“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a
thing, you’re right.” --Henry Ford
I’ve had something swirling around in my brain for a couple
of weeks now. It’s swirling and
swirling. . . and swirling. It’s time to
try to make sense of it. Yes. It's time for a rant.
Generally speaking, I’m a positive, upbeat person. I tend to believe in Henry Ford’s
statement. In fact, I’ve seen that
sentiment “work” in many situations – for me, for my kids, for my friends. Believe in yourself. I think that goes a long way.
That said, I don’t think positive thinking can change
everything. For example, I don’t think I
can positive-think my way to perfect vision, a new job, or a flatter
stomach. I can, though, greatly improve
those “situations” by adopting a positive attitude. I don’t think I’m a “failure” if I can’t think my way to perfect vision.
Have you heard anything about Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest
book – Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has
Undermined America? I think Barbara
Ehrenreich typically writes with skeptical common sense, and I have enjoyed
some of her past books. But this one. .
. not so much. To be fair, I haven’t
read the Bright-side book in its entirety.
I have, though, heard her talk about it on NPR and the Daily Show, and I’ve
read an excerpted article in The Week magazine.
swirling begins. . . .
I think she brings up some interesting points about the
pitfalls of positive thinking; especially when used to the exclusion of other
“action” (like medical intervention, for example, or the inevitability of
natural phenomena). Ehrenreich equates
“positive thinking” with “living in denial,” and warns of our national
obsession with “candy-coating” negative situations. She sheds a fresh light on positive thinking,
that’s for sure!
But. Her thought
process doesn’t really work for me.
She’s a bit too assuming when it comes to what should motivate and
inspire people; too judgmental about how people respond to bad things in life. I think she’s missing the boat entirely when
it comes to positive thinking as a coping mechanism; positive thinking as a way
to approach life; positive thinking as a support system.
Much of the basis for her book comes from Ehrenreich’s own
bout with breast cancer. She is
personally put off by everything from “happy” poems pasted in the dressing room
of the mammography center to pink-ribbon-themed breast cancer awareness
products. Ehrenreich talks about her
anger at the disease and “crude treatments” available. She denigrates the “universally upbeat” tone
of the “breast cancer culture” and suggests that “all of this positive
thinking” has the effect of transforming “breast cancer into a rite of passage
– not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life
cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.”
Excuse me, Barbara, but I don’t think so.
“All of this positive thinking” has NOT made breast cancer –
or any other type of cancer, or heart disease, or spinal cord injury, or
Parkinson’s disease, or rheumatoid arthritis, or head injuries, or any number
of debilitating, life-altering conditions – a “rite of passage.” Sure, there may be folks who believe so
strongly in the power of positive thinking that they deny medical intervention,
but I don’t think that’s the great majority of us. Most of us, instead, practice positive
thinking as a way of coping with our situations; of squeezing what we can out
of the rest of our lives; as a way of supporting each other in the really dark
and frightening spaces of our lives.
I must admit that sometimes I roll my eyes at yet another pink-packaged
product supporting breast cancer research and awareness. But.
I’m really glad that breast cancer is getting this attention. If we put enough dollars into research, maybe
we CAN find a cure. If we continue to
build awareness, maybe we CAN get more women to have mammograms each year. And, by golly, if you have been personally
touched by breast cancer, and you feel powerless and want do Do Something About
It, maybe it helps you to be able to spend your money on pink-ribbon Northern
toilet paper. I don’t think that’s
denial. I don’t think that’s “rite of
passage.” I think that’s empowerment.
My son plays hockey with a boy whose mother was diagnosed
with Stage 3 breast cancer last year.
After an agonizing year of treatment, she is now doing quite well. Her son has pink skate laces in his hockey
skates, and wraps his hockey stick with bright pink tape. Ehrenreich would argue that the vendors
supplying the laces and tape are “exploiting the sick” and “infantilizing”
breast cancer victims (she doesn’t like the word “survivor” – too
positive). That’s possible. I really don’t know the motivations of the
vendors. However, I do know that every
time this hockey player takes the ice, he is sending a message to his mom - and to everyone else in that hockey arena
-- that he loves her, he supports her, and his life has been changed forever
because of her struggle with breast cancer.
Denial? No. Support?
In a big way.
Ehrenreich, herself, was very angry about her breast cancer
and treatment experience. She found the
“cheerfulness of breast cancer culture” to be more than an “absence of anger”
to “what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease.” She cites survivors who talk of how changed
they are as a result of their illness; how they are “more sensitive and
thoughtful” following their treatment.
Positive embrace of the disease?
Hmmmmmm. I think not.
Being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or
life-altering condition forces you out on The Edge pretty quickly. Anger.
Frustration. Fear. Isolation.
It’s all right there. Cancer
sucks. Parkinson’s sucks. Paralysis sucks. Loss of mental acuity sucks. Heart conditions suck. Life changes.
Suddenly. There isn’t really any
way to candy-coat this stuff. We can all
sit there, alone and angry. We can be
afraid. Or. . . we can support each
other. We can move beyond all the crappy
stuff and step away from The Edge. We
can figure out how we want to live the rest of our lives. . . and embrace it.
Sorry, Barbara, but I DO see things differently now that
I’ve been to The Edge. I’m not
denying. I’m living. Surviving, actually. I am more “sensitive and thoughtful.” I have a much greater clarity – about what I
do, who I spend my time with, what’s important to me. I tend to reach out more – and sooner – to
people than I used to. I smile
more. I encourage more. Like I’ve said many times, the colors just
seem brighter now. Am I
candy-coating? I don’t think so. Am I denying?
Nope. Will I feel like a failure
if I die? Well, no. I am going to die at some point. We all are. . . But in the meantime, I want to live a
positive life. I want to laugh and have
some fun. I don’t want to spend the rest
of my life . . . angry or frightened! Do
I feel like my cancer experience was “a gift”?
Well, certainly not one I asked for. . .
Here’s what Barbara has to say. . . “I at least, was saved
from this additional burden by my persistent anger. But I can report that breast cancer did not
make me stronger or more spiritual. What
it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing
encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been
aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to
misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
Wow, Barbara. I think
Okay. Now I feel
better. Thanks for that.