Then, in my childhood in the dawn
Of a most stormy life was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still . . .
–Edgar Allan Poe, Alone
1. The Meaning of Things
I’ve never lost my childhood sense of mystification – my ability to be amazed by the intricate puzzles and foggy mazes surrounding the reality of a situation. And, over the years, my need to know the meaning of things, and to have those meanings make sense, has only grown stronger.
I suspect that if the world were as simple as wheat and chaff, the chaff would be far more plentiful. So many of us seem to be in a constant search for something outside our own realm. In reaching for that something, we superimpose the unnatural upon even the most common realities. A shadow becomes a ghost, a falling leaf becomes a message, and the human mind becomes a god, capable of performing miracles. . .if only one believes.
Platitudes and abstractionist philosophies abound, and many would argue that they are harmless. I strongly disagree. What becomes popular in our society becomes pervasive, affecting everything from our cultural mores to our social opinions.
2. The Tyranny of Positive Thinking
I remember when the gun of positive thinking was turned against cancer patients in the 80′s. Scores of books and literature were written that either laid sideways blame on victims for having the disease of “repressed emotions” or “negativity”, or that effusively promoted positive thinking as the cure. Those who died were not positive enough – they didn’t believe enough in the power of their own mind. Twenty years later, it’s what Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, in her book The Human Side of Cancer, refers to as “the tyranny of positive thinking.”
Unfortunately, despite major long-term studies showing that while having a positive attitude may help patients handle their disease better, it does not directly affect survival rates, the tyranny persists. The latest psuedo-science headline screams “A Positive Outlook on Life May Protect Against Breast Cancer”. Sadly, some breast cancer victims will read or remember only the explosive headline, and wonder if they brought the disease on themselves by not being cheerful or optimistic enough.
Outside of the realm of cancer, the tyranny of positive thinking has led to the massively held belief that unhappiness of any sort is some sort of disease – one caused by a mind that refuses to see the glass as half-full – that does not find beauty in pain, or redemption in tragedy.
And once again, platitudes abound.
Gratitude. . . turns what we have into enough, and more . . . -Melody Beattie
You can have everything you want in the world if you love yourself first!! -
I am the perpetrator of my suffering – but only all of it. – Byron Katie
I had a revealing conversation once with a therapist who mindlessly repeated the oft-stated belief that “no one can make you feel hurt without your permission.” I asked her what would happen if at that moment a madman stormed into her office and shot her. Would she be hurt? Could she will the bullet to miss her? What if it wasn’t a bullet, but a fist or a flying stapler – would the weapon make a difference? Would she, bruised and bloodied afterwards, refuse to carry the affect of such an assault, maintaining the same unlocked doors and sense of security? What if it was not her, but her daughter?
Of course people can make you feel hurt without your permission. They can do so with a weapon, with words, with broken promises, bullying, or diminishment. Others can rob you of a livelihood, a sense of safety, or even a person you loved. They can steal the money you needed to retire or pay the rent. The bad actions of another can have a profound, and even lifelong affect.
Ah, but. . . “We can’t control the actions of other people, we can only control how we feel about it.” Enter the foggy maze, where a bullet becomes inspiration and an unwarranted fist becomes a lesson. Where those who die young were wanted in Heaven by God himself, and where pain, and struggle, and even the worst circumstances can be willed away . . . if only you believe.
3. Women, Unhappiness & the Chemical Solution
If only you believe in gratitude, says Beattie, whatever you have will be more than enough. And if it isn’t? Maybe it’s because you didn’t love yourself enough or think the right thoughts, according to Hay. In the end, Katie tells us, all suffering is self-inflicted. The robbery, the assault, the disease, the death. . .we must have wanted it on some level – or maybe God and the fates decided we needed it – or maybe it’s some karmic lesson left over from life #46 that we need to learn for life #47. After all, there are no accidents.
It doesn’t surprise me that women make up the majority of those who most strongly espouse this fantastical kind of thinking. We make up 50-51% of the population, yet hold only a scant percentage of the political and social power. Lacking equal affirmation, and standing outside the doors of power, we seek change where we can – within the boundless territory of self.
It’s also not surprising that much of this magical thinking is, at its core, overly forgiving and tolerant of outside sources, and heavy on self-blame. Women have been molded, domineered, and duped into ready forgiveness and self-blame for centuries.
We learned that we bring forth children in pain to pay for Eve’s want of knowledge. Our monthly cycle was not a sign of health, but a curse. We were taught that as long as the weapon used against us was no thicker than a man’s thumb, assaults against us were sanctioned by God. When even the most senseless wars of men killed our children, we were told it would be ignoble not to feel proud of our sacrifice. Our emotions have been, at various times, labeled as madness or hysteria. We have been romanticized as pleasing helpmates, cheerful housewives, and doting mothers. Scorned as ball breakers, brash women, hags, and bitches when we didn’t tow the patriarchal line. Even now we are often blamed for rape, the divorce rate, and the destruction of the nuclear family.
The unhappiness of women seems to be viewed through a different lens than the unhappiness of men. It’s likely that the same unbalanced social mores that rate assertiveness differently for the sexes does the same when it comes to emotion. In other words, when men express unhappiness, it may be considered reasonable given circumstances, whereas a woman’s unhappiness is suspect – caused solely by her own actions, raging hormones, or negative, complaining female mind. If we can’t find our happy place in imaginative mental revisionism, then there’s always a chemical solution. According to a 2003 study from the University of Michigan, the ratio of women to men on anti-depressants in 2:1-3:1. Even after accounting for gender-based differences, such as postpartum depression, the ratio is high.
While clinical depression is caused by a biological imbalance, I have to wonder if at least some of those prescriptions aren’t being written for women who feel guilty for not being the reality shifting revisionists and perfectly cheerful workers-daughters-wives and mothers society tells them they should be.
4. The Blinding Aftermath
Unhappiness is not a disease, and outside of true medical conditions, it is also not a symptom. It seems disingenuous to promote positive emotion as a natural, healthy response while blacklisting unhappiness as unnatural, unhealthy, and solely a matter of choice.
In a society where most circumstances, and the emotions surrounding those circumstances, are thought to be a matter of choice,
- social injustices are minimized or negated,
- complaints, no matter how valid, are derided,
- reality becomes “what you make it” rather than what it actually is,
- the pressure on changing external forces is lessened,
- and compassion and empathy are spared.
It is easier to wear blinders in a world where human unhappiness is considered a self-fulfilling prophecy or disease. Rather than going through the hard work of correcting injustices, we can blame the victims. We can refuse to see victims, and see instead only people who failed to make good choices. We can more easily turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, and turn a deaf ear towards their complaints, when we believe that whatever they are suffering is self-perpetrated.
We can harm each other in a myriad of ways, and then claim we are not responsible for the aftermath. We can be less compassionate, less generous, and less empathetic when we believe that the problem with other people is their attitude rather than their circumstance.
Certainly, happiness is preferable to the lack of it –- that is not the question. The question is one of genuineness, and realism, and rationality. In promoting positive, magical thinking not just as a self-help tool, but as the ultimate cure for nearly every human condition from cancer to social marginalization, what have we accomplished? What have we lost? What does the future hold for a society that makes bestsellers of books like The Secret, in which the author claims, “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life.” Writer Tim Watkin, of the Washington Post, points out that “Hard work, talent, education, even luck go unmentioned. As The Secret puts it, all you have to do is ‘put in your order with the universe.’ Ask. Believe. Receive. That’s the mantra.”
It’s a mantra that has been played like a lulling serenade, particularly during the reign of Republican congressional then Presidential rule, in which big business and war took precedence over people, and invisible bootstraps were the only things offered to those reeling from high unemployment rates, skyrocketing inflation, and a record number of home foreclosures. The years from 1999-2004 (the last year studied) saw a nearly 20% increase in the suicide rate among 45-54 year-olds. For women, the rate leapt 31 percent. Coincidence? Or a matter of circumstance? Researchers believe that the prime suspect is a high rate of prescription drug use and abuse, particularly of anti-depressants.
5. The Monster in the Closet
On May 30, 2008 an elderly man in Hartford, Connecticut was run over by a car on a busy street. The driver did not stop, and no one, not even a single person, stopped to help him, or tried to divert traffic away from his body. Torres, 78, was left paralyzed from the neck down. “At the end of the day we’ve got to look at ourselves and understand that our moral values have now changed,” Police Chief Daryl Roberts was quoted as saying. “We have no regard for each other.”
What regard can we have for ourselves and others when magical, positive thinking is the order of the day? When we believe that someone, somewhere else, is in charge of helping those who need it – or worse, when we believe that almost every human need is a self-contained matter, and that experiences and tragedies, no matter how harsh or unjust, are somehow chosen?
To what end is the self-flagellation guised as positivity? If we cannot truly “think it and be it” – if the outside world does not turn on our most focused and heartfelt wishes – and the future we so studiously and lovingly envisioned does not pan out, is it because we did not Ask, Believe, and Receive correctly? Were our thoughts not happy enough, positive enough?
Realism in the age of magical thinking has become the monster in the closet. The scary thing that we avoid for fear of being swallowed or overtaken, or swept up in a battle when all we really want to do is relax –- let go and let God. Find inner peace. Fill up on a feast of gratitude, platitudes, and self-love when sustenance is short, believing that eventually we’ll discover the secret to life-long happiness and contentment.
If realism is viewed as a monster, it is not an imaginary one, nor will it go away if ignored or abandoned in favor of magical thoughts. It needs our action, awareness, involvement, and yes – our continued struggle for a world that is better in reality, and not just in hope. Our shared reality, in particular, needs us, front and center and standing at attention, willing to bravely face the unpleasant truths and do battle with harmful forces, if it is ever to arrive at a place of true social justice, lasting peace, and fully realized potential. We need bravery, not bromides, to create the changes we seek.