Monday, May 27, 2013

Stop and smell the platitudes...

photo by Marcus Vegas via flickr

I pick up trash. I go to one of several local parks almost every weekend with my husband and youngest son and pick up after others who don't give a shit. True, some of the trash has blown out of the trash can on site. But most was tossed aside by park goers, or worse, tossed out of moving cars. The cans and beer bottles in the bushes were tossed there by passers-by because they were too lazy to carry them or didn't want to get caught with them later.

I pick up trash.

But to be perfectly honest, I don't do it willingly...not really. I often wonder if people who see me think that I've been sentenced to this type of community service after having been caught littering. But no, it's not that. I pick up trash because students are expected to do seventy-five to one-hundred hours of community service to qualify for Bright Futures scholarships. A scholarship would greatly help our family put our youngest son through college. So we pick up trash.

We are volunteers with Keep Brevard Beautiful. I chose this form of community service for my son because we could do it together, it gets us outdoors, and I enjoy picking up trash.

But as I was working my way around Veterans Memorial Park yesterday, it occurred to me that most people would think that I'm doing this because I want to help other people. They think that all volunteer work and charity is for others. Once in a while, someone at the park will thank me for what I'm doing for them.

It's a motto, no doubt. It's their preaching: help others.

But, I'm going to be very honest once again: I do it for me. In fact, I honestly believe that all volunteer work, all charity, all giving to our fellow man is done, not to help others, but to help ourselves.

We feed the homeless because we feel good doing it. We donate to victims of natural disasters because it makes us feel good. And I pick up trash because it makes me happy.

This is taboo, of course. It's ingrained in us that we are not supposed to make ourselves happy. We are supposed to make others happy. We aren't even supposed to think of ourselves. We must be self-less.

There is another side to that--just as insidious.

Platitudes like "help others" are the very opposite of what they are intended to mean. We should stop telling each other to volunteer, to donate, to help because we are duty bound to help our fellow man. No. We should tell each other to do all of these things because they feel good. They make us happy. They make us noble. They make us human. Doing for others, getting out of that self-centered, self-absorbed bubble, is one of the best temporary cures for the natural sadness of life.

Yes. I said "temporary" cure. There is no true cure for unhappiness or depression. Unhappiness and depression are a natural part of being human.

Too many people fail to recognize that people have different temperaments. We range from highly charged and emotional, to those who live an even keel of flatness. There are people who walk blissfully through life unconcerned with the pain all around them. And there are those who are nearly smothered by the horror. While one would think that the best tendency would be to fall somewhere in between, that isn't the case for the prevailing attitude.

Too many people have come to believe that to live rightly is to be happy. All the time.

That's, of course, utter bullshit.

Studies have shown that this focus on happiness, especially through platitudes and affirmations, only deepens sadness in sad people. And yet, our positive thinking friends continue to offer us platitudes constantly affirming the joys of life, the wonders of staying positive, and reminding us to look on the bright side.

They're not, as they might like to believe, doing this to help us. I would give them the benefit of doubt and say they think they're helping, but, nah, I won't. What they're doing is a combination of two things: 1. attempting to reinforce the dogma of happiness in their own lives, and 2. letting everyone else know how much better they are than the rest of us.

That's right. Positive thinking gurus have a firm belief that they are happy and that being happy is superior to not being happy. And they don't want you to forget that they are doing it right, and you, if you don't agree with their platitudes, are not.

And it's bullshit.

The simplest platitude is this: Focus on the positive, and good things will come your way.

Bullshit. Recognizing the negative will not stop good things from happening to you. And forcing yourself to ignore the bad things all around you will not keep it from affecting you. It's a lie.

Sadness, negativity, and even depression are helpful in any manner of ways. They tell you that you are alive, for one thing. (And that's a pretty big thing!) But more important, depression and negativity tell you that there is something to be worked on. And you can't work on it if you're too busy telling yourself you're not sad at all.

You can sit cross-legged all day telling yourself there is no spoon but all the while you're recognizing that there certainly is.

Sadness and negativity are a tunnel through a wall. You can climb up the side of the tunnel and sit there at the top, swinging your legs back and forth over it as if you haven't got a care in the world, all you want. But that won't get you past that wall.

photo by doctorserone via flickr

In order to get past the wall, in order to grow and learn and mature, in order to live fully human, you have to go through the tunnel. You have to feel the sadness, let the depression take its course, work through the negativity, so that you can come out on the other side of the wall healthier, smarter, and more mature--and ready for the next tunnel.

Focusing on the flowers on the roadside won't do shit. You have to go through the tunnel. And you have to stop pretending the tunnel isn't there. And stop telling everyone the wall isn't real. It's real. And there's nothing wrong with the sadness and negativity you have to endure to get through it. That's called life.

Here's one that is the worst of the worst: You can't love others if you don't first love yourself. And its evil twin: Others can't love you, unless you love yourself.

Complete and utter bullshit.

People who have low self-esteem, who have great difficulty liking (much less loving) themselves, are just as capable of great love as the rest of us. And low and behold, what do you know, people fall in love with people with low or negative self-esteem every day.

Some people (apparently not our positive thinking gurus) are capable of seeing goodness in others that those others don't even see in themselves. What do you know? Real, human love knows no bounds. It doesn't stop just because we haven't learned to love ourselves; and it certainly doesn't keep us from loving someone with issues.

Before you send out another touchy feely quote about how beautiful life is if you just focus on the positive, remember that you're not helping anyone but yourself. But the difference is that, while picking up trash helps me, and the park rangers, and park goers--your tired and worn platitudes hurt people every day.

Try telling a woman who has lost a child to cancer to just look on the bright side of life. Try telling children dying of starvation and malaria to just focus on the joy and sunshine. Try telling people who have lost loved ones to murder that if you concentrate on happiness, happiness will be yours. Try telling the woman struggling with depression that all it takes is to look in the mirror and tell yourself how wonderful you are and voila, your life will be good.

photo by yuicino via flickr

These people are not less than you. These people don't need your platitudes. Your platitudes are hurting them. Stop blinding yourself to the reality of life. Stop trying to live in happiness all the time.

Who ever said that we are supposed to be happy? All the damn time? Who promised you that?

It's a lie that you should be. It's a vicious lie that you can be. Sure, if you have the peculiar bliss temperament that lets you walk around with a permanent grin, bully for you! But stop trying to make the rest of us feel inadequate because we are unable to turn away from the pain, the heartache, the loss, the fear, the evil, and the reality of this world.

And stop telling everyone that they can do anything if they just believe they can, or if they just think the right thoughts, or just try hard enough. Take it from Coach Knight:
No matter what your mom tells you, some physical and mental limitations can't be overcome, even "with all the determination, the willpower, in the world." That's why "Can't," "No," "Not" and "Don't" are powerful reality checks for those who aspire to greatness, or who coach others on that path.

It doesn't matter how much I may want to be a singer, it's never going to happen. I can't sing. My mouth isn't shaped right. I can't carry a tune. I can't belt out a scream, much less a song. It's not going to happen. Stop giving people false hopes that they can be something they are not.

If you can't sing, you won't be a singer no matter how many times people tell you to just believe. And if you are not happy with yourself, no amount of someone telling you to love yourself will help. And this world is not all glorious, all good, and full of joy. And you have no right to tell others to expect it to be.

And no. People who are negative and critical are not people who hate themselves, hate others (or as the goose stepping happiness brigade likes to call "haters"), and just trying to bring everyone down to their level. Their level is higher than yours. Yes, that's right. Because they are living in the objective reality where not everything is good, where things ought to be criticized, where we ought to look at both the good and the bad, where reality lives.

If you are unwilling, or even unable, to look at the reality of life--all of it, the glory and the horror--you are not fully living. You are walking around in a bubble that keeps you from being truly and completely human.

You're not better than anyone. In fact, you are worse, because you spread, not joy, but pain wherever you spread your inane platitudes. Happiness is not a choice. Happiness is a state of mind that is pleasant, but not always for the best. It comes in and rolls out like the tide for those of us who are living. And when it goes out, we do not dance and pretend the water splashes at our feet. Of course not. We tread the damp sands and learn from its absence. And then we wander out to meet it when it returns.

Update 07/06/2013
Found this awesome video on this very subject: