The Positivity Paradox


After the election, I did myself a bit of a disservice by unfollowing or un-friending Facebook friends with opposing views.  I knew the dangers of doing this, and I agreed with the idea that “sterilizing” your news feed is perpetuating some of the issues that we currently face.  But on November 9th, I was out of patience and the strength to pass by these posts without feeling the need to contradict my friends’ and family members’ false information or often-hurtful views.   Time has passed, and as we all hoped, the focus has shifted toward action opposed to shock alone. Because of this, I’ve gone back through my “unfollow” list and stepped a bit outside my protective bubble.

And not to my surprise, there does seem to be a separate group emerging, both from people I am close with and people I haven’t spoke to since high school.  Some seem to feel a tragedy did occur on November 8th, but that we must act as if the tragedy has passed and accept the world as it is.  This comes in many forms, many of which sprung from last week’s inspiring march.

It comes in the form of questioning intentions: But do they really care?  These people will just sit back and stop caring after they snag their great Facebook photo.

It comes in the form of their diminishing impact:  This won’t do anything, he’s not going to listen to you.

And most disturbingly to me, it comes in the form of blindness:  I don’t understand what everyone is so upset about, why can’t we all just give this him chance?  —This paired with an unwillingness to hear the answer.

These reactions all come from a place of self-protection.  We naturally protect ourselves from the idea that something is wrong, that we might not be doing quite enough, that we are weak.  No matter the intentions, everyone at that march (and those who wished to go to the march), admitted that something was wrong and something must be done.  Wherever they are on their journey toward active citizenship, this was a literal step away from complacency.  And those who try to put it down, are in a different predicament:

The Two Sides of Staying “Positive”

We have been rightly encouraged, especially over the past decade or so, to focus on the positive, look on the bright side, “fake it ’til you make it.”  The idea of this is fine–if we conjure gratitude to recognize the good in our lives, and therefore diminish our yearning for more, we will increase our general contentment in life.  This is partially what my blog has championed since its beginning.

But here is the tricky part–when does focusing on being grateful for what we have, blind us from seeing the denial of basic human rights for ourselves or others?  And also, when does the option to “stay positive” come from a place of privilege?

For example: I can stay positive about not getting cast in a play because I will have other options, and, at the moment, I am not financially dependent on getting the role.  This is very different from staying positive about losing access to Planned Parenthood, because in the future–when pursuing acting cuts my health insurance–I will not be able to afford cancer screenings. I have friends that will lose this option immediately if funding is cut.  And after my personal experience in 2009 of getting diagnosed with dangerous ovarian cysts at a Planned Parenthood (one of the most friendly and helpful experiences I’ve ever had in a doctor’s office), I understand the devastating effects of losing this program.  Staying positive in this case may, quite literally, kill someone.  And staying positive in order to ignore this fact is a gross misuse of our admirable positive efforts.

The Difference Between Whining and Speaking Up

And so we’re back to Robert Fulghum’s Idea of “Problems and Inconveniences.”  As he stated in his book and play, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “Life is lumpy.  But a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast, are not the same lump. We should learn to know the difference.”  In my example above, losing a role to another person is an inconvenience, a disappointment.  Losing accessible health care is a problem, it keeps me from living my life in a healthy manner, or living my life at all.  This is where I disconnect with people who say they love me but support his actions.  What will it take for you to truly hear me?  The answer to that question deeply frightens me.

The most important skill we can take away from this divided time is to see that government actions can (and do) take away someone else’s ability to safely live their lives, even when the actions do not directly affect our own.  This is our moment to build empathy, to build awareness.  It is moment to use our positive practice to see a way forward, not to sit and remain blind.

Though it is difficult to hear, those who are driven by greed are experts in teaching the world that their choices will benefit everyone.  We must be willing to see when positivity is forced upon us for another person’s gain.  We must be aware of someone else’s day-to-day life, and truly recognize what is an inconvenience, and what is a life-threatening or hindering problem.

It’s Okay to Be Uncomfortable

My middle-of-the-road Facebook friends have expressed disgust about the vibe of Facebook recently.  I’ve seen rants about the ongoing anger and memes about how we should allow everyone to have an opinion, even if that opinion is harmful to someone else.

Here’s the thing though: we must feel uncomfortable in order to grow–to return to our childhood urge to challenge ourselves and demand the truth of things, the “but why?” of things.  When I used to teach after-school art classes, I occasionally geared one of my art projects toward social action.  I would ask the class to “invent a machine that would help one specific group of people on the earth,” or “Design a comic about how your super hero would help one of your neighbors.”  I would be careful about giving examples, because I didn’t want their ideas to be altered by my personal political beliefs.

Hands down, these were the most energetic classes across the board.  Kids aged 5 through 14 would run to me during the period and gush about their ideas.  They were going to end homelessness, they were going to cure cancer, they were going to help the disabled go about their day more easily.  We, as children, have an innate urge to change the world for the better and to help one another.  We recognize the world is not perfect and that we have the power to help.  But as we get older, a cynicism, or a comfort with our small level of day-to-day awareness diminishes this drive.  The bigger picture overwhelms us, and so we stall, we choose a distraction and cling on to our false image of the world to protect ourselves.

If you were to ask your 8-year-old self if they would rather change the world for the better or find a comfortable living and keep your head down until retirement, what do you think that kid would have said?  Ask the same of your older self, and what has changed?  Hopefully nothing.

The recent election can break us from this comfort.  But it will not feel nice.  It will impede on our Facebook feeds, it will change the energy of our Thanksgiving dinners.  If we feel lousy, if we have difficult conversations, it does not mean we are weak.  If we admit we are wrong, it does not mean we have failed.  There is a child-driven urge inside us that remains, that tells us to seek the truth of things, to call out when we’re being tricked.  This is not cynicism, this is a passion for fairness for all your fellow humans.

Please be uncomfortable, please seek empathy, and please continue to seek the universal truth of each issue.  Our practice toward positivity is not a waste, it is for moving forward, for listening, and for dealing with the challenging days ahead.

4 responses to “The Positivity Paradox”

  1. “This is very different from staying positive about losing access to Planned Parenthood, because in the future–when pursuing acting cuts my health insurance–I will not be able to afford cancer screenings.”

    You’re making a choice to pursue a career that will not give you health insurance.

    Health insurance is not free. If you’re not paying for it, someone else is.

    Does it bother you at all that you’re asking others to pay for your choices?


    • Hey there, thanks for reading and for your question. Just to clarify, I do not feel health insurance can or should be free. This understandably would not be possible for the medical industry. I currently pay for health insurance through my employer and paid for it through the ACA when I freelanced two years ago. Without the ACA in place, I will not be able to pay for insurance until I am able to either become eligible to pay for union insurance (which a good deal of time, but a viable option when it comes available), or pay for a COBRA plan, which unfortunately is cost-prohibitive.

      Also, I hear your concern, and do not feel I am asking for others to pay for my choices, but for financially accessible health screenings to all, not just those with salaried, benefit-offering positions. Does this help a bit? I know those outside part-time or freelance-related career often get confused about this situation, so it makes sense you’re questioning.


      • Making healthcare more affordable for all is something that I can definitely agree with you about!

        With Obamacare, unfortunately, I’ve seen my rates and out of pocket go up, up, up. Hoping whatever new plans come about actually result in lowering prices.


      • I totally agree. The ACA still has major flaws (the issue with being the first group to try out a new program)–we had trouble with our premiums as well when we used it. I am deeply hoping (and expressing by talking to my senators) that a replacement plan does indeed exist, and that it fixes the loopholes that are allowing insurance companies to charge customers so much for such little care.

        Access and affordability for all is the most important thing.

        Liked by 1 person

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