Positive Thinking

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Relentless optimism is a pain in the ass. The idea that we should always face the world with a smile on our face — no matter how dismal the day might be — is advice that will occasionally illicit murderous responses.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m mostly a glass is half full kind of guy. In fact I’d even say that the glass was designed only to be half full in any case. Maybe that’s because I’m usually talking about red wine glasses. Whatever — they aren’t whine glasses.

Still, telling people to think positively when they are dealing with real problems is seldom helpful. There were times in my own life and in the lives of my closest intimates when things really weren’t going well — struggles with health, money, feelings that the world was out to get us (which as it turned out wasn’t true though some individuals in that world were). My ex-wife and I would take turns saying to each other: “Buck up, buckaroo!” as a sort of sarcastic acknowledgment that sometimes all you really can do is smile through the tears. But the smile doesn’t make the pain go away.

Still, for myself, as bad as things go, I usually bounce back. Or else I walk away. There have been times when my situation was simply so grim, with so little likelihood of improvement, that walking away, leaving behind everything was the easiest or at least less painful option. But I’ve talked about that before.

There are, in fact, some things you can’t walk away from. Ill health has this nasty habit of following you wherever you go. In those cases all you can do is try to get better or, if it is chronic, adapt to the condition, as I’ve tried to adapt to asthma and arthritis. I’ve known lots of people who have arrived at a place where their life is simply their life. They make the best of it and, often, they do amazing things. But they don’t get there by having their able-bodied or mentally healthy friends telling them to put on a happy face.

Some have argued that our way of dealing with cancer is plagued with a disease of optimism. People are told that the best way to tackle illness is to fight it, to have a positive attitude, to not give in to feelings of despair. Like paranoia, despair is sometimes just clear thinking. I happen to think that proper treatment — surgery, radiation, chemo — plus efforts at ‘wellness’ such as good food, exercise and the unconditional (that is unpreachy) love of others is more helpful. It doesn’t always work.

Then relentless optimism is a form of blaming — if you don’t get well, it must be a problem with your attitude. And when you have to face the fact you might be dying, who really needs that extra burden of guilt and shame?

And that’s ten dyspeptic minutes.

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