The Betterness of Bitterness

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

This post comes courtesy of our friends at the National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC) – Jeremy Liu (also a board member here at IISC) and Hiroko Kikuchi.  NBMC is devoted to the cultivation of a vibrant, diverse community through the promotion and distribution of Bitter Melon. Its projects, events, and festivals celebrate the health, social, culinary, and creative possibilities of this underappreciated vegetable and of embracing bitterness as a key to personal and community change.

Everyone experiences bitterness. We all deal with it; often in ways that are counter to addressing the bitterness, by denying, rejecting, or repressing the emotions, and/or our loss and our attachment to loss that create our bitterness. The need to actively address our bitterness is profound.

Bitterness is nacreous, creeping, pervasive, consuming because, as strong an emotion as it is, we get used to it. It bleeds into our conscious and subconscious mind influencing our behaviors, our actions, our perceptions. Because we tend to “swallow it,” we tend to ignore it and to deny its existence.

Bitterness comes to define us. It is a nefarious emotion in that it surreptitiously becomes something that we feel is “who we are.” We see ourselves in our bitterness and our bitterness becomes us. Bitterness is alluring. It is a strong emotion that often serves as replacement for another emotion we might have once felt–love, anger, fear. Often it is a “stand in” for these other strong emotions that have the same “strength of feeling” as the others. But is not the same because, perhaps, the other emotions are no longer available to us (in the case of love), or because the post-traumatic stress no longer sustains fear, but replaces it with bitterness.

Bitterness is intensely personal, so unique to each of us. So much so that our bitterness sometimes feels like something that no one else in the world could possibly share, something that no one else could conceivably understand. We believe in publicly sharing “which and what makes us bitter,” so that we can come to an exchange in understanding of those beliefs, experiences, and values that we hold dear. These are the same beliefs, experiences and values, when we experience their loss and become attached to this experience of loss–we give birth to bitterness.

A feeling of bitterness accumulates over time exacerbated by a sense of hopelessness, a lack of time to forgive and forget, a lack of agency and influence over anything meaningful, changes that you feel no ownership over, and an attachment to something that you just cannot let go of. The feeling of bitterness that is “untouched” literally leads to: a stress that prevents you from being happy; to a disillusionment with the world making the whole world seem like it is against you; to feel very lonely. Our bitterness prevents our active imagination from engaging, and this feeling of bitterness pulls you back from where you are trying to go.

The Betterness of facing our Bitterness is the belief and the practice of allowing oneself to naturally and gradually reveal and share vulnerability; we all have the ability to do so, but are often incapacitated by our bitterness and this is often the obstacle for creating a healthy individual-being and community. We’ve experienced that working with one’s bitterness leads us to believe in possibilities that empower us to listen to, connect with, and care for others differently, positively.

So, how can we become capable, adept and fearless in developing an appreciation for and a way of dealing with bitterness? Because bitterness is inevitable, we will not be able to work on creating community and changing the world and our societies around us, unless we do so. So the Betterness of facing our Bitterness is about coming to terms with our own bitterness; if we can, possibilities for our communities open up.

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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Jeremy and Hiroko,
    I know first hand how destructive bitterness can be, whether acknowledged or not. It’s like a mustard seed–the smallest of seeds–that brings forth a huge plant that is difficult to uproot. I’m curious about how you guide individuals and communities to appreciate and deal with bitterness. Tough work!

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