My dear friend gave me Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist a few weeks ago, and since I finally had a few spare moments, I decided to read it. It is basically a recount of the hardest year of her life, where she lost her job, lost a baby, lost her house, and all the life realizations she has encountered since. No, the writing is not spectacular. The vocabulary is very elementary, there are only fleeting glimpses of beautiful sentences at best, and most of her anecdotes center around people I don’t know and honestly feel no connection with. However, I will say that many of her realizations are profound and resonate with so many of the harsh aspects of life I, too, and many other 20somethings I know, have realized. Here are a few of the most significant quotes (and, of course, my reactions) I picked out from my reading:
“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow”: I really love this, because it is the philosophy of the entire book and I think is so true. There is a sense of duality here: that, while life will be great, it will be crappy, but that we need both experiences to exist. Life is all about a set of choices; we have the choice to be proactive in our hopes and dreams, or we have the choice to sit on the couch and criticize everyone else. We have the choice to get involved in activities, or we have the choice to stay at home and complain that we don’t have any friends. We have the choice to make something out of those times of suffering, or we have the choice to crumple and wallow in self pity. Sure, we want everything in life to be peachy and easy. Struggle sucks and is really uncomfortable. But, there are also some hidden treasures; sometimes, we learn the most about ourselves and about our world in moment of struggle and suffering.
Last week, I went through a major crisis. Like, had to call my mom and breakdown because it was so bad. Long story short, it was spawned from a literary discussion (nerdy, I know) and was about a clash between living in my ideal world and living in reality, and whether or not I am willing to sacrifice some of those ideals that are inherently me to accept reality. I can’t recall the last time I felt this amount of extreme anxiety and cognitive dissonance–that I was going to have to give up so much of what is me–but so many great life realizations came out of it. I thought about why it is difficult for me to open up to people, what kind of things someone could offer me in a relationship, and that perhaps there are ways to maintain my innocent view of the world. And for that, I would say the struggle was worth it.
Another piece to this, which she does not directly address, reminded me that we need to understanding of where other people are in their lives. The author writes about her miscarriage and how, while she was grieving the loss of that baby, she also officiated weddings, hosted baby showers, watched her friends have their own babies. And, while it is human nature to focus on her own grieving, she also had to recognize that her friends were not in that position; she could show up to the party, support them, and then do her grieving somewhere more appropriate, that wasn’t going to take away the joy from someone else. Life goes on, no matter what is happening to us. People are living, things are progressing. We just have to keep pushing through.
“It’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about”: Being a 20something is incredibly difficult, because while you are starting your life and looking at endless possibilities, you are also realizing that there are so many more limitations than people told you about (money and time being at the top). I have spent a good deal amount of time making a list of goals I hope to accomplish between now and the rest of my life: travel to Ireland and The Netherlands (where my people are from), teach abroad, write a book, coach a state championship dance team, learn to play guitar, take singing lessons, take a class on film study, conquer my irrational fear of fish. And, while I do have the rest of my life to accomplish these goals, I am realizing that (a) I can’t do them all at once and (b) there might come a time that I have to re-evaluate. And, that is ok, because it is the fact that I am setting goals and working to achieve them, rather than actually check everything off the list.
One of my friend’s recently decided to quit her job. She had a great job, lived in a great place, made great money. However, the job itself was not fulfilling; she was spending all of her time either at work or commuting to work that she wasn’t feeding her other internal desires. So, she quit, decided her happiness was way more important than a paycheck, and moved back home, and has absolutely no regrets.
“Travel is so important: to get far enough away from our everyday lives to see those lives with new clarity”: This last year has definitely been a season of traveling for me; I traveled in and out of Colorado, to Detroit, to Portland, to Orlando, to Las Vegas, to Chicago, to Los Angelos. Partly, it is because I needed to test other places, to gain a new perspective on how other people live their lives. And by about the third day, I was always itching to come back home to Colorado. There are few things more gratifying that looking out the airplane window, down at the Rocky Mountains, and know that, while there is possibility and experience outside of this haven, that Colorado itself is home and has so much to offer. Leaving made me appreciate the close proximity of my family, the stability and excitement of my job, the unfaltering connection with my dogs as I arrive home to their wet kisses. Leaving is refreshing and I learned as much going other places as I did coming home. I know now that I can never remain stagnant for too long.
She also ties this idea of traveling to discovering your faith. She confesses that she didn’t go to church for a long season during her college years, but that the distance gave her a new perspective to appreciate and find her own faith. I think sometimes we need to do this. We often get so stuck in routine, because we think “being a good Christian” is going to church every Sunday, dinner group Wednesdays, volunteering every Friday. But, sometimes we get so stuck in routines that we lose the meaning of what we were doing in the first place; it becomes monotonous, sometimes feels like a hassle, but we keep doing it because “that is what good Christians do”. My family raised us Catholic. We did the whole religious education classes on Tuesday nights, the rituals of reconciliation and communion. My mom brought home Holy Water from the church every week and adorned us with St. Christopher medals and rosary crosses. I had an experience that turned me off, stopped going to church, and am now re-gaining that faith, stronger than ever. I am beginning to question my own beliefs, experience God in profound ways, and am learning to pray for grace, for strength, for patience. Sometimes, we need to go away for some time to re-evaluate and re-appreciate.
“The ability to cry is a sign of health, because it means your body and your soul agree on something, and that what your soul is feeling, your body is responding to”: I really like this quote, because I believe, as a society, we do not let ourselves cry enough (if you ask me, it dates back to the Victorian’s and their strict social structures). We repress things, pretend they didn’t happen, and then eventually, they come up later on, whether that be through a mental breakdown, a bad relationship, roid-rage.
In my graduate class, we just finished The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is perhaps one of my new favorite novels. Oscar Wilde is a genius. It is basically about Dorian Gray, who sells his soul in a way; while he goes around, doing corrupt things, his physical appearance remains untouched, and his portrait corrodes, suffers from his misdoings. To me, this story is about the separation of physical self and immaterial self, or the soul. The book argues that, when we are not in tune with our consciousnesses, bad things can happen.
Two ways I noticed an integration of mind, body, and spirit can occur are through meditating, or yoga, and counseling. So many of my friends who are avid yogi’s or have attended counseling sessions talk about suddenly experiencing vivid, cathartic dreams. One of my friends broke up with a long term boyfriend and recently started dating another guy, which, of course, induces some anxiety. She recounted a dream about the old boyfriend coming to a party that her new boyfriend was at, and by the time she woke up, she felt completely refreshed and had no feelings for the old guy. It is amazing what the human consciousness can do.
Overall, I would say Bittersweet is a touching book, good for a leisurely lay at the pool (or the beach, if you are that lucky).