Kerry Howley is mostly pleased with Barbaran Ehrenreich’s jeremiad against the power of positive thinking. Excerpt from her review:
All the Oprah-ready gurus you would expect to populate this polemic show up to share some advice–here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” In turning the United States into a 24-hour pep rally, charges Ehren-reich, these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance. Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance–the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane.
But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change. Positivity’s decidedly inward focus–in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift–thus seems troubling, a “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.” When a Kansas City pastor declares his church “complaint-free,” Ehrenreich sees a demand that Americans content themselves with their dismal lot. When companies hire motivators to boost morale in the workplace, she sees “a means of social control” by which disgruntled employees are brainwashed into acquiescence. “America’s white-collar corporate work-force drank the Kool-Aid,” she writes, “and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.”
I agree with this — to a point. I am violently allergic to positive-thinking pushers, precisely because I think that the nature of life is tragic, and they seem willfully oblivious to that. But I can’t go as far as Ehrenreich for a couple of reasons. One, too much of that can lead to despair, and a sense of fatalism, and passivity. It sounds like Ehrenreich wouldn’t agree, that she believes this kind of optimism itself leads to passivity — that is, the belief that everything’s going to be okay if you just sit still and think happy thoughts. That’s nonsense, and even dangerous nonsense, if it prevents you from acting within your capacities to change your circumstances. I don’t blame Ehrenreich from being angry about that, and I don’t blame her either for objecting to the sort of enforced cheerfulness that seems so common in American life.
But she goes much too far. Her complaint is the same one Christopher Hitchens lodged against Mother Teresa: that by teaching people to accept their fates, they are disarming them from political struggles that might improve their lives. It’s by no means a groundless complaint — but it’s not a wise one. The fact is, life <i>is</i> tragic. We are born to suffer and to die, and nothing can conquer that. Religion is primarily an attempt to deal with the problem of suffering and death. I find the philosophical responses various religions offer to the problem to be compelling and wise. Specifically, I find Christianity’s call and command to accept suffering that cannot be avoided, and to transform it into an act of redemptive love, to be far wiser than the bleak option offered by Ehrenreich. Mind you, I’m a religious believer, so I’m arguably predisposed toward the Christian response to suffering. But I don’t see how I would find the courage to carry on in the face of terrible personal suffering — e.g., Tony Judt’s ALS — without a deep belief that my suffering has ultimate metaphysical meaning, even if the precise nature of that meaning is unfathomably mysterious.
The thing is, it’s false to believe that one has to choose between brainless optimism or bleak existentialism. If I were not a religious believer of any sort, I suppose I would find Ehrenreich’s point of view preferable to the unicorns-and-bunnies smiley-face optimism. But either way, we all end up dead, and I suspect the happy-clappy crowd, however deluded, have a less painful ride down than the Ehrenreichian atheists. Though I’d respect the philosophical stance of the Ehrenreichs more than the Happy-Clappies, I’d rather live with the latter.
Yet I’m not convinced that these three distinct responses to suffering I’ve mentioned here — Ehrenreichian political engagement, Happy-Clappyism, or the conventional religious response — are the only options. I mentioned last week my elderly distant cousin who lost her home, her friends and her husband, all in the past few years. I don’t know if she’s a religious person or not — my sense is that she isn’t — but her indomitable spirit is admirable. When I visited her last week, she told her amazing story of travail, from Hurricane Katrina on, and it was really staggering. And yet: “You must go on. You simply must.” Such a Stoic! Really, she seems constitutionally incapable of giving in to despair. I’m not sure what the source of her defiance is, but it’s real. She’s 79 or 80 years old, so life isn’t going to get much better for her. But she’s bound and determined not to become a complainer, but rather to suck every last fleck of marrow from the bones of life. Cousin simply refuses to despair; it’s an act of will. I keep thinking about her, and how much I want to be like her when I’m that old. Maybe some of us are just born that way.
<i>UPDATE:</i> To be clear, I say I want to be like my elderly cousin in my old age only in that I want to be hopeful, and full of life, and defiant in the face of despair. But it is certainly possible that one’s hope is built on an illusion. I don’t know my cousin well at all; it’s possible that the thing that gives her the strength to go on is in some sense a <i>denial</i> of reality, though not a simplistic happy-clappy denial. To someone who doesn’t have faith, what Cousin is doing is heroic; at least it seems to me that it would be. But to a person of faith — at least the Christian faith — it is at least possible that however admirable Cousin’s courage is, that act of will might, just might, be preventing her from seeing herself as she really is, and surrendering to God. Is it possible that what looks to the rest of us like existential bravery is in fact a sophisticated form of self-delusion and despair? How could one tell?
(I say this only as a thought experiment, not as a substantive commentary on Cousin’s spiritual or psychological state, about which I know little or nothing.)
Years ago, I had a friend who was the life of the party: brilliant, funny, everybody’s great pal. One night I was the last one left at the party, and saw the daylight in with him. I remember the sight of him sitting in the armchair of his living room, smoking, with the first rays of the morning sun hitting his forehead. He had a blank, faraway look in his eyes, and he played the same album over and over. It was his dead sister’s favorite, he said. That daylight idyll was the only time I ever saw my friend in that state, but it completely changed my view of him. What to me looked like a life built around rich pleasures and activity and wordliness was really an elaborate attempt to distract himself from his own inner despair. He was hurting terribly inside, but he never showed his true face to anyone else. I don’t know why he dropped his mask that morning, but I never forgot it — and it explained so much about the way he lived, including the self-destructive things he did. We never really know about people, do we?