your father, you know, I want to, you know, come back to him for a moment. I know how important he was in your life. But as you write your, I think at one point you said you realize that your father in many ways had been doing this his whole life, seeking out these shards of glass, experiencing these moments of beauty just for the sake of the beauty, not because it was part of some five-year plan. ten-year plan, some work strategy, life strategy, it was just he naturally seemed to gravitate toward beauty in life. And there was something about that that was very felt very powerful to me and in part this notion that if we are in fact surrounded by beauty all the time, maybe the challenge is that we're just not seeing it. Maybe it's our perception. You know, it's more the challenge than the lack of beauty itself. But as only if you could speak more to this, especially to how your dad came to have that mindset, you know, of just seeking out the beauty around him. I so want to do that myself.

Susan Cain

Yeah, I don't know. It was just who he was. I mean, he was a doctor like you. He was a gastroenterologist and and a medical school professor so he was very, very busy. And he would, you know, leave the house early in the morning, come home often quite late, and he would come home and he would have dinner. And then after dinner, I mean, some of the time he would be like studying his medical journals. And some of the time he was he would just have these things he did like he loved orchids. He just found orchids, like unutterably beautiful. And so he built a greenhouse full of orchids in our basement. And, you know, so it wasn't for show. Like, no one could really see it unless you actually went all the way down into the basement. But he would just be there with his orchids. He just loved them, or he loved the sound of French. So he just taught himself French, even though he very rarely had time to visit France. But he just loved being able to read it and know it. You know, he loved music, so he was always learning about and listening to music. It was just like on and on. There were so many of these these call them shards of beauty that he was continually picking up and sharing with us. He was always sharing with me music and poetry. Like from the time I was very little. Yeah. And there was never any kind of point associated with it. It was just something that he did that was, yeah, that just added so much to his life and, and to ours. Yeah, that metaphor of the, the shards of glass that are all around us. I find it so powerful because it it allows us to give voice to the sorrow that we feel that, you know, that this is a world where the lions never do lay down with the lambs, and that there always is going to be loss in all of this and also at the same time, that metaphor. So it allows us to speak to that, but it also encourages us and exhorts us to find the sacred in the mundane, you know, and to find the beauty that's like all over the place. You just look around you and, you know, like you're your son sitting on your lap was one of the most beautiful images that one can imagine. I'll take that with me the rest of my day. You know, it's everywhere. And it's just a question of what do we decide to pay attention to? Right. And we know this that that our minds can pay attention to thousands of things and we make unconscious and conscious decisions of where to direct that attention. And I think this is one where we can consciously direct turn towards beauty and turn towards the sacred, really.

Vivek Murthy

Yes. And I love to use that word sacred, because I do think that there is such a deep spiritual lesson in what you have written about and I mean, as somebody, you know, a person of faith, myself, I recognize we all have different paths, but I read what you have written to say that if we look around us, we find we can find beauty. And to me, that beauty are, you know, is divine, you know. And yeah, there's a and so there's divinity all around us, you know, if we are willing to to open our eyes and open our ears and see it and hear it and feel it, I will confess that growing up that I was a kind of child who tended to see what was wrong, you know, in my life and the world. And I struggled a lot with sadness and, you know, people would look at my life from the outside and say, hey, it looks like everything's working for you, yet I would look at my life and see and see all the things that were missing. I was not seeing those shards of glass, those sort of shards of beauty and divinity around me, but I'm as I'm growing up and we're al still growing up, I suppose. Me too. But that feels so important to do and I think about my kids in particular, and I want them to be able to see that beauty, you know, around them to become more attuned to that, you know, as as they grow up recognizing no one's life is ever going to be perfect. But like you said we have a choice over what we choose to see, and where we choose to focus. You know, I know our time, Susan is coming to a close, but particularly with that last point about the power of perception of choosing to seek out beauty in the world, I feel like that was not just a piece of wisdom you have shared with us, and it's helped me tremendously, but I feel like it's a piece of wisdom from your father that I'm benefiting from, even though I never had the privilege of meeting him. So thank you for sharing that in the book with us. And I think this is just such an important moment for you to share this wisdom more broadly about the bittersweet experience, because people are just really struggling in the world right now. A lot of people experiencing sadness and pain, but also many people who look at the future and feel a sense of despair, who look at the divisions between us and think, hey, this feels insurmountable and it feels like this is a world where folks are just out for themselves and everything is very calculated. But moments like so many of the moments you've described in the book, these moments where we are aware of our humanity, both the moments of joy, but also the moments of pain, the lesson that you share about the value of that pain, how it can enable us to be more compassionate and more empathetic, how it can allow us to find and seek out and more beauty in the world. To me, those give me hope because those remind me that we are fundamentally not people who are divided, closed off and just for ourselves. And we are not beings who need to seek out or try to live out this false model of effortless perfection. And we don't need to worship at the altar of these false gods of of perfection and power and wealth and fame that we so often pursue, but we can actually just feel more and more secure in our own humanity in knowing that we are human beings, going through a human experience, and that all of us are feeling that sadness, all of are grappling with it. But that shared experience, I think, knowing that it is shared, I think is so powerful too. So I just feel so grateful to you for sharing this book with the world and bringing so much of yourself. And, you know, you know, you know, the funny thing is, I feel like I've known you for years, even though, strangely enough, we've never met in person, but over the years, just having the chance to talk to you, texts with you have exchanges with you, just your empathy, your kindness, your honesty and authenticity just come through so quickly and so effortlessly, almost. And I think it's a big part of what's made me feel just so close to you and I feel very, very lucky for that.

Susan Cain

Oh, my goodness. Well, thank you. And I can't tell you how much I feel exactly the same way about you. And in fact, just last night, I was saying to my husband, I know that Vivek lives in a different city but really he and his family just have to come over soon.

Susan Cain

So I hope that we can make that happen.

Vivek Murthy

Absolutely. I hope so, too. Susan, can I ask you just a couple of quick, funny questions or fun questions I should say? Yes, of course. Of course. I love the fact that you made it playlist for “Bittersweet.” Yeah, that's such a brilliant idea, by the way. And there's some great songs on it. In terms of which song you love, though, like, is there a particular one that comes to mind that you love to just, you know, belt out or sing in the shower or sing at the top of your lungs? What’s your favorite song on that list?

Susan Cain

Oh, well, I'll tell you. I guess I'll think about the list in a second. But I will also say, because I don't only listen to bittersweet music, I have this my well, my husband and I both we have this song that we've been listening to since the nineties. It's called Me Gustas Tu by Manu Chao. I don't know if you know this one.

Vivek Murthy

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Susan Cain

You know it.

Vivek Murthy

I know the artist. I don't know the song.

Susan Cain

Oh, we love Manu Chao. He's so great. And and this song will just make you instantly full of joy. It's just, it's the pure expression of joy I can think of. And it's so good and and just the other, and so our kids have been sort of eye rolling-ly you know, in the backseat as we would play Manu Chao all the time for all these years. And then just the other day, my 14 year old son started playing Me Gustas Tu on his own. Like he now loves it, too. Oh, that was just yay, you know, like a hallelujah moment of parenting. But I will recommend that to anybody to listen to that song. And on the playlist, “Bittersweet” Playlist. I don't know. There's so much that I love in there, but I mean, I guess the like, the big theme, like the underlying theme of all of this bittersweet stuff is about, you know, the the longing for that which is most true and good and beautiful and divine, if you're inclined that way. And there's a song on that list that expresses, oh, and by the way, that all these wisdom traditions teach us that the more you tune in to that longing, the closer you become to that for which you long, you know, the closer you become to God. If you're longing for God and and like literally, I have a quote from Rumi right here, and he literally says, “The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” So there's a song on that list that just musically expresses this idea. It's called Hinach Yafah by the by the musician Idan Raichel and, and it's not he's not even using words in part of the song. He's just using sounds that and the sounds express this kind of ecstatic sense of longing and union. And so, yes, please go listen, it's on Spotify and Apple. You can just put in my name and bittersweet playlist and you will find it.

Vivek Murthy

That is beautiful. And by the way, the Idan Raichel concert was one of the best concertists I've ever been to. Oh, seriously? Yeah, it was in, but when he came to Boston, actually, once, years ago, I went and it was it was absolutely phenomenal. So, yes, people should listen to the “Bittersweet” playlist and also they should take the “Bittersweet” quiz, which I thought was a brilliant quiz that you have folks who can take that can understand where they are, sort of on the emotional spectrum. I took that quiz, by the way, and I think I was maxed out. Oh Seriously? Absolutely. I’m not surprised. So but it is very interesting and lastly, Susan, when was the last time you when was the last time you laughed out loud? Just the best laugh you ever have. When did that happen? You know, sometimes we laugh quietly, but sometimes you know, it just takes over our whole body. and we laugh out loud. Tell me when that happened to you.

Susan Cain

Oh, gosh, I'm trying to think, but my my 14 year old son and I share a kind of like a well, I don't know. He just has this way of, like, wryly noticing absurd things in life. And sometimes he'll notice a certain absurdity, and it will just strike our funny bone at exactly the same time. And we'll just be like, doubled over laughing. And if I tried to tell you one of those things, it would it would be like, Yeah, it's not really that funny, but but that does happen and I love it.

Vivek Murthy

Yeah, that's beautiful. Especially to experience that with your son. Yeah. What would a beautiful thing are you feeling hopeful about the future as we close Susan.

Susan Cain

Am I hopeful about the future? I don't know. I really don't know, honestly. I mean, I feel like personally contented, but that's very different from feeling hopeful about like the, you know, the cosmic future. I, I feel a big question mark. That's my honest answer. I wish I could say yes, I do, but I don't know. I really do feel like I don't know. I'm sort of nervous about the moment that we're in right now.

Vivek Murthy

Yeah, well I don't think you're alone. I think there are a lot of people who have a big question mark about the future.

Susan Cain

But yes, I was just going to say a question mark exactly.

Vivek Murthy

Yeah. And what gives me hope though are conversations like this that help remind me that so much of what we need, I think to make the future better actually inside in terms of how we look at the world, how we look at each other, how we process pain, recognize our shared experience. So I'm just so grateful to you for this conversation, for writing this book and for doing in so many ways what you did with “Quiet” your your your previous book, which is to pull the curtain back on an experience that so many people have, they don't talk often enough about. And to help us see that these experiences, which we may look at as unfavorable, actually have a purpose and they have a beauty to add to our lives if we're only we only allow ourselves perhaps to see that. So, Susan, thank you again, so much for this conversation and for adding hope and beauty to my life. So really appreciate you.

Susan Cain

Thank you so much, Vivek, and thank you for being the kind of person who you so obviously are in such public and influential roles. Like you don't often see people with your frank way, just your way of being you know so I don't know empathetic, so mindful, so attuned and just so yourself in such a public kind of setting, it's it's incredibly unusual. Oh. And I appreciate it every time I see you in your public, I mean, I always appreciate talking to you privately when I see you in your public settings. I appreciate you being that person and your person in public. I think is incredible. So thank you for doing it.

Vivek Murthy

I appreciate that. Thank you, my friend. Thank you. Well, grateful to you. And hopefully we will get to talk again soon.

Susan Cain

I would absolutely love that.

Vivek Murthy

That concludes this conversation with Susan Cain. Join me for the next episode of House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy. Wishing you all health and happiness.