I recently got introduced to the work of RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), especially their Animate section. (cartoonist draws delightful pictures on white board in tandem with the audio clip of a speech given at RSA.)
These clips are entertaining, informational and the conclusion of the various studies/topics covered will astound you. (plus, they are all about 10 minutes in length. Perfect for a short break from work!)
The clip, titled “Smile or Die” plunged me right back into my ever-changing views regarding those I call the “Hope-Sellers”.
Now, for good or ill, my self-identified group of Hope-Sellers include the Good, the Bad and the Ugly from a wide range of industries, cultures, political parties and religions. Anytime I’m told by anyone to ‘hang in there, it will get fixed if only you do such and such” (be it diet, regimen, prayer, attitude adjustment, voting choice, etc.) only to find out that the results are less than promised or the promises made are unsupported by historical evidence, then that person, thing or idea get placed in the Hope-Sellers category of my brain.
Yes, this system is completely at the whims of my objectivity, perspective and emotional balance any moment of the day. But if you’re honest, I bet you have a Hope-Sellers category in your labeling brain too. My guess is we all came up with this category in an attempt to guard ourselves from crushing disappointment when one more Great Idea turned out to be a lemon so rank, it wasn’t even fit to make lemonade with………..
So back to Smile or Die………
(you really should take 10 minutes to watch it….but if not, I’ll summarize for you)
In short, Barbara Ehrenreich questions the value of the Positive Thinking ideology. She makes very good points concerning the moral callousness and cruelty of telling those who are down due to poverty, illness or loss to simply, “Change their Attitude”, citing their attitude as the root of all their woes. She also makes interesting points concerning how powerful a control mechanism this ideology is and brilliantly demonstrates how hurtful and delusional Optimism can be at times.
Well! I had to sit and ferment on that for awhile – quite simply because I have been on the “Positive thinking changes your Life Experience” and “The Story you tell becomes the life you experience” bandwagon for quite awhile. It was somewhat hard to listen to someone questioning these tenets.
But, as usual, some committee members of my brain team were quick to speak up!
“That’s true – remember how frustrated you were when you asked why such-and-such healing modality wasn’t working for you and the self-appointed guru said, ‘Apparently, you don’t believe it will work. Nothing I can do about that. You have to want to be well.’ Did that help you or tick you off?”
“Remember the time a holistic healer told you that you must be ‘holding on to your illness’ for some purpose?”
“Remember how cold you thought it was for someone to tell a person diagnosed with cancer, “well, you brought this into your life for a reason”.
“And what about that time you were trying to share your own experience of your health journey and the client screeched, ‘Centered and Balanced! What the hell does that mean?’ Your Optimism didn’t help her much, did it?”
Wasn’t very long before I had dozens of memories from my own life where either I was the recipient of hurtful optimism or, inadvertently, the deliverer of it.
I came to the conclusion that Ms. Ehrenreich had made her point.
Do I believe that positive thinking and learning to tell the best possible story you can about the events in your life is helpful? Heck ya! I’m just very glad to find someone who has stood up and said, “Yes, but that’s not all that’s needed.”
Because I had come to that conclusion myself – yet I had built my life surrounded by those also on the Positive Thinking bandwagon and to say so out loud was akin to heresy. (which, by the way, in its’ original form meant ‘free thought’ – – Narrow mindedness and intolerance are not restricted just to religious organizations…………)
I had constructed a circle around myself that did not allow much space to discuss problems and societal ills. Or to voice anger or disappointment with the less-than-pleasant aspects of life.
Do I believe that worldwide change can happen one individual at a time? Yes. But I also think that when folks are down and out, they need support and compassion until they are healed enough (or have enough to eat, or shelter over their head or meaningful and financially rewarding work) before we talk about enlightenment and positive energy saving the world.
There have been studies seeking to prove that the Intentional Peaceful Meditation of a few can reduce the amount of crime in an area. Given the results of these various studies, it appears that as the number of those meditating increases, violent crime decreases and the geographical radius of those decreases enlarges.
Okay. I believe. But I’m also realistic enough to understand that in order to increase the number of participants, other issues must be addressed.
Adequate food, shelter and other necessities of life have to be easily and readily available to those who are participating.
(Yes, I know there are folks who can obtain a deep meditative state who are not eating or drinking, but for the average American, it’s hard to focus on peace when you’re thinking about whether you have enough money to pay the mortgage or feed your family tonight or if you’ll have a job tomorrow.)
Those under extreme stress are able to access inner feelings of peace and calm just as well as those trained in the high arts of prayer.
Well because when the you-know-what hits the fan, sometimes, that feeling of peace and calm is the only place left to go. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you can change – so for your own survival, you surrender to the events around you just to keep your sanity.
However, having experienced that sensation a few times in my life, I can tell you that when the peaceful/calm is accessed as a survival mechanism, you certainly are not ’sending out peace with intention’. More likely you are in a blessed state of numbness – Mother Nature’s way of putting a band-aid on your broken heart.
If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has nursed a loved one during a terminal illness.
But for the most part, most of us are somewhere in-between the poles of pure enlightenment and moment-to-moment survival. We linger in the mid-areas, appreciating the good, worrying about what might or might not be and planning for a future that often seems all too vulnerable to outside forces beyond our control.
How many deep meditators can we draw from that population pool?
So, realistically, it makes sense to address economic woes and systems, health and nutrition issues, poverty and unemployment, and then see about having the time and space to sit around Intentionally Forming Peace.
In the past few months, I’ve attended meditation groups where participants are instructed on how to ’safely release pent-up negativity’ by screaming into a towel, (you’re also given instructions on how to scream safely, so as not to damage your vocal chords.)
Didn’t work for me. Number one, I’m not a screamer – though I can raise my voice. In fact, my drama teacher from high school will attest to the fact that no matter the number of attempts, I was unable to give her the requisite scream. (…ah, the disappointment over that lost part…….)
Also, when I’m trying to reach that magical level of meditation where I can actually feel the healing taking place (yes, I’ve gotten there a few times) all that muffled screaming around me is very distracting. My mind just cannot turn off it’s ramblings.
(“Wow! The Kumbaya group has this much pent-up anger? No wonder we have road rage… Why can’t people just learn to use the f-word and get it out of their systems right on the spot?” I will say my brand of venting negative emotions is not socially acceptable and will result in you being labeled a dullard and of poor vocabulary skills. But hey, I love to use “Reconnoiter” as I often as I can, so cursing works for me...)
I’m well aware I often walk/talk in seemingly contradictory worlds. As Robert Fulghum says:
“Too much high-content information, and I get the existential willies. I keep sputtering out at intersections where life choices must be made and I either know too much or not enough. The examined life is no picnic.”
On the flip side, he also acknowledged that “Ignorance is Bliss”.
I find myself more and more of a Fence Walker. That which seemed so black and white to me 20 years ago now contains 1,000 different shades of gray – while I also have drawn some hard lines around topics that used to be pretty open for discussion.
Those who dislike me will tell you I’m wishy-washy.
Those who love me will tell you I’m open-minded.
It’s all in the beholder.
My dad often said he was not cynical or pessimistic, just a realist. From my perspective, the values Dad based his life on had been betrayed by his own society and culture. Suddenly, hard work and charging a fair price while allowing those in need to pay what they could no longer allowed him to keep his head above water. He faced a decision, either raise his rates drastically or work harder/longer. He chose to work. And he chose to still serve those in the community who couldn’t afford even his modest rates.
Now, there are those from the Positive Thought group that will tell you it was his own fault – he could have said no and only accepted clients who would pay higher fees. And when that didn’t work, they would have told him he needed to “Think Positive thoughts to Attract those clients.”
Hence the first crack in my adherence to the Positive thought process. Because I knew the hundreds of people who attended Dad’s funeral were not there because he ‘thought positive thoughts’. (He did often whistle or sing while he worked, but he was also a class A ‘gripe about what’s wrong with our political processes’ commentator too.)
They showed up because he continued to serve his community all his life, without trying to become a millionaire out of the deal. Because he was kind and helpful to many, especially the elderly and single moms. He could also ream anyone who dared to engage in the greedy, underhanded or cruel a new one when he felt it was needed. Couldn’t bear to hear a sick child cry, but would wade into the middle of any fray if he thought some hard-headed clods could only be simmered down by a few well placed blows.
As mom always said, he was a man’s man. (I added, who looked really good in pink shirts.)
He was both known as an honorable fellow and a hard-ass. He sure didn’t buy into pie-in-the-sky delusions, but he firmly believed in the power of prayer. He shared my journey through the spiritual and quantum physics world and was, in turns, interested and disgusted. He helped me to navigate my way through both new and ridiculous ideas. His most common response to those things called miracles that science was trying to explain?
“Well, I certainly believe it happens. Too much evidence to ignore. But I’m not sure the explanation they are giving is substantiated.”
A man grounded in the knowledge of math and science, who loved facts, but who also opened his heart to that which was beyond his comprehension.
While I do not totally agree with Barbara on all her views, I admire her way of dissenting with the Think Positive culture. My paraphrase of her message?
“I am not advocating Gloom, Doom, Negativity and Depression. But there are things we get angry about and are fearful of. To deny a voice to those emotions or pretend problems don’t exist is delusional. Positive Thinking ideology leaves the individual feeling alone in his quest to bring desirous change to his world.”
That’s a Fence I can walk.