The word "bitter" has been tossed about a lot lately. Referring to an event that took place years ago, a newspaper reporter recently described me as bitter during a telephone interview. Without even knowing who I am, let alone my mental state, one might be inclined to instinctively agree just from seeing the word used above. Yet for those on the receiving end, "bitter" is a serious matter. It's an immensely powerful declaration with the paradoxical quality of strengthening its hold the more times it is denied, and the past few days have borne witness to its wrath.
The latest victims of "bitter" are Pennsylvania voters, defamed at the hands of the usually hyper-articulate Barack Obama. As is wont to happen during political campaigns, Obama is now being assailed by the press for wielding such a powerful weapon in such a hapless manner—but the situation involves a fair bit of irony, for it is usually the press itself using "bitter" to do the assailing (as was just the case in my telephone call). Bitter is like verbal napalm. It hurts, it stings, and it doesn't go away.
It goes without saying that there are only certain situations in which using Bitter is really justified. You wouldn't use Bitter on a child, crying due to a skinned knee, no matter how vociferously he wailed against the coarseness of the sidewalk. Nor would anyone use Bitter on a cancer patient, furious at everyone and no one for the myriad humiliations that come hand in hand with the disease and its treatment. Bitter would be wasted on a corporate whistleblower with a sharp conscience but no ax to grind. Bitter would be insensitive to the extreme against a rape victim, with every reason in the world to harbor fury toward a callous perpetrator. So when is it appropriate to fire Bitter at the angry, the downtrodden, and the oppressed? The answer is only rarely, for meeting the Bitter threshold requires the perfect storm of negative circumstances indeed.
Bitter has many definitions, but even more connotations. The pungency of the word is inextricably tied to some of the most unpleasant food one has ever tasted, and so for most people, hearing it alone is enough to make one recoil. Bitter's payload involves stewing in anger, obsessing over trivialities, losing all perspective, refusing to accept even a small part of blame, stubbornly resisting the drive to move forward, and remaining obstinate for a long period of time. In all, Bitter is bad. It should be used only in those few cases of last resort where both the definitions and the connotations apply.
That's not to say that it is a word without any practical application. I regret that Bitter did describe me once, and it was an unpleasant experience to say the least. Bitter may have even described some Pennsylvania voters at one point in time for the reasons Senator Obama proffered. (Being from Ohio, I wouldn't know.) The real problem with using Bitter is that as an external observer of a victim, one can never tell when it's worn off, making the accusation (for it is always an accusation, and never merely an adjective) possibly false. After all, the last thing that a once-Bitter individual wants to hear is that he is still Bitter. The process of moving forward is hard enough without constant blasts from the past.
The truth is, it's perfectly natural and even necessary to get angry once in a while, for some things that happen in life are simply wrong. Being happy or blissfully ignorant in dangerous or unpleasant situations can have catastrophic consequences. Therefore, I think it was reasonable to be angry when my car disappeared from its parking space in San Francisco. (I failed to see a sign that the city planted in the middle of a tree.) Had it not been for my shock and immense dissatisfaction, I might still be wandering the streets, contentedly looking for it. I was upset with myself too when I slept through my alarm clock, missing a dinner appointment after a tiring day. The fact that I was endowed with some degree of a capacity for anger at myself and others makes me no different than any other human being. Knowing this, it's neither productive nor accurate to launch Bitter at each and every instance of anyone's excessive and unproductive anger. Those that do, whether politicians or members of the press, seem rather insensitive and irresponsible.
Sadly, given that I have already been labeled with Bitter, my arguments likely hold less sway with the objective reader. How can I possibly prove that I am Bitter no longer? Well, despite Senator Obama's poor word choice, I can tell you one thing for certain: it was an honest mistake that anyone could have made (and that many have). I don't hold it against him. He'll still have my vote in November.
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April 17, 2008 at 11:47 AM DT
An interesting reflection, although I can see you have not quite moved away from "bitter". You might enjoy "Bitter Lemons", by Lawrence Durrell, who recounts his
"freedom" experiences while in Cyprus, in the 1950s.
Freedom is, perhaps, the flip side of bitter, which is to say the complete absence of bitterness.
Best, Derick Harris
Aaron Greenspan (http://www.aarongreenspan.com)
April 25, 2008 at 1:54 AM DT
I have actually moved away from "bitter." That's the point of the piece!
May 21, 2008 at 6:02 AM DT
Tonight I spent considering the entertaining wisdom contained in your writings. I apprecitate the contemplation that you have dedicated to each. While I may not completely agree with everything you postulate, I admire you for your apparent ability to incorporate and build upon the solid foundations that can be derived from the sometimes disappointing or bitter lessons of life. As I am a number of years your senior, it is interesting to reflect how you (and myself) have incorpoated these into your persona and personal style. Makes me consider over my own life and wonder how different each of us would be without the "bitter" moments and the scratches it imprints on our hard drives. Some like you I suspect will accept, learn and write around them. While others become stuck like an old scratched vinyl record with the same pattern repeating over and over with ever increasing frustration and anger with the self-generated inevitability of it all.
Yes you can scarcely disprove the negative as it will tighten like a noose with each attempt.
Keep on writing.
Would you accept a call to your office at Think to discuss what I would humorously call a Web 2.5 concept. LOL, and No I cant define that any more realistically than you could Web 2.0.
April 15, 2009 at 7:02 PM DT
I think this sucks. It was bitter alright. What was the meaning of the word bitter. It was not interesting it started of bitter.