In print, I can rant with the best of them. In person, though, I am usually a broadly tolerant fellow to the point of mildness. My friends range from a Catholic cleric through various ministers to agnostics, and from neo-conservatives to anarchists and Marxist Leninists. My taste in books, music, movies, food, and art covers almost every genre you have heard about (and probably a few that you haven’t). When someone expresses an enthusiasm for the mediocre, I am polite and, if cornered into giving an opinion, I am diplomatic in my expression.
But there is one thing that leaves me feeling like my teeth have slid off tin-foil: the airhead optimism and superficiality of those who believe that all that anyone needs to achieve their goals is to think positively – the attitude, in short, that is peddled by pop-psychologists, psychics, and life coaches, borrowed from people like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, and promulgated in bits of New Age philosophy such as The Secret.
Why does this feel-good optimism annoy me so much? At first, you might expect it wouldn’t, because I’m a biological optimist, so wired to be upbeat that even trauma can’t keep me down for long. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that daily heavy exercise keeps me pumped up with adrenalin and endorphins.
However, it is a sign of just how deeply such things irritate me that they can make me react so much against my natural inclinations.
I suppose that part of what irritates me is the methodology, which often seems to revolve around slogans and aphorisms intended to inspire you and reinforce the right attitudes. Being practical, I prefer to receive useful information rather than inspiration, and, as a lifelong student of Orwell, I am immediately suspicious at what looks like the techniques of mind-control – even if it is mind-control done with consent, or even self-inflicted.
But what irritates me most about the slogans is that, when they are based on quotes, they are frequently used out of context or inappropriately.
For instance, when Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, he was not expressing a belief in a personal deity who influenced events, but a conviction that there was some principle beyond indeterminacy in subatomic theory – and, so far as we know today, he was wrong.
Similarly, when someone notes that Noah’s ark was built by an amateur and The Titanic by professionals, I can’t help thinking that as a carpenter Noah was a professional, too, and that The Titanic was sunk due to bad luck, not negligence on the part of the builders. I won’t even go into the fact that being mythical limits Noah’s usefulness as role model. But the point is that if you are going to quote or allude when an English major like me is around, you better do so appropriately.
Another reason I dislike this cant is that it is annoyingly over-simple. Yes, having a positive attitude can sometimes help you – but not always. Being cheerful and upbeat is not going to save you from your internal organs failing one day. If you get mugged, you are not going to hurt any less because you are optimistic.
It always seems to me that the positive speakers have either never had any serious trauma in their lives, or else have repressed the memory of any events that were painful or beyond their control. Furthermore, such an attitude is only possible if you are a middle-class member of a modern industrial society who has led a relatively uneventful life. It is the attitude of prolonged adolescence, not of experience, and requires more denial than I can muster or ever hope to maintain. Often, it seems dangerously close to solipsism. At best, it preaches a demonstrably false view of the world that can only leave believers less able to cope.
But the strongest reason why I despise this empty optimism is the hypocrisy behind it. Those who preach it cannot possibly feel it all the time, and there must be occasions when they long for a good mope. But melancholy or depression does not fit with the public image that they have worked so hard to establish, so they must falsify their feeling at least part of the time. Nor, having invested so much in their brand of optimism, can they honestly discuss it. Faced with such doubts, they can only be even more enthusiastically upbeat than before.
The result is that I can rarely relax among the positive thinkers, because it is impossible to be sure when they are genuine or when they are not. When they agree with me, do I really have a meeting of minds, or are they just being positive? I can never be sure.
Too often, everything they do seems exaggerated and false. Their smiles are too broad and last a little too long, and their enthusiasm always seems greater than the situation would justify. If they have any genuine reaction, it is well-hidden.
The uncertainty is greatest when I try to decide whether I have made a genuine connection or not. When they proclaim that they love everyone five minutes after meeting them, and applaude every suggestion as “fabulous,” what vocabulary is left for true enthusiasm? In one case, I thought for years that one of these airhead optimists thought of me as a special friend, only to find that they were simply being insincere.
Long ago, I learned that the people you can actually trust for help are not necessarily those with the strongest protests of friendship and understanding. In fact, one or two of the most supportive people I have known would be dismissed as uncaring and shallow rednecks if you judged them by their casual conversation. By contrast, I have known several positive thinkers whose actions never matched their words in a crisis.
With all this against the positive thinkers, no wonder that I sometimes feel like Don Marquis’ archy, the poet turned cockroach faced with the cheerful cricket – I want to tell them to groan just once before I throw a brick.
Of course, I never do, but the impulse is there. Usually, I simply leave them to their fantasy and walk away as quickly as possible, shaking my head, not at the power of positive thinking, but at the power of self-delusion.