just keep smiling, no matter what

A disturbing new trend is invading American discourse: toxic, weaponized positivity and optimism.
cheshire cat smile

One of the biggest surprises about American culture to many immigrants is its lack of tolerance for any sort of negativity outside of political and economic punditry. Americans like to complain about their government and a little populist anger now and then is perfectly acceptable. But outside of that, you have to keep smiling and be positive. Job advice columns always warn about “negative people” being a drag in the workplace and likely to get fired or laid off.

Normal, everyday sadness can wind up being treated like a medical condition, and if you object to conformational, uplifting woo in the media, you’re just a curmudgeonly cynic with no joy in your dark, brooding life. Whatever happens, you’re supposed to be always happy and always smiling, no matter what.

So when we take into account the sheer onslaught of happy thoughts with which Americans are flooded from self-help books, television, and even business magazines, it’s not a stretch to imagine that living in this happy bubble of mandated saccharine affirmations might eventually turn toxic and make its way into a field where it’s far more harmful than helpful. You may recognize these quotes from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Guardian column since it recently made its rounds across the web and major skeptical blogs…

The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease. In 2007, New York Times health columnist Jane Brody quoted bike racer and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who said, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me”, and cited a woman asserting that “breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living.” Betty Rollin, one of the first American women to go public with her disease, testified that she has “realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were”.

Is it just me or does this sound like a case of medical Stockholm syndrome? Having seen what cancer does to people up close and personal, these are absolute last words I would ever choose to describe the disease. It’s a terrible, scary, aggressive, and often fatal illness. Love and affection are things you need to experience if you really want to get the most out of being alive. Cancer? That’s something you should hope you never have to fight. Rather than give you a new appreciation for life, it will drain you as it devours your insides, create tons of medical bills, and quite possibly make your last months of life into a living hell.

Sure, the boisterous, upbeat talk from survivors being published in those happy-happy fluff pieces sounds vaguely positive, but something tells me that when Lance Armstrong was getting ready for brain surgery to remove a tumor spawned by one of the many metastases in his body at the time, he wasn’t cheering with joy. Oh and there’s more…

In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance — it is a “gift”, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude. One survivor writes in her book The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening that “cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live.”

Doubled over in pain with a chemo pump in your chest? Oh that sounds wonderful! Sign me up. Now if only a doctor who discarded actual medicine in favor of fluffy nothings could tell me to purge all my negative thoughts so the aggressive tumors ravaging my body magically go away, I’d be all set. And of course, as Ehrenreich will show us in her column, the King of Woo, Deepak Chopra would there for me in this joyous, uplifting transition between being healthy and on the verge of a slow and painful death! I know that if I survive, I’ll be so thankful to whatever deity I worship for the pain, stress, expense, and surgeries.

Oh, and let’s keep in mind that if you’re diagnosed with cancer and you’re not exhilarated about the chance to come to terms with your own mortality, it only makes things worse and you’ll be the person to blame for your continued illness. Being scared and alert, looking for any way to fight the cancer and stay alive? That’s just going to make things worse.

This mandate of happy thoughts even in the face of potential death is disturbing for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most notable one is this. Putting up a wall of positive affirmation between something that’s truly wrong or disconcerting is a defensive response. It’s a way to shut off the real world so we can mute the stress it so often brings and by not acknowledging very real and pressing problems with platitudes so saccharine, a few episodes of Oprah should prompt you to get checked for diabetes, we build up an intolerance to reality. In the bubble of forced smiles, there’s no criticism, there’s no need to worry about mortality, no need to fix what’s terribly broken.

Everything is a gift, everything is a chance to live your life to the fullest, everything should get the happy thought treatment and be met with gratitude and a giggle. Even death itself. This is where the generally useful philosophy of trying to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt, becomes a borderline pathology.

# health // health / mass media / pop culture / woo

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