Monday, October 26, 2009

Smile and the World Smiles with You...Frown and You're on Your Own

"From my observations of successful and happy people, the roots of their power source go deep into a soil rich in optimism and inspiration. But why does one person's root system choose a soil rich with these nutrients, while an other's withers in pessimism, inertia, and negativism? Optimists realistically know that problems can be solved, and they have the faith in human nature to persevere, even when most are saying swear words like "can't" and "impossible," or are running to find friends that support their pessimism. If you are feeling low or worried about the future, you may want to do what I do. No matter what happens I smile at the learning, irony, or humor of the calamity of the moment."--Paul H. Sutherland, from his article "The Fuel of All Things Good" in the November/December issue of Spirituality & Health

"If the generic 'positive thought' is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts."--Barbara Ehrenreich, from Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

My husband Mike was humming this tune from Monty Python's Life of Brian the other night. Maybe you've heard of it. Of course you have. It's called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Knowing that I intensely dislike the British cult hit, Mike continued past the chorus and even did the whistling part. He told me (since I have never seen the movie) that the song figures in the final scene, when Brian has been sentenced to death by crucifixion and a character on a nearby cross starts singing this tune. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about the song:

"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was conceived as a parody of the style of song often featured in Disney films. It may be considered an answer song to the entire genre, but particularly to songs such as Give a Little Whistle from Pinocchio. Its appearance at the end of the film, when the central character seems certain to die, is deliberately ironic.

I've been doing a lot of reading about positive thinking, and how to be more optimistic, so when I read a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided I was definitely interested. As much as I want to believe in the power of positive thinking, sometimes I feel a little pang that tells me, Don't be delusional. You need to be realistic. Don't mistake sinking into quicksand for a day at the beach. In other words, being optimistic is great, but not in every situation you encounter.

There has been a lot of debate over this book, with critics and readers taking sides and arguing or becoming defensive of their particular views. Few people want to question the validity of the mind-body connection, even though some studies have recently shown that being positive in the face of a Cancer diagnosis might help you cope, but it's probably not going to heal the Cancer.

Sometimes I feel like the edict to "Don't worry, be happy" is another way of saying, "Shut up and take it." Nobody wants an Eeyore around to remind them that sometimes life is unfair and terrible things can happen to undeserving people. To me, just smiling and wishing these things away seems like a form of denial.

I'm reminded of an old boss I had when I was working as an editorial assistant for a New York technical book publisher. I had recently transferred to the trade books department, which I figured would be far more interesting than working with Chemistry journals. He was the Executive Editor of the Mind, Body, Spirit books, which seemed intriguing. I didn't know that I would soon be ordered to organize manuscripts in his claustrophically-cluttered office, or constantly have to lie to authors and agents about his whereabouts (which I suspected, when I accidentally caught a glimpse of his computer screen, was shutting himself in his office to look at pictures of young Thai boys.)

I intensely disliked him, but thought I was doing an OK job of hiding it. But one morning he asked me to come into his office and close the door. He was sitting with his chair tilted back, hands behind his head, exposing his armpit stains. "You need to smile more," he said. I was taken aback by this; what was I, a stewardess? Next he'd be asking me to fetch his coffee and the paper so he could pat me on the head and send me on my way. But he was serious. He looked at me as if my job was threatened if I didn't make with the false cheer. I was furious.

When I have a good or even decent boss, I'm a friendly person to work with. I understand that being pleasant and flexible are usually expected from people in the workplace. And most of the time I am genuinely pleased to talk to my superiors and co-workers because I like them and enjoy my job. But smiling in the face of an egotistical, slimy worm of a boss goes beyond my capabilities to be genial.

Same thing goes for getting sick. What's fun or inspiring about Cancer? A vague discomfort settles over me every October when I see all the pink ribbons and pink merchandise on offer everywhere you look. This year seems particularly pink. The cap on my prescription bottle is pink. My weekly local paper is printed on pink stock. Come October, every woman's magazine turns into a big catalog of pink paraphernalia; you start to feel like having breast cancer is like joining a women's club where everyone is smiling and happy and self-assured. Sure, it's great to raise money and support women experiencing this horrible disease, but do we really need a pink ribbon silicone spatula?

When my doctor found a suspicious lump in my breast and I had to go in for further testing, I didn't want to even see the word "Cancer," much less own tchtokes that would remind me of it. Luckily my lump was benign, but Barbara Ehrenreich wasn't so lucky. But rather than just remaining silent and saying her daily affirmations, she tried to find out what might have been the cause of her cancer. Turned out it was the hormone replacement drugs her doctor prescribed, drugs that many, many other women were taking at the time. But never mind, just have a positive outlook and you'll get well. Shut up and take it, indeed.

I'm only halfway through the book, so I haven't decided if I agree with everything in Bright-Sided. I want a joyful life, and because I worry a lot (often needlessly) I have spent years learning the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy. But there are times when I think that being realistic is far more important than being recklessly optimistic. And reaching out to help others is more valuable than constantly monitoring of my own negative/positive thoughts for signs of "those curses like 'can't' and 'impossible.'"

Buddhism doesn't require you to label your thoughts good or bad--just regard them as "thinking" and then let the thoughts go. Maybe that's the compromise I'll need to come to--nothing good remains, nothing bad remains. Face the bad (and good) stuff without trying to change it, and then let it go.


Nathan said...

I read an interview with Ehrenreich and felt like she was hitting on something very important. Like you, I'm not sure if I agree with all her conclusions, but I definitely think that telling people to be cheery and think of the good in everything is just a way of avoiding the suffering that is present. Actually seeing the good behind difficult things in life is a process that unfolds on its own course. Forcing people to "be positive" is just another form of violence as far as I'm concerned.

Levi said...

Being a post-treatment cancer patient, my un-cancery feathers would ruffle when non-cancer patients suggested "just think positive!" -- I often thought that the anger I felt in response might cause more cancer. None of them ever suggested a certain chemo.

I love Enrenreich's books (most that I read so far) and will most likely read this new book and see how I feel about it.

During my treatment and still now, I am hopeful every day though I don't apply hope to cancer. Most times I am pragmatic, a realist, realizing that nothing in life is certain. The whole idea of being positive is one way I believe that other people believe they can have an outcome on illness or other tragedy when met with uncertainty. I think we want to believe that our emotional state can fix things though if that were the case, wouldn' we then have to be positive about our emotional state at all times?