Glass half empty


I found out about this interview with Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich through the Jezebel blog and thought the analysis by Jezebel (and Racialicious) blogger Latoya Peterson was really interesting.

Now, I've always been a half-glass-empty kind of gal and have had to try and stretch myself to be more positive. Mr. Harlow's Monkey says I'm really an optimist at heart and that is why I get so down when I see injustice. But whatever, he's just being kind (see why I love him? He's the ying to my yang).


Anyhoo, Ehrenreich's newest book is Bright-Sided, which delves into the history and promotion of "positive thinking." (I remember reading Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking when I was in high school. It didn't really help). Ehrenriech says in her interview with Elle that it was while she was being treated for breast cancer that she really noticed the pervasiveness of the positive-thinking movement. Says Ehrenreich,

"I just couldn’t understand this message that was being beamed at me
from so many sources about being upbeat and positive and embracing your
cancer, thinking of it as a gift. It drove me crazy. A few years later,
researching a book called Bait and Switch, there it was again,
now being told to people who are laid off—another great crisis in their
lives: Change your attitude and everything will be okay…As I began searching around and noticing it, the message was
everywhere: Any problem you have, just change your attitude or
visualize what you want and it will come to you."

I haven't read Bright-Sided, and I admit that I did have some problems with Nickel and Dimed,
but I do find Ehrenreich compelling and will probably read the book and
assess it more later (like when I actually have time to read something
other than textbooks).

The part that Latoya addresses in her Jezebel piece is the way "positive thinking" ties into conformity and social injustice. Now, this seems completely counter-intuitive, right? Aren't all of us who are into social reform and social justice optimistic, do-gooders? Turns out, maybe not, or maybe that's why most of society isn't really backing our causes. In fact, as Latoya points out, what Ehrenreich is saying is that "positive thinking" actually serves to squelch those who are critical about injustices. Ehrenreich states,

"[Positive thinking is] an all-purpose buttress for conformity and acceptance of the
status quo. In fact, most of the measures of quote-happiness-unquote
that the positive psychologists offer are really about how much to
accept the status quo."

I find this part really fascinating. I suppose because of my own experiences as a transracial/transnational adoptee and as an Asian American woman who grew up in and has largely worked in non-diverse, White majority settings, I am sensitive to this language of "just try harder." As in, "try harder not to be over-sensitive about racism and discrimination," and "just try harder to not be upset about losing your birth family/culture/country/language." The "think positively/make lemons out of lemonade" seems mostly to serve a need to discourage people from whining and complaining. It's a way to deflect how crappy life actually is for some people. And if they continue to have problems, it's their fault for not being "grateful" or "positive." Oh, and I don't know about you, but the most pervasive criticism I've received for not being "grateful" enough or for being too "negative" often comes from people who have been subject to great oppression or trauma in their own lives. Sometimes I get the feeling what is being said is, "Hey, I had to live through it, so quit your bitching." I wonder if those of us who have experiences trauma end up being the inadvertent perpetrators of the "be grateful" train.

Says Ehrenreich,

"No question. Determination, energy, ambition, all these sorts of things
play a big part in our lives. But when this gets turned into a total
mind-over-matter notion of how the world operates, that’s crazy. The
trick is always trying to do as much as you can do, but then also
realizing that there are a lot of forces lined up against you that have
to be addressed in another way entirely. Maybe you need social change!

…I think if you’re not at all bothered by human suffering—hey, it would
be great. But if you have a vision of human happiness that includes all
those people who are currently suffering, you’ve got to do something
about it."

Is it true? Is this pervasive "think positive" mentality meant to crush complaints of injustice? If I think about it, many of the big social movements in the United States did happen because people fought against the status quo, which historically benefited you know who. I don't consider being subject to racial and gender discrimination a "gift." I think it's a pain in the tukus. And when faced with said racial or gender discrimination, I do not get all thoughtful and zen and "think positively" about it, I take action. Ehrenreich agrees. She says,

"have you read the Old Testament? It’s full of righteous anger. But anyway, righteous anger is not an acceptable emotion"

But a few last thoughts. I grew up in an evangelical christian home, and I was taught from a very early age that any time I had "bad" thoughts or was "tempted" that I should just say, "Satan, get behind me!" and if I was a true believer, I would no longer be tempted and/or my "bad" thoughts would go away. You can guess what happened. If those bad thoughts didn't go away, then it was my fault. I wasn't enough of a believer, I wasn't a good enough Christian.

As I got older, the basic message was the same but the secular world, in addition to the religious world, just replaced that idea with "positive thinking." Sad about adoption loss? Mad about racism? Just be glad I didn't have it worse. Be grateful. Stop complaining. Make lemonade. Whatever you do, don't go wallowing in your sorrow and expect others to do anything about it. It's nobody's fault but your own. And if you're still sad/discriminated against/oppressed, then it's your fault. Stop being a Debbie Downer. Just try harder to be positive. If I still felt sad and unhappy, well then I must not be trying hard enough to be positive.

I suppose I feel a little bit comforted that I'm not the only one who dislikes "just be more positive." It's not that I'm not happy or grateful about the good things that have happened in my life. And, even more, I definitely believe that surviving the not-so-great things that have happened in my life has made me learn things about myself that have "positively" impacted my life. But bettering my life didn't happen because I sat quietly and "thought positively." The good things in my life happened because I made them happen to the best of my ability and sometimes I was just lucky. 

Rather than thinking positively, I would like to see that changed to actively working for change. I'd be more than happy to drink that kool-aid.

Read the Elle interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here, and Latoya's piece on Jezebel here.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. My father is a great example of someone who lived through terrible trauma, and has a “quityerbitching” attitude towards anyone who hasn’t.
    I’m more of a complainer.
    However, I sometimes worry about invalidating people who use some variety of positive thinking — or extreme stoicism — in order to get through trauma and make it to the other side. Some people internalize everything. Some people externalize everything. I just don’t think there’s one single right path for people and cultures to deal with trauma.

  2. Just a quick note… I am not the Zen variety of Buddhist, but from what I know, Zen is really more about mindfulness than inaction. I don’t see it as connected with positive thinking. Realizing your own fundamental nonexistence is not particularly reassuring.

  3. I agree with so much of what you and Ehrenreich are saying. Another aspect that has always disturbed me is the “I did it, so can you” attitude, which, even when it does take into consideration race, gender and economic status, leaves out the possibility that one may indeed have been special and especially lucky. It devalues the person saying it by making them ordinary, so ordinary that any ole body could do what they managed to do.

  4. I think there is a difference between incessant whining and critique. Not saying anyone here is doing any of the above, I just don’t think you can lump all whining into “critique” and all critique into whining. Sometimes they just aren’t the same. My brother would whine about the very actions he would take against his own well-being and blame everyone else for it. There are some cases like that, that are -actually- like that.
    Anyway, I wonder what Erlenreich would say about “Anatomy of an Illness” by Norman Cousins re positive thinking when with disease.

  5. Personally, I have no problem at all when people say they use positive thinking, religion, spirituality, faith, prayer, therapy or exercise or art – whatever someone finds comfort in and helps with coping.
    What I find problematic is when people are dogmatic about their chosen use of any of the above and proselytize.
    I am one of those *stoic* persons (even if it doesn’t seem like it on this blog). One of the most common *critiques* my friends and loved ones have told me is that I’m pretty closed and stoic. In real life, I’m not much of a complainer. I’m a put-your-head-down-and-get-through-it-er. But I don’t think everyone should do it my way, and I work awfully hard to validate however anyone else finds ways of coping as long as they are not self-destructive or hurt others.
    I’m just basically ornery and don’t like people telling me that I *should* do things a certain way. I have no problem when people share how those things work for them as long as they don’t judge me for doing things differently.
    I don’t think whining and critique are the same but at least in the blog world, critique is often attacked for being whining. Just read any of the race-focused blogs on any given day.

  6. I do feel my religion, which fortunately growing up was way more comforting than yours, helps me cope. On the other hand, my dad also was one of those people who prior to immigration suffered great trauma. He had the most annoyingly positive attitude ever. Perhaps it helped him survive. I don’t know. I have always embraced that quote about how no one was free until every one was free. So while I am grateful for what I have, I still suffer internally for those who do not. Very interesting book. Thanks for sharing

  7. In person I am told that I am grumpy, too quick to speak my mind and too willing to complain.
    But what I see myself as is someone full of hope. That is what has driven me to get through the more rough struggles. I suppose that is a form of positive thinking. Or is it?
    I wonder if there is often a big difference in how we see ourselves internally and how we are perceived by others.

  8. Great post! I’m heartened by your righteous anger. I always knew I was adopted, but have mostly passed as my parents’ biological child. Now, in midlife, I’m finally embracing my right to assert and explore my heritage and mixed identity. What a relief to hear you challenge society’s relentless message that good adoptees are the ones who shut up and act grateful. I’m really glad to have discovered your blog.

  9. THIS is totally awesome. I am all about righteous anger. I haven’t stopped by in a while, cos I thought you were on hiatus while in school. I’m glad to see that you are posting and still kicking, Jae Ran! Keep fighting, tho I have to give you credit, I don’t think I’d be nearly so patient with my readers as you do. It suits me far more to wave my hands and yell at people. Oh litigation, the love/hate relationship we have…….

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