Thoughts on Shauna Niequist’s new book, Bittersweet: Thoughts on change, grace, and learning the hard way.
“Everyone I know gets their heart broken sometime, by something. The question is not, will my life be easy or will my heart break? But rather, when my heart breaks, will I choose to grow?”
What naysayers have said about Shauna Niequist‘s writing style is mostly true. Maybe she’s a little scattered and hard to follow at times, maybe a little disorganized. Vaguely spiritual in places, and in other places frighteningly manic. Though unappealing at worst, it can also be said that her style solidly supports her content. Rooted in realism, it points to the ups, downs, and general confusion that ruled her life during this chaotic period. In order to write this opus on having one’s life turned upside down, she had to genuinely go through that situation. And her writing reflects that, in the most gut-wrenchingly honest way.
The point of this disclaimer is just to tell you what Bittersweet is not. It is not a well-structured, perfect example of modern prose. But in the same way that you don’t order pizza when you’re in the mood for a pot pie, you wouldn’t pick this book up if you wanted an immaculately well-balanced piece of literature. Niequist writes exactly how she feels — on a page that’s stained, bumpy, and out-of-control. You’d pick this book up if you wanted to read something real. Something that mirrors your own messy life.
Niequist speaks frankly about the tragedies in her life — everything from losing a job to miscarriages to good, old-fashioned worry — and what she’s learned from them. Each new chapter is like feeling her take a deep breath before plunging into the maelstrom again. She tackles the unsureness of the post-college years bravely, and instead of offering a preachy, shellacked answer to life’s problems, she talks about using these tragedies as a chance to learn.
The true pleasure in reading Bittersweet is experiencing that “Oh my gosh, me too!” feeling over and over again. Many times I related to her failures, her self-criticisms, and her solutions. Many times she put things in an entirely new light for me. Nuggets of truth are everywhere in her language.
- On the unknown: “My rampant, illogical fear about our future…”
That’s right, it really is illogical, isn’t it? Why are we so obsessed with controlling futures that have 68,000 possible outcomes? It seems to take so much faith to believe that we will survive each month, even though each month we’re STILL HERE and everything’s fine.
- On friendship: “When I thought she would back away, she walked forward.”
This is the type of person to hang on to. The loyal, sincere, sympathetic friends who truly are rooting for you no matter what.
- On spending quality time with others: “Because we had the time, because we could let conversations wind and unwind…we circled down to the places you never get to when you just see one another at weddings, giving out funny sound bytes over bites of cake.”
Often I spend such tiny amounts of time with each of my friends that we never get to those long, delicious conversations we really want to get to.
- On marriage: “We had developed Rain Man-like abilities to recall even the smallest of offenses.”
This is absolutely true. Why are we 900% more critical of our spouses than we are of our other friends and family? Why do we use the least amount of grace with the person who really deserves it the most?
- On mistakes: “I used to think that the ability to turn back time would be the greatest possible gift, so that I could undo all the things I wish I hadn’t done. But grace is an even better gift, because it allows me to do more than just erase; it allows me to become more than I was when I did those things.”
As we saw in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, erasing only gives you back the opportunity to make the same mistakes again.
- On the myth of age: “I have friends in their sixties who continually teach me about discovery and possibility, and friends in their young twenties who are as crotchety and set in their ways as Archie Bunker.”
How do those young-but-crotchety ones never notice what a caricature of themselves they are?
- On comparisons: “She told me that when you compare yourself to another person, you always lose, and at the same time the other person always loses, too. Each of us has been created by the hands of a holy God, and our stories and the twists and turns of our lives, the things that are hard for us, and the things that come naturally, are as unique to us as our own fingerprints. She told me that one way to ensure a miserable life is to constantly measure your own life by the lives of the people around you.”
Our culture is entirely based around a system that says Compare! Everything! So naturally we do this to each other and ourselves, until we trash our self-esteem the way we’d trash an inferior dish soap. Not only is this unhealthy, it’s also unattractive. It took me some embarrassing years to learn this.
- On the over-scheduled life: “I’ve been around this block a thousand times. I’m ravenous, and life looks to me so sparkly and beautiful, waiting to be devoured like a perfect apple. So I say yes, yes to everything, to that meal and that event and that trip and that person. It’s so delicious, and I don’t want to miss out on even one moment of it. And that’s the point: I miss all sorts of sacred and significant moments, because of my frantic insistence that I can do it all, and that I don’t have to miss anything. I run from thing to thing, and then I fall into bed at night without even the space to think about the day. I wake up again to start it all over: more people, more food, more play, more ideas, more books. I’m ravenous, and somewhere along the way what started as a clean and lovely lust for life crosses over into a cycle of frantic activity, without soul or connection. I’m surprised every time. How did I get here again? Don’t I know better than this?”
As you all know, this is pretty much exactly what I’ve been going through lately. It’s almost as if she read my mind. It is so encouraging to hear what she has to say about this.
Bittersweet celebrates the fact that there are varied seasons in life, and that instead of acting surprised and blindsided by this, we should embrace it. The enduring message behind these stories is that in the dark places, you must take time to remember who and what you really love, and why you are here. Constantly re-orienting yourself toward the things that matter can get you through the heartbreak of defeat. And there are so many more amazing points she makes, which I don’t want to type out / give away. I want you guys to read the book yourselves and then tearfully tell me how much it meant to you.
As much as I feel I’ve benefited from this read, I only wish it had come much earlier, before my own major period of tragedy and chaos. But Niequist reinforces what we all have suspected: As soon as you think you have it all figured out, life comes along and blows your mind. That applies no matter what your age or situation, and I’m glad to know I’ll have the perspective of Bittersweet the next time it happens to me.