Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Don’t worry, be unhappy

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?



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posted January 5, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Rejoice and be glad; this is the day the Lord has given you

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posted January 6, 2010 at 12:17 am

No, none of us really knows what’s going on in another person’s heart and mind. But enough time passes and we come to realize that the good times and the bad times both come and go. Enough life experience and you’ll come across some bad times. It’s inevitable. But among other things, that gives you some empathy for other people, and it’s a check on your pride in the future. You’ll know how limited your strength really is.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 2:30 am

I’d say that a rationalistic, Stoic, moderately-“driven” approach to life minimizes despair and prevents one from living in a fantasy world.
So it’s helpful for a lot of people, like Rod’s cousin.
But what’s more important is that such a philosophy – through it’s practical approach to fixing problems and good planning for the future – improves the lives of those here now, and for all that will follow.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 6:36 am

There are of course things we should fight to change, as Ms Ehrenreich urges, and there are things about which nothing can be done. A loved with with terminal cancer is in the latter category, but a healthcare system that denies healthcare to sick people is in the former. The AA prayer is the guiding light here: God grant me the courage to chnage what I can, the serenity to acept what I cannot and the wisdom to know the differnce.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:20 am

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.
Eh? Why wouldn’t it be equally likely that the state you saw him in was only a momentary distraction from his true inner life of worldliness and pleasure?
Admittedly, your interpretation is the more interesting narrative.
By the way, does anyone else see the open bracket, i, close bracket combination around words Rod probably meant to italicize, such as ‘UPDATE’ at the start of the third-to-last paragraph (which is not italicized in my browser)?

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posted January 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

Interesting essay, I’ll have to give this issue some more thought. My top of the head reactions are that (1) some people seem more resilient than others, it seems to be an innate rather than a learned characteristic for some more so than others; (2) people, especially men, shield their real reactions in many situations because that is how they are acculturated; (3) it’s very hard to know what really is going on in anyone else’s life, if someone provides a glimpse unavailable to others, it can mean he or she trusts the observer—or he or she just may be tired and let down the shields a little as a result; (4) we all face lots of situations, including the workplace, where we have to figure out the standards and conform or to fake it, the trick is in finding people (spouses, partners, friends) with whom we don’t have to do it as much as we do with others.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 8:38 am

I think it’s helpful to distinguish optimism as a performance enhancing technique from optimism as employed in assessing a situation and determining a course of action. The latter can lead to disasters like the Iraq War. The former can help maximize one’s performance, e.g. a batter stepping up to the plate thinking he’ll get a hit. Regarding the tragic nature of life, Luther’s distinction between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory is useful in weeding out “optimistic” distortions of the gospel cf. prosperity evangelists.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 8:39 am

By the way, does anyone else see the open bracket, i, close bracket combination around words Rod probably meant to italicize, such as ‘UPDATE’ at the start of the third-to-last paragraph (which is not italicized in my browser)?
Yup, I see it too.

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Franklin Evans

posted January 6, 2010 at 8:59 am

I believe in balance. I believe that optimism and pessimism must be filtered by the basic perspective that this moment will end, there will be a next moment, and no one gets a guarantee about what the next moments will bring.
Rod, I take a much different impression from your friend. I keep the POV that no one can be “on” all the time, and the capacity for being up and forward requires down time at some point, a place and a time where the curtains are closed and the body and mind recharge for the next act.
Human drama is a study in contrasts. I used a theatrical metaphor because of your background in cinema. Consider how boring life would be if it were always nice, always good, it never rained except in the dead of night. It goes way beyond any notion of wishing hard times on ourselves. Life is, life happens, and how we meet each moment has value in that moment.
Thus ends your daily dose of abstract generalities. ;-)

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posted January 6, 2010 at 9:04 am

John E., I third you and meh–I can see the HTML code, too. The evil Beliefnet software strikes again, apparently!

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Franklin Evans

posted January 6, 2010 at 9:12 am

One of the vivid moments in my life was sitting shiva with my cousin after her husband’s death. I was 17, and she spent our entire conversation asking me about my present and future.
That and later experiences taught me about the human response to adversity and tragedy. It was an explicit choice not to deny (in this case) death, but to balance it and even celebrate it in a constructive and forward-looking context.

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Travis Mamone

posted January 6, 2010 at 9:45 am

From all my years in cognitive therapy, I can see some merit in thinking positively. However, in cognitive therapy, it’s not the Joel Osteen “think positive and all your dreams will come true” bullcrap. In cognitive therapy, you learn to think rationally. For example, let’s say your friend invited you to a party, and your friend is the only person you will know at said party. If you’re like me, you automatically think that everyone is going to think you are a freak, and so you can’t enjoy yourself at the party. So the idea is to think to yourself, “Well, all I can do is just be myself and see what happens, and if people don’t want to get to know me that’s their problem.”
To me, it’s all within reason. Yes, your thoughts influence your behavior (which is why the Bible tells us to think about whatever is pure and righteous and all that stuff). However, all that stuff about positive thinking making your dreams come true, or solving all your problems: CRAP!

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posted January 6, 2010 at 10:20 am

As a persona with many realtor friends over the past 7 years, I had a front row seat to watch the limits of the “power” of positive thinking. I’m not hearing a lot of talk from them about “The Secret” or the latest positivity guru these days. They’ve definitely sobered up.
As an educated person who has been through my own share of crazy life experiences, some common and some not, I have not found anything that rivals the Bible in addressing the complexity and reality of a life fully lived. From cannibalism to visions of heaven, it’s all in there.
I participated in a decision to abort a child when I was young. Positive thinkers would tell me to ignore my guilt because there’s nothing wrong with me. Pragmatists might say there was nothing wrong with what I did. Only Christianity allows me to face the profound selfishness of my choice, my robbery of the opportunity to live from another human being… the part of me that resorts to killing when my plan is threatened. To regret it, hate it, try to tear it from myself, and finally to absorb and confess it and to receive forgiveness for it.
Only Christianity allows me to face the desperate, selfish animal that I am, and find forgiveness, acceptance, dignity and peace from a Father who knows me intimately and loves me completely. So I accept (and weakly fear) life at its worst, but still feel moments of joy so strong that they make me fall down laughing, and I can focus on serving others.
I just haven’t found anything to compare, but I love hearing others’ stories.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 10:22 am

Actually, I’m a person, not a persona. Wow, could that be telling.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 10:26 am

I see it too, but I read so much HTML it made sense to me anyway.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

Ehrenreich’s wish for across-the-board political engagement suffers from a problem that is common with the politically obsessed on both the left and right. There is no recognition of the law of unintended consequences. It’s a belief that change derived through political activism can only lead to some improvement, or else will be harmless. The third possibility, that the change can bring immense harm, is not considered.
Sometimes what is seen as “passivity” is merely the recognition that a circumstance may be the best possible in an imperfect world.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 11:58 am

I, too, am a tragic idealist, and American culture is hostile to people with a tragic sensibility; America much prefers melodrama to tragedy, as it were.
I am also a professional coach, and the coaching world is rather chock full of people who have a rather absolutist take on positive thinking in the school of est (Erhard Seminar Training), Landmark Forum, The Law of Attraction/The Secret/Course In Miracles, which in their rather dogmatic forms tend to evolve into violent untruths. (For example, the logic of these belief systems is that a baby that is killed while the parent who is carrying it crosses the street and is hit by a stray bullet did not want life enough in order not to be in that situation. Lordy – and the people who tend to believe such crap be incredulous towards the miracles told in the Bible.)
My own learning and training is that positive thinking is merely a tool, and often a very helpful one: it’s more grounded in an Ignatian awareness that we are very granular and specific about what we don’t like in our lives but tend to be too general and vague about what we do like in our lives (which is why the daily examen starts with being specific in our gratitude).

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Betty Carter

posted January 6, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I felt terrible, suicidal depression for several years, and I never take happiness for granted now. The reason I worked so hard to climb out of pain is that I wanted desperately to be a good mother to my children as they grew up. Motive is everything: are you looking for joy because you love yourself, or because you want to have something good to share with the world? Are you sad because you’re paralyzed by self-pity or because you really grieve over the sadness of the world?

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posted January 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

MWorrell and Betty Carter, I enjoyed both your perspectives. Thanks for sharing!

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posted January 6, 2010 at 4:26 pm

It’s a mistake to view any state of mind as a source of truth about a person, I think. States of mind change all the time, and any mind can simultaneously or alternately hold joy and grief. That said, I agree with comments that attribute an overall approach to life to a basic, possibly inborn, temperament.
There was a common tendency among my age-group to presume that a tragic sense of life – which we often confused with our youthful penchant for drama or need for attention – indicated an honest and true depth of personality. As if always focusing on the bad was truer and more admirable than focusing on the good or the potential for good. But now that seems overwrought and narcissistic.
I admire people who can just pick up and get on with it, whatever “it” is in a given circumstance. Despair in the face of desperation is not the only way to have clear vision. Acceptance of what is happening can include deep grief and sorrow that are still not despair.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Okay, what I meant was: Despair in the face of desperate conditions …

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posted January 6, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Tangential point for the record, lest the misinformation continue to be repeated: The New Orleans levees that crumbled were under-designed and under-built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, not by local or state government or our idiot of a mayor. The city had been asking for improvements to the levees for decades, and the feds refused.

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Kit Stolz

posted January 6, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I read the book, which is called “Bright Sided,” and I think the reviewer’s characterization of Ehrenreich’s alternative to knee-jerk positive thinking (or “optimism,” in Bush’s lexicon) is unfair.
It’s not just “storming into the world and demanding progressive political change.”
I mean really, that’s the case at all.
To quote from her conclusion:
“The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair. In fact, negative thinking can be just as delusional as the positive kind. Depressed people project their misery onto the world, imagining worst outcomes from every endeavor and then feeding their misery on these distorted expectations. In both cases, there is an inability to separate emotion from perception, a willingness to accept illusion for reality, either because it “feels good” or, in the depressive’s case, because it reinforces familiar, downwardly spiraling neural pathways. The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things “as they are,” or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity — the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death.”
She goes on to discuss in depth and cite a great number of examples — “Trust but verify,” “Hope is not a plan,” defensive driving, medical practice, child-raising, “the Stalinist demand for optimism,” and others. She mentions one psychologist who suggests “defensive pessimism” to get through the day, but in Ehrenreich’s terms, what she’s calling for is simply “realism.”
Please don’t assume that because Ehrenreich believes in facing facts that she thinks that the only alternative to positive thinking is progressive politics. It’s just not so.

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the stupid Chris

posted January 6, 2010 at 6:56 pm

…the nature of life is tragic…
I think this overstates things.
By nature life is a ponderously improbable miracle, a gift. But also by nature life is also tough, it’s not for the timid or the weak.
The problem with the “one size fits all” approaches to life is that they fail to respond to the panoply of life’s situations. Why should a person put a happy face on kicking other people out of their homes, or downsizing a business. Why should a person turn every matter of personal preference into a political issue? And who among us would be appropriate greeting the birth of a child by reminding everyone how tragic life is?
Life is all those things and more, and what’s appropriate in one situation is totally inappropriate in another.

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Max Schadenfreude

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:28 pm

This thread screams out for a Demotivator Poster.
If you don’t know that that is, you owe it to yourself to google “demontivator”.

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Fake Fan Base

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Ehrenriech’s views are almost Hegelian. ‘Positive Thinking’ is an ideology that distracts people from understanding their own situation and working to better it.
Habermas’s answer I think would be to ground improvement in better communication with honesty and rationality which takes a particular kind of public servant or visionary. I wonder which religion could best attach itself to achieving communicative rationality or if those of religious persuasion should ignore this. The answer rests with those who might try. When is Jesus due to return?

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posted January 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

Max Schadenfreude, I love the Demotivator posters.

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posted January 7, 2010 at 10:17 am

As I understand it, traditional religion mandates positive thinking.
1. Everything in the world is accomplished by G-d (a strong view of divine providence).
2. G-d does everything for the good.
3. Whatever happens, we should thank G-d and say, This too for the good (in Hebrew, Gamzu l’tovah).
In some strains of Judaism, like Breslov Chasidut, depression and sadness are seen as one of the most serious impediments to spiritual growth and connection to G-d. “It is a great commandment to be joyful always.” Of course when someone dies or it is Tisha B’Av one is supposed to mourn, but this is limited and circumscribed, and we should still be happy in our faith that everything is for the best.

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posted January 10, 2010 at 8:24 am

I’m married to a parallel of your friend who was the life of the party and it happens my husband’s mother parallels your elderly cousin. I venture to say all your observations about the despair and distraction are spot-on true.
My spiritual life must cover for their lack of spiritual life, and I deal daily with their unholy partnership. Most women would have divorced him, except I believe in lifelong marriage. Most women would have demanded we live in a different town from his mother, except I can’t abandon an old woman.
So there you have it! 3e6p3t

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