Reflections on the “tyranny of positive thinking” and facing the pains of life and grief.
The topic of positive thinking came up in a recent conversation, and the person with whom I was talking asked what I meant.
It’s like you’ve made yourself a mug of coffee, I explained, and you stir in a couple of spoons of sugar, but when you take a sip, it is disgusting. It’s only then that you realise the white powder in the bowl was not sugar but salt, rendering the nice hot mug of coffee undrinkable.
The positive thinker might look on the bright side:
“Oh, maybe it’s for the best. I’ve been drinking too much coffee anyway.”
But the coffee is spoilt; that’s the reality, and no matter how “positive” this person is, the coffee has salt in it and that’s that. The drink is undrinkable.
It’s a simplistic and imperfect analogy to illustrate the all-too-common drive to find a positive side of just about anything. Is there really always a reason for everything? Does every story have a moral and lesson learned, or a happy ending and outcome?
I don’t think so. And I think sometimes we need to say something is bad, when it is.
Some people seem to naturally have quite sunny dispositions and it isn’t hard for them to look for the bright side of things, but many of us aren’t like that. Even if we are, when we suffered a profound loss or losses, it is quite natural that we won’t be feeling so positive.
That’s an understatement! Of course we won’t feel positive as we think about our loved one’s suffering through an illness or accident, or the way their life was cut short. Of course we won’t feel positive when we realise that we are now quite alone. Of course we won’t feel positive when the reality of the ripple effects of our loss start becoming evident.
And of course we might not be feeling so positive as we experience the natural and normal responses to grief – the confusion, anger, depression, guilt, regrets, heartbreak, isolation, sadness, loneliness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, despair and the confusion, anger, depression, guilt, regrets, heartbreak, isolation, sadness, loneliness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, despair … And so it repeats and goes on as we journey through our grief.
And this is where feeling that we have to find something positive in our loss can add another unwelcome layer onto our already difficult emotional and psychological state. If we believe – or are told – that we should “look for the good”, we may end up feeling even worse.
“It’s okay that you’re not okay” is a book on grief by Megan Devine, full of lots of helpful advice and interesting outlooks. One section is entitled: “What’s wrong with being positive?” Here she mentions the “tyranny of positive thinking” and quotes Barbara Ehrenreich, an author and researcher who had lived with cancer:
The first thing I discovered is that not everyone seems to view this disease with horror or dread. Instead, the only appropriate attitude is upbeat. This requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. “
“Cosmetic layer of cheer.” Well expressed!
Megan goes on to explain:
Somehow, we are meant to both accept suffering as a gift that we needed in order to become better people and refuse to let loss shove us out of our normal, happy, rosy, optimistic demeanor. … We’ve got this idea that being a “spiritual” or “evolved” person means we aren’t upset by anything.”
Naturally the reality is different. Show me a parent who has buried their child who can be positive about what happened. They may find a way through on a positive path eventually, perhaps using their experience of loss to help others or accomplish some good thing. But it still doesn’t make the loss of their child worthwhile or a good thing in itself.
On the other hand, there are some bereaved people who are at peace about what has happened and their main emotion could even be relief. Perhaps the person they lost was elderly and had lived a long and fulfilling life, or perhaps it was a relief when he or she was no longer suffering due to their illness or disability. So this isn’t meant to say “be sad” if you’re not feeling that way.
But the majority of us experience grief largely through difficult emotions, and it is not helpful to expect – or have others expect – that we won’t be in pain.
Megan’s book, a few pages later:
The cult of positivity we have does everyone a disservice. It leads us to believe we’re more in charge of the world than we are, and holds us responsible for every pain and heartbreak we endure.”
I agree with Megan. We are not responsible for our heartbreak and our pain. Our grief is a natural response to loss.
Pain has to be welcomed and understood, given actual true space at the table. … We have to be able to say what’s true without fear of being seen as weak, damaged, or somehow failing the cultural storyline. . . .
“When we recognise pain and and grief as a healthy response to loss, we can respond with skill and grace, rather than blame and bypass.”
For me, giving pain “space at the table” means, among other things, not feeling like we have to find a “positive” in what happened to him or her or them.
It’s accepting there isn’t always a reason why things turn out the way they do.
It’s not beating ourselves up for how we are feeling.
Facing those feelings is how we can endure this experience and make it through, and that, after all, is the goal.
Read more: Deck of cards and unbottling
A dead tree. You might be able to use it for firewood and some insects might burrow down into it, but there is nothing positive for the tree itself. Telling it to “look on the bright side” won’t change the reality.