12: Positivity in the time of hysteria
Oh, I could hide 'neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six o'clock alarm would never ring
Cheer up, sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen?
-- The Monkees
Several months ago, I was out walking Otis, my golden retriever, and I met one of my dog walking friends. Actually these days most of my friends are dog walking friends. This is not because I’m a lovely guy who loves dogs and people, but because of my dog Otis, who everyone likes because he enthusiastically likes everyone. How can you not like a happy, happy dog with a positive, go out and greet the world disposition? Only if you have an aversion to muddy paws and slobber, which most people tolerate much easer than nasty human critical thinking. So, like the loser kid in grade school (I guess I was one once), I’ve learned to hang out with the popular kid that everyone likes because, inevitably, some of that “like” rubs off on me.
Without Otis, probably not so much.
The conversation that I had with this friend illustrates why. He asked me what I thought about Trump – Trump had just said/done something outrageous – advocated killing the wives and children of enemies, asked his followers to beat up a protester, said that we should go ahead and use nuclear weapons… something that, I’m sure, now pales in comparison to many of the other insane/irresponsible/scary things he has said to curry favor with his goon-like multitude of followers, ignorant citizens who seem to have drunk a lot of toxic waste and devolved into something that resembles the Belzebub Fan Club… Anyway, he asked me about Trump because he knows that I have political opinions and am the excitable type, and he thought it would be good entertainment to set me off.
And set me off, of course, it did. I went on about how I was horrified by Trump, but more than that I was infinitely more upset by the fact that his off-the-charts public behavior not only wasn’t hurting him, but seemed to be a big selling point to a huge chunk of the American public. Who are these people? And what the heck has happened to this country? I think I was probably close to wailing… and if I wasn’t, I think I should have been.
Having nicely drawn me out, he promptly tried to calm me down… or shut me down, I should say, with a kind of cool, confident, sunny rationality that I’m sure he has learned to use on frothing idiots like me. “Oh, I’m sure that any minute he will say something that does him in and he’ll just fade away and be forgotten,” he said. (This was, of course, before Trump had won the nomination.)
But, but, but, but… that’s not what’s happening! I objected, again noting that his followers seemed to love his insanity, the insaner the better, because they like him “telling it like it is” (especially when he’s actually saying total falsehoods). All the signs, I pointed out, were that this was going to get worse, not go away… what if he won the nomination?? What could happen to the country if an irresponsible madman was in reach of the presidency?
“I just prefer to look at things more positively,” he said sanely, to end the conversation. And it did, because there was nothing that didn’t involve some naughty words that I could, at that moment, say in reply. The implication that I was just being way too negative did shut me up, because being overly negative is something no reasonable person would assume was good. I had no rational way to continue the argument, but, in fact, it was about the least effective thing he could have said to resolve the issue because I’ve been fuming and musing about it ever since. I don’t think “looking at things positively” is necessarily a superior way to approach the problems of the world, no, no, no I don’t.
A little personal history/disclosure here.
Throughout most of my adult life, people have regularly told me that I dwell too much on the bad stuff, on things that are worrying rather than on things that are hopeful an promising and that I am unnecessarily depressing. I’m pretty sure that most readers of these essays feel this way, because I even do myself sometimes. I guess I acknowledge the truth of my negativity because I know my thinking is drawn to problems, discontents and WTF/FUBAR/SMH malfunctions of rational order like a moth to a searchlight. The bumper sticker “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” was written for my car.
Still, I’ve had occasion to bridle when people decide to reprimand me for looking at things darkly. Once, a coworker in the university advancement business who was trying to force me to task me with some ridiculous, unworkable request (say, get national media attention for a minor gift from a needy local donor) responded to my professional opinion that she was asking for the impossible, “Oh, Jim, you’re always so negative!” From her perspective, I guess I was just being difficult, since she always thought that whatever she demanded should magically happen. Because that was how she wanted reality to work, it just had to. Other people should just “make it so.” No naysayers or compromisin’ on the road to her horizon. She was a princess, and princesses always get what they want, right? Me, my middle finger often began to itch fiercely in her presence.
I think this is often the way people who are “positive-thinking” and hopeful are – they want everyone to have their dreams and their hopes and they object to anyone who lives outside their fantasy and who points out that reality says “nay.” They firmly believe that the great force of their own will can order the world. Positivity can be narcissism’s best friend.
So I say watch out for people whose “positive view on life” means that they expect you to positively get in line. Call me a bomb-throwing revolutionary against such Republican positivity. I really tend to doubt that Trump is going to “make America great again,” just by saying that it should be and the sheer, yuge force of his will.
But there’s also a larger philosophical/cultural/religious aspect to my negative outlook. I know that, to some extent, my negative worldview is an inherited belief, a kind of cultural tradition. My older brother once told me a story about a “philosophic” disagreement he had with one of his ex-partners. She complained to him that he always insisted on seeing the dark side of every situation, and that bothered her because it made everything more difficult and depressing, with him always thinking about what could go wrong. “Life is much happier,” she told him, “if you just believe that everything will come out right.”
My brother acknowledged that it was generally easier to go on that way, but he argued that there was a virtue to pessimism: “When you worry about the bad things that can happen, you are emotionally and mentally prepared to deal with problems when they occur. “
I’m telling this reported story to show you that my negativity isn’t just me -- it’s a kind of family philosophy. Other families have grand and noble traditions, but mine has an aged and cultivated negative outlook. I have heard from other in-laws felt like our family was always depressed, and some have blamed it on our father, who, someone said, “always insisted on overthinking things.” Frankly, I don’t remember my father as being depressive or even much of a worrier – but he was a college professor and a critical thinker. (He was kind of a man’s man, and believed in living with a certain amount of bold dignity and courage. He didn’t appreciate children who cried and complained.) If you are not much of a thinker, I can see why this is both annoying and “depressing.” It’s hard to think, and it prevents a certain amount of simple enjoyment of things from occurring – thinking too much ruins the experience of blissful ignorance.
But beyond my family history, this is actually a familiar cultural debate in America, from the snarky cynicism of Mark Twain to the “sunny optimism” of Ronald Reagan and the triumphalist wing of the Republican party. The most familiar trope in the argument is the “glass half-full, glass half-empty” dichotomy, which most commonly is used to condemn “half-empty” people who see things that could be seen as normal (or even “pretty great,” if you want to be positive and “overlook the negative”) as being “awful.” With it comes a kind of religious belief that if you just believe that things will turn out well, the force of your positive will (notice how the belief in a friendly, “personal savior” God jives with the narcissistic positivism I talked about earlier) will make everything right. Debbie Downers who don’t have a sunny, positive attitude are naturally bound to fail, this credo says.
While there is a standard religious trope that this comes from, it’s deeply embedded in American popular culture and pop-psychology, as one can see in the best selling books “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “The Secret,” which both argue mystically that you can make the world turn out right by willing it so. This “productive positivism” is a philosophy most enthusiastically embraced by people who somehow happen to have already succeeded, of course. People who follow this philosophy and then don’t succeed… well, they either become bitter failures or they become people who don’t care because are grateful for whatever they are left with. Positivists who have been successful tend to see those who don’t succeed as “losers” who have failed because of some inner flaw, such as a insufficient positive effort or lack of “a can-do attitude.” It’s much the same thing as the way a more religious people used to think that bad things happened to people because of their lack of faith or inner sinful failings.
I guess I’m inclined to believe that there is a lot of Pollyanna or nitwit in people who think that their rose-colored glasses view of the world will get them through life. As someone who has been trained as a humanist to try to understand the world, I think, in fact, that this attitude is dangerously cavalier. But I also must admit that there are some undeniable positive features to it. People who believe in the power of a positive attitude are self-confident (they lack self-doubt), bold (not timid or fearful), assertive and risk-taking (not uncertain and risk-adverse) and generally poised (not tentative, overly careful and awkward). When what they are doing happens to be on the correct/successful path, they seem accomplished and brilliant. Positivity is a life force.
But a blunt one. As a negativist (such as myself) would note, so much of this really depends on actually being right, and just believing that you are doesn’t really make that so. Positive confidence is over-confidence when you are doing the wrong thing, and the positive assertion of positiveness in those circumstances is what we call “arrogance.” It’s the natural attitude of winners, and to non-winners (and the people who love them) it can seem pretty ugly. Um, like the way the Republican party’s arrogance about its own “rightness” now is beginning to seem.
But to turn this issue over yet again, it’s really not just about winners and losers and a choice of being with one camp or the other – there’s an obvious continuum of attitudes here. On one extreme end, you have people who are so traumatized and crippled by anxiety, by the fear that something catastrophic might happen that they can hardly do anything but tremble, cry and complain. On the other end, you have people who are insanely so self-confident of the rightness of their own path and of making a positive outcome happen for themselves that they are dangerously narcissistic, or even, perhaps sociopathic. (Does this seem to you like anybody you have observed recently?) They are charging bulls and you had best get out of their way. (One old alpha male boss of mine loved the phrase “you are either part of the steamroller or you are part of the road.”) Most “functioning” people are probably somewhere in the middle, with enough positive energy to get out of bed in the morning and energetically take on the day’s tasks with some hope of success, but also enough fear of some of the serious things that might go wrong as to be appropriately cautious… about the right things.
Caution… about the right things. Therein lies the rub, right? What are the right things to be afraid of? Bad drivers? Back-stabbing bosses? Thieving neighbors? Ebola and Zika? The national debt? A domineering government? Bad schools? Violent police or husbands or boy friends? Other people’s dangerous sexual proclivities? North Korea? Iran? Israel? Russia? In one light or other, these are all dangerous to someone, and ignoring any of these (according to a person who is wary of the particular issue) is to indulge in delusion. But you can’t be afraid of everything (without spending life trembling in your closet), so you have to pick the things you are going to be deluded about, and the things you are going to be concerned about.
If you have read any other pieces in this series of essays, you know that among my central concerns are delusion, narcissism, and the relationship between these two. And yes, in case you missed it, I am labeling positivism as a kind of delusion, albeit a helpful or necessary one sometimes. It’s the delusion that the various threats and problems and difficulties of life are not going to affect you, so charge on ahead. And as I’ve also just said, extreme positivism leads to a kind of dangerous narcissism. If you don’t see anything as actually bad unless it is clearly and absolutely bad for you… well, we don’t want to play any games together that involve trust – and possible lying or cheating involving large sums of money, loaded guns or vials of poison, all of which could, uh, help you achieve your positive goals. You get the fortune, others die horribly, but it’s all good in the end, right? Narcissists, as we see in business and in politics tend to come out on top because they are able to take shortcuts in the twisting racetrack of life.
One might argue that we have a candidate for president now who is just like that. He’s going to make everything great, just great. How? Trust him. Oh, um, okay…
But, as we know from the Republican primary, a lot of people recognize the attitude here and approve. Modern life, with its unspeakable complexity and constant stress and conflict encourages narcissism. The seemingly best way in a complex shifting landscape is to shorten your focus to what you truly know – yourself – and “go with your gut” or … “tell it like it is.” Shakespeare offers this immortal advice, which modern society is much taken with: “To thy own self be true”… The thing is, though, that most people miss the fact that the Bard puts this spiritual slogan in the mouth of the foolish, deluded, pompous Polonius, who is lost completely in the shifting illusory landscape of “Hamlet” and who is finally killed by the prince, in the confusion of the political palace mess. But Polonius is always a positive guy, and this kind of positive self-help thinking seemed to work for him… until it didn’t. Today, he could be The Donald’s campaign manager – you know, the one Trump just summarily fired because the shelf-life of his pro-Trump positivity had run out.
So we’ve come back to the dog-walking argument about Trump. I have several friends who are appalled and disgusted by the current election campaign to the point of wanting to turn it all off and walk away – they frequently refer to it as #worstelectionever. What has been going on is disturbing, and I get where they are coming from. They are, of course, turned off by Trump and his appeals to racism, fear and hatred, his outright lying, his exhortations to violence, torture and uncivilized behavior… but they are also lately (and increasingly) turned off by Clinton as well and her negative campaign focus. Why can’t she just say nice things about her positive plans for the future… while her opponent keeps just asserting over and over again that she is “crooked Hillary,” not offering evidence but citing delusionary conspiracy theories and then lying fantastically about his own effort and everything else. Don’t be so negative, Hillary! Nobody likes a nattering nabob of negativity!
So, friends, here we are again, turning away from all things bad, even when they are, perhaps, actually evil… and condemning those who protest and point us at them. As the old saying goes, “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
So, I’m a negativist and sometimes -- particularly at this peculiar moment in time -- I think it is important to point out that things are going wrong, particularly when the are going so horribly, horribly wrong. If it feels unpleasant to you, that’s because it is. Sometimes you just have to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive.
Now back to your regular programming.