Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Infantile happy talk

"That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant." Nero Wolfe

There is every reason for positive thinking that is founded on the knowledge that "God so loved...." But it is idiotic for a Christian to think that means trouble will not come — or that when it does happy thoughts will make it go away.

From a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book:
.... 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 Ehrenreich, 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. ....

Ehrenreich weighs down her argument with dubious chains of causation and ponderous overstatement, but her central point still shines through the mess. Platitudinous happy-talk seems so harmless that most of us barely notice it, yet it can be a burdensome, even bullying, attempt to enforce emotional conformity. Consider, for instance, the “pink-ribbon culture,” a rose-tinted world Ehrenreich steps into when she is diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world,” she writes, “to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.” Dour pathology slides are out; “remembrance” teddy bears are in. The women Ehrenreich encounters insist that cancer isn’t a morbid tragedy but a life-transforming “gift.” The words “victim” and “patient” are frowned upon; the preferred terminology is “survivor.” Survivors “battle” or “fight” toward their “survivorhood,” while those who die from the disease, in Ehrenreich’s telling, are barely mentioned at all. When she posts a mildly angry message on an Internet message board, she is chastised for her “bad attitude” and told to “get help.”

.... She resents—rightly, I think—the attempts to coach her into infantile gratitude for a disease that threatens to kill her. (As she points out in a fascinating summary of the literature, the supposed link between optimism and cancer survival rates is mostly myth.) ....

It’s no surprise that I was first told to smile while sitting in a church pew. The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world. .... Positivity is a secular religion. Sometimes it takes a village atheist to remind us that we can choose not to believe.
There is, of course, a kind of positive thinking that does not minimize suffering or trivialize death:

...[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(Romans 5:3-5, ESV)

It Takes a Village Atheist - Reason Magazine