There’s been this thing in recent weeks on Facebook where people nominate friends to list three positive things in their day – or things in their life they are grateful for. For five consecutive days . One of my friends issued veiled threats, via her FB status, to anyone who nominated her for this challenge, which resulted in an ensuing torrent of comments along the lines of ‘what’s with all social media Pollyannas?’ and ‘everyone seems to be ‘feeling blessed’ before breakfast these days’. And various vomiting sounds phonetically transmitted via the keyboard. My comment was that I am grateful not to be ‘blessed’ with a smugness which drives me to croon about how positive my life is/ what a wonderful person I am, when others may not be having such a great time.
It’s not that I have nothing to be grateful for. Indeed there are a few fundamentals that I consider genuine blessings .To be counted, carefully and considerately, not flung across the social media superhighway like handfuls of confetti. Counted. On the fingers of one hand :
1. to have the good fortune to be born in a region which is not the centre of armed conflict
2. that my kids are, whilst being financially chaotic, and materialistically unambitious, genuinely nice people, funny and humane with good values
3. extended family; and friends from every era of my life
That’s day one sorted. But that’s probably it. By day three I suspect would be reduced to celebrating bowel movements .
This relentless positivity, it doesn’t work for me. Because things which I might be feeling pretty good about one day, might be a real downer in a couple of days’ time.
Last year I had a rather frightening depressive episode, a sort of breakdown I suppose. After five years of my personal life taking a pretty evil pounding, I had the stress of two house moves and a dramatic plumbing catastrophe in my new house. Combined, they drove me into a place I don’t want to be in again in a hurry, and to the bizarre circumstance of requesting an emergency appointment with my GP because I couldn’t stop crying. During that time, I often felt terror and panic and everything in my life seemed totally shit. I watched other people with normal, happy lives and regular, cheerful families and felt like I was banished from that world for ever. Disentitled. I couldn’t go on Facebook for fear of encountering an onslaught of contented positivism. So I kept away from it for a while.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook. I have pithy, witty, cynical, bizarre interchanges with friends and enjoy their humour and occasional wisdom. Sometimes it veers into the surreal which I particularly enjoy. The happy updates are fine, I post them myself sometimes if I’ve just had a good work-out or reached a milestone I’m proud of. It’s just that, what seems positive varies from week to week, from day-to-day even.
A few months after my bout of mental illness, benefitting from the wonders of medication, I woke up one morning and realised that a) I was feeling really quite positive b) nothing had really changed in my life except I had my energy back. The same dimensions of my life which had been painted in thunderous dark greys and night-black, were now in ochres, cool reds and greens. No vibrant primaries, but a pleasing palette of livable colours. Then, a few weeks later, after a bit of flu, things felt grey and doomed. Again, nothing much had changed externally, but my energy had gone. And that scared me. It particularly freaked me out because I had to start a major project soon afterwards and was genuinely panicked as to whether I’d have the stamina. As a freelance arts producer I live by my wits and my energy, and when that goes other things go with it, like self belief, self-worth and creativity. To lose that through depression is a double cruelty.
The project started, I was soon caught up in the ideas, the possibilities and for the next few weeks it built its own energy, more than I could imagine. I worked long hours, underwent more than the usual amount of stress encountered in a site specific production, got fired up, dealt with venues, partners, licenses, directors, musicians, car parks, circus performers… I’m alive ! I sang to myself inwardly.
That positivism, that feeling of being able to deal with whatever the project threw at me did not come from ‘the power of positive thinking’. It came from sharing the creativity of the team. And it came from a passion for the work whose subject was quite dark, quite scary, which talked about grief, mourning and denial : climate psychology. Through that project that I found strength in the dark side.
Around the time we started researching the project, I discovered the book by Barbara Ehrenreich – Smile or Die : How Positive Thinking Fooled America and The World (also précised as a wonderful RSAnimate). It’s premise is that America’s ideology of ‘positive thinking’ has become not only a major industry , in self-improvement books, DVD’s, life coaches, gurus and motivational speakers, but a tyranny. The recognised causal effect of positivity on mood has somehow become a belief that an individual’s thoughts, positive or negative, directly affect outcomes in personal life – and the physical world beyond. If people just believe in themselves, think positively and make an effort everything they desire will come to them. The faux-scientific explanation is that money, cars, wide-screen TV’s, Cartier watches etc will be attracted by ‘brain magnetism’. Yes, really. Hence, any misfortune must be down to their failure of attitude.
Ehrenreich’s line through this is that believing we’ll make things right for ourselves by mandatory positivism is dangerous and morally callous (as well as scientific arse-gravy). It gives individuals false hope that problems are all in their head, and shuts out anyone who cast doubt on the belief that, say, house prices would continue to rise to support the ever multiplying leverage represented in sub-prime mortgages. It was a major cause of the economic crash. We are programmed to trust in market fundamentalism as some kind of deity which will make everything peachy. It’s a form of social control to keep us focussed on the individual good, not the collective reality. Sometimes I suspect that these Facebook chain statuses inviting a specified number of positives (with a subtle implication that unless you comply your negativity may impact on your life chances), was deliberately engineered to this end.
One of the characters in The Second Breath (our theatre/music/circus project), is called Vigilance. Vigilance is, in Ehrenreich’s words, one of the things by which we human beings are ‘hard-wired for survival’. Our caveman ancestors on the savannah did not survive by telling each other everything would be OK, and with the right positive attitude that large moving shape in the bushes will turn out to be a fine lunch. Those that did quite quickly became another creature’s lunch. So Vigilance finds strength in the loss of hope – that ‘they’ would help her and stop her house falling into the sea as the waters rose and the lands eroded. Her mourning for her house becomes the strength of realisation that ‘… They are not coming to rescue us. They do not exist. They is us’.
Some people said that a speech in which a character loses hope is gloomy, and negative. As Ehrehreich points out, whilst cheerleading positivism is delusional, so is its opposite, untrammelled pessimism. But the ‘boundless’ loss of hope that Vigilance undergoes takes with it apathy and false optimism. ‘Gone with my hope goes my dormancy, my retreat from living. My fabulous release from waiting for things to get better. Now I make things better. ‘
It sometimes seems to me that the more vigilant we need to be, the more the urge to ‘smile’ swells our dormancy ; the more compelling the information available to us about the threats to our habitat, the more we croon about our lovely lives and tasteful decor. The greater the dangers of losing everything, of subsiding into global conflict, the more we post on Facebook how grateful we are for our prosecco and olives served on the new decking.
I’ve also been known to post pictures of food, open fires and garden bounty, so I won’t be updating my status with the answer to this. I’m not blessed to be vigilant, grateful that I can recognise the threats or feeling positive about embracing realism. Sometimes all these things are just too bloody hard. But it does help to have a tough kernel of survival at my centre, and embracing the dark side has sharpened something in my world view. It needs energy to keep that toughness, that sharpness. The constant micro-adjustment of precarious balance, not the resting muscles of false hope.
The belief that we can effect change, not as individuals thinking positive thoughts, but realistically and collectively as a vigilant society is now my core of optimism – and that may yet prove delusional. But it’s a better delusion to cling to than grinning like an idiot in front of a motivational poster.