- 2010 20 Jul
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist (Zondervan).
The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life.
Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.
Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul.
Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy.
Nearly ten years ago, my friend Doug told me that the central image of the Christian faith is death and rebirth, that the core of it all, over and over again, is death and rebirth. I'm sure I'd heard that before, but when he told me, for whatever reason, I really thought about it for the first time. And at the time, I didn't agree.
What I didn't understand until recently is that he wasn't speaking to me as a theologian or a pastor or an expert, but rather as a person whose heart had been broken and who had been brought back to life by the story God tells in all our lives. When you haven't yet had your heart really broken, the gospel isn't about death and rebirth. It's about life and more life. It's about hope and possibility and a brighter future. And it is, certainly, about those things.
But when you've faced some kind of death — the loss of someone you loved dearly, the failure of a dream, the fracture of a relationship — that's when you start understanding that central metaphor. When your life is easy, a lot of the really crucial parts of Christian doctrine and life are nice theories, but you don't really need them. When, however, death of any kind is staring you in the face, all of a sudden rebirth and new life are very, very important to you.
Now, ten years later, I know Doug was right. I've thought about his words a thousand times in the last few years, a season in my own life that has felt in some moments like death at every turn. I've begun to train my eyes for rebirth, like looking for buds on branches after an endlessly long winter. I know that death is real, and I trust that rebirth is real too.
Christians, generally, aren't great at lament and mourning. Jews are really better at lament, maybe because they've had more practice. My favorite part of a Jewish wedding is the breaking of the glass. Like most Jewish traditions, there are a whole bunch of interpretations: some say that all the shards of broken glass suggest loads of future children and future happiness. Some say that the breaking of the glass references the irreversible nature of marriage: in the same way that the glass can never be put back together after it's been broken, two people can never be separated once they've been connected by marriage. But my favorite interpretation is the one where the wine in the glass is a symbol for all of life, and when the bride and groom drink it, they accept both the bitter and the sweet aspects of life. They accept that sometimes they'll celebrate and sometimes they'll mourn, in the same way that sometimes they'll drink wine and sometimes glasses will shatter.
This collection is an ode to all things bittersweet, to life at the edges, a love letter to what change can do in us. This is what I've come to believe about change: it's good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it's incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God's hand, which is where you wanted to be all along, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be. So this is the work I'm doing now, and the work I invite you int when life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.
Copyright © 2010 by Shauna Niequist
This title is also available as a Zondervan ebook.
This title is also available in a Zondervan audio edition.
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
Shauna Niequist is the author of Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet. She studied English and French literature at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and lives outside Chicago with her husband, Aaron, and their son, Henry. For more information, please visit http://www.shaunaniequist.com/.