Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Argument for Realism and Dangers of "Positive Thinking"

Barbara Ehrenreich recently gave an interview about how "positive thinking" is undermining America to which I say, BRAVO.

Ehrenreich argues that, basically, a little realism and truthful admittance of our feelings when we are dogged by the inevitable harder aspects of life are not only normal, but quite healthy. She talks about her new book which explores the roots of "positive thinking" which hit close to home when in treatment for breast cancer and was advised to "embrace" her disease.

Another insightful and interesting perspective from Ehrenreich that may have me borrowing this book from the library once available.

The one point I would either disagree with or elaborate with Ehrenreich:

For the positive thinker, that means everything looks rosy and everything is going to be all right no matter what, so you have to block out the little warning signs.

For the very depressed person, you're just convinced that everything is going to be miserable, that you're not going to enjoy anything you undertake, that you're going to fail at everything.

There, too, you're just projecting things. It's extremely hard to "see things as they are." It's a project -- we have to consult other people, we get other views, we sometimes have to question other people's views, but that's the only way to proceed, and that's how our species has survived as long as it has.

The anti-deflatable population, those who are absolutely committed to seeing everything rosy, are not positive thinkers. I would argue those folks are in denial. Denial is powerful. It has the capacity to mentally save us from crushing circumstances when we need to focus on something else, like a strategy to survive. Denial is not always a bad thing. Psychologically, denial is a coping mechanism that, when appropriately used in a timely manner, can be extremely effective and helpful, provided you deal and process whatever is troublesome soon afterward.

But that's not the kind of denial that I'm referencing with this population Ehrenreich is describing. The denial of whole perspective, the denial of seeing the source of pain and unfairness is not positive thinking. It's intentional self-blindness.

The folks who Ehrenreich speaks of are the classically weak. Those who run from insecurities into big homes and refuse to acknowledge pain. Those who tell laid off workers to have a better attitude or say that cancer is "a gift." I don't believe those are positive thinkers. I think there can be redemptive strength and epiphanies that come from suffering, as many cancer patients attest, but, I tend to agree with Ehrenreich on this point: How about a little realism?

The world is a living paradox. It is filled with peace and injustice, good and bad, healers and killers, miracles and tragedies. Those who actually see this, those of us who are see BOTH sides of humanity and still see hope, those are positive thinkers. Those are the visionaries who have walked through the caves, curse at the darkness, hate the stench of oppression, identify the causes of crises, and STILL, despite all of that maintain some sort of decent, whole, and active existence in the world. Those are positive thinkers.

It's not to the lengths that she describes in her cancer treatments, but I think of my own experiences with "positive thinkers," or people who don't want to hear the hard knock truth of our emotions when faced with crisis or even severely stressful situations.

Like pregnancy.

I cannot begin to count how many times I have tried to discuss certain fears I have about delivery, about becoming a parent, or even about the plain Jane pain that will take over my body in a few short months when I give birth. To which most people automatically direct me to "think about the positive parts of this! You're having a baby!"


There is no minimizing the miracle or joy I experience on a daily level because of this new life. There is no way to diminish the unparalleled brilliance of what is transpiring in my body right now.

At the same time, there is still an abiding anxiety that I neither reject or ignore. It is part of the REALITY of my life, this experience. To project PURE positive thinking is to deny a reality which can be very much part of a positive gift later on, but for now, the deep anxiety and concern I have over the H1N1 vaccine, developing gestational diabetes, traumatic birth, birth defects, and overall, what kind of parent I will be are all so very real and scary.

But everyone loves to talk about the positive parts, the hunky dory pieces of nursery talk and baby land.

To "see things as they are" is, indeed, a rare perspective these days.

1 comment:

  1. Labor and delivery is a hard process, no matter what. Anyone who tries to tell you that if you just think positive it will all be fine is in denial. I did manage a natural childbirth but it was HARD. Things did not go according to plan. Things are not under control when you're in labor, and it can be quite scary. Then you buck up and you do it, and later on you wonder how the hell you did.

    I was also so worried about the labor and delivery part that I didn't prepare as well as (in hindsight) I should have for the "Oh, my God, we have a baby, now what?" part.

    Will you accept a book recommendation? It's called "Heading Home with Your Newborn" and it got me through the first eight weeks. Everybody should get a copy.


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