Mountains are bittersweet. © 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst
An Explananation for the Confused and Curious
When I say the word “bittersweet,” clouds of associations come to mind. But I’ve thought about life in these terms for awhile, and since vague ambiguity isn’t the tone I’m after (no, really), I see a need for definition. BitterSweetness. Let’s consider it in terms of denotation and connotation. First, the denotation, or “literal” definition: Bittersweetness is mingled joy and longing, pain shot with pleasure, earthbound wistfulness fueled by heaven—an elusive, paradoxical feeling.
Now for the connotative side, our “free associations.” For me, “bittersweetness” conjures up pictures—aspen leaves, sunsets (and their connotations), places—Long’s Peak, Colorado, a path through the woods I used to run on, concepts—“inconsolable longings,” tearful joy, and even moments—an interlude with a book and coffee, praying alone outside… Almost anything that gives me happiness while charging my soul with a desire for more, something greater, higher, beyond what I am enjoying. This feeling of joy just barely tasted, of a vision just brushed at, is the heart of bittersweetness.
To clarify, consider the ubiquitous word “cool.” (The most widely used word in our language?) Denotatively, we might say it means “frigid” or “hip” (or, like, whatever). But connotatively, we can’t begin to catalogue all the contexts in which the word is applied. The trip was cool. The surgery was scary, but all cool. We finally broke up, but we’re both cool with it. You missed a jump shot? Don’t worry about it, you’re cool. You’ll make the party? Cool. You can’t come? That’s cool. Hey, cool shirt. Cool sauna.
Likewise, in many ways, bittersweetness is in the eye of the beholder. It varies according to the viewer’s maturity and powers of perception. But however wide the personal associations, bittersweetness always has explicit denotations. So when I say, “Mountains are bittersweet,” I’m saying, “Mountains are thrilling because they’re in some ways as close to heaven as we can now climb…” My point being, “bittersweet” is a specific adjective. Don’t equate it with “cool.”
Life experience reveals there are some things which are invariably not bittersweet. They provoke no Christward longing, give no hint of heaven’s joy, no clue that we have souls. Regarded in their true light, these are the things which Christians should tend to despise. If something (I don’t say “someone”) offers us no trace of heaven or Christ, of authentic joy, however hidden, fallen or forgotten, it is evil indeed.