We live in an unempathic, selfish, narcissistic society. It’s social Darwinism at its finest, an Ayn Rand wet dream–a society that values selfishness over altruism, greed over empathy, money and material goods over timeless human virtues, fake smiles and phony platitudes over honest emotion.
Nowhere is this sickness more prevalent than it is in America today. One of the most irritating symptoms of how shallow a nation we’ve become is the plethora of corny “positive thinking” platitudes, cliches, and memes.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with some healthy positive thinking, and attempting to see the glass as half full rather than half empty–as long as the positivity is tempered by realism. If you spend your entire life thinking how awful your life is and don’t even try to look for the silver linings, chances are you’re not going to see much improvement in your life. Daily affirmations are a good idea, as long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking problems don’t exist and therefore don’t need to be addressed.
But as human beings, we all need a shoulder to cry on sometimes, someone we can tell our troubles to without fear of being judged or our concerns dismissed or criticized. There are times when we all need a little empathy and someone who understands what we are going through. Being told in our darkest moments that we need to “smile and the world smiles with you,” “lighten up,” or “this is a learning experience” is the last thing we need or want to hear. Corny “positive thinking” platitudes can sound like an invalidation or dismissal of what’s close to our hearts and in some cases even make us feel shame in addition to the pain we’re already experiencing.
Both my parents and my stepmother are on the phony positive thinking brigade. A long time ago, I used to actually try to talk to my parents about my fears and heartbreaks, but never felt supported by them. All I wanted was a hug and some encouraging, genuine words, maybe something like “I understand why you’d be so upset” or “You have every right to be angry.” Sometimes even an attentive silence would have done, since really listening to someone doesn’t always require words and sometimes just being heard without judgment is all that’s needed.
Instead I’d get simplistic “think positive” cliches and slogans, if not straight up invalidation and criticism of my feelings. My narcissistic mother was notorious for emailing me these corny platitudes that were as phony and devoid of true emotion as a smiley face bumper sticker on a hearse. Receiving her brand of “encouragement” made my blood boil. I spent a long time trying to figure out why it bothered me so much when she (or my stepmother or father) did this, and I finally figured out why. It was a dismissal, not only of my feelings, but a method of jettisoning any responsibility or having to take any time away from themselves to provide genuine help or comfort. It was, in effect, the same thing as tossing a lollipop to a crying child instead of trying to find out why the child is so upset. “Alright kid, here’s a lollipop, now leave me alone and stop crying.” By sending me pictures of kittens with happy slogans under them or a rainbow with an “inspirational” sentiment, they were avoiding taking any responsibility or showing any empathy, while still being able to say, “Well, what’s your problem? I acknowledged your pain–I sent you that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video.”
Positive thinking nazis are pervasive, they’re fake as hell, they’re complacent, and they’re everywhere. Every day we’re bombarded with Internet memes (Facebook is notorious for them), slogans, bumper stickers, and politicians (usually Republican) telling us to “just be happy and everything else will take care of itself.” It’s enough to drive me insane. How do you “just be happy?” I’m sorry, but I’m not a machine with a “happy” button. I can’t switch my emotions on and off because you’re uncomfortable with my negative moods.
There’s also a huge disconnect from reality. Poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction actually do exist and they’re everywhere, in every town, every city, every neighborhood. Positive thinking nazis choose to not see these realities and even blame those suffering from poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental illness for “their own condition” by not being “positive” enough. If only it were that simple. But it’s not simple at all because for those who can’t even procure basic food, medical care, and shelter, or who have a chemical imbalance in their brain that causes severe depression or addiction, thinking happy thoughts is just about impossible.
There needs to be a balance between the deluded positive thinking tyranny and providing authentic support. The first does not replace the second and in fact can exacerbate the situation by making the person needing help feel guilty and ashamed for feeling the way they do.
We need to stop being a nation concerned only with ourselves and stop dismissing the very real concerns of our friends, family and neighbors. Saying “smile!” to an upset person doesn’t cut it. We are all in this together, and authentic care and support are in very short supply and are needed now more than ever. We will never heal as a nation if we continue to equate slapping happy face stickers on everything with actually going out of our way to do good for others.