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When You Still Haven't Found What You're Looking For


Having championed the cause of introverts in her book Quiet, Susan Cain has taken up the frequently related state of poignancy. Words like melancholy feel negative to many and so her latest work is entitled Bittersweet (Penguin, 2023).


Western culture favours those with cheerful, optimistic outlooks who are tough and undaunted and set themselves regular goals which are relentlessly achieved. But many people live with what Cain calls: ‘states of longing, poignancy and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world’.


These states are ill-fitting in a hyper capitalist world of go-getting competition. To some they feel an indulgence; a reversion to the introspection of teenage years. But they are also key to human creativity and spirituality. Having been mesmerised as a teenager by songs like the short and haunting instrumental Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats by prog rock group Genesis, I think I know which camp I belong to.


Bittersweetness is not a momentary feeling, but a way of being, according to Cain; it is a creative response to pain. In her thinking, light and dark, birth and death are forever paired and we need to ‘fully inhabit these dualities’. Here is a reaching not just for creativity, but for spirituality.


The scriptures surely allow for a bittersweet spirituality. We should be grateful for the Psalms in particular; their undefended honesty sheds remarkable light on the law by which their authors lived. I grew up in faith in places where the expectation seemed to be that Christian testimony was about overcoming problems and living a ‘victorious’ life in Christ; less often would people talk about the darkness they felt – even shades of grey were suspect. But the Psalms give us access to the therapist’s sofa, where the thoughts and feelings tumble out. We do not know the context, but we can identify with their emotions. There is sweetness and bitterness; there is also bittersweetness, where a deep, unformed longing envelopes the writers – a grasping for inner peace and harmony in a chaotic and violent world.


We can tend to see death and re-birth, cross and resurrection as linear states, where we move from one to the other. When people interpret their lives this way, the end point is to live as ‘more than a conqueror in Christ’. But scripture needs to be understood in the whole. St Paul, who wrote those words, also said:


I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3: 10-11).


Death and re-birth in Christ is not a sequential process; it is a blended experience. Following Jesus brings life in all its fulness, all while we carry our cross. We live also in a world where the kingdom is coming but has not yet come.


Bittersweetness may be a spiritual reality, but is it a component of our churches?


Personality shapes the expression of faith, but we have created some churches where faith is expected to re-shape personality. We should weave bittersweetness into our worship, teaching, prayer and friendship and encourage honest self-expression. There is every chance we will see more of this as younger generations, sure in their self-expression, mould our shared life.


For Susan Cain, this human restlessness is about the ‘desire for communion, the wish to go home’. It makes sense of the famous U2 song, where the credal: ‘I believe in the kingdom come’ is followed by the longing ‘But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. This is the paradox of faith, where home is a place yet to be discovered.



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