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Lara Pingue is the assistant national editor at The Globe and Mail.
It took me about 23 minutes to realize that my Peloton instructor was, in fact, a giant liar.
Contrary to what she said at the onset of class, the hardest part of the workout was not “just showing up” or “making myself a priority.” No, the hardest part was holding a plank with a core apparently made out of Jell-O, about midway through a session that made every muscle in my body scream in protest.
I have nothing against the motivational white lies we hear in fitness classes. But my workout epiphany got me thinking about all the harmless little fibs we tell each other – and ourselves – to gloss over the ugly realities of everyday life. It seems to me we’ve gotten quite good at tossing around the empty phrases that pad greeting cards or look good on signs we hang in our kitchens. (“Live, laugh, love,” anyone?). In 2022, we have a convenient platitude for just about every hardship hurled our way. Our overworked health care workers? They’re the “true heroes,” we say. Our global struggle to overcome a seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic? “We’re all in this together,” we’re told.
And while there’s nothing intentionally malevolent about these phrases, their power lies in how easily they let us off the hook. It’s easy, then, to call nurses heroes while doing exactly nothing to increase their pay or overhaul a health care system on the brink. We bang our pots and move on. If we believe that we’re all in this together, it becomes easier to forget that some of us spent our lockdown in cozy lakeside cottages or jetted off on far-flung vacations while others became jobless, lost loved ones or worse.
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Of course, I know that cheery phrases make up the fabric of a polite and civilized society, like making small-talk about the weather. But I worry there’s real harm in the way they blur out the very realities we need to see in laser focus. It’s bleak work to acknowledge and understand the suffering this world endures every day, from the war in Ukraine to the health crisis unfolding in our hospitals. No amount of “everything happens for a reason” is going to help. It’s the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
It’s not lost on me that women, in our roles of Chief Emotional Labourers, might find ourselves dishing out useless platitudes as much as we receive them. I’m guilty of papering over my kids’ tears with them, or nodding wordlessly when hearing them. Maybe it’s no wonder that the term “toxic positivity” has gained a foothold in recent years. It refers to a positivity-at-all-costs notion, a belief that seeing the bright side of even the most terrible situations can somehow buoy us above it all. But like all things in excess, even too much positivity can be insidious.
“Unrealistic optimism isn’t just an individual problem – as a society, we collectively like to pretend things are fine, which can invalidate the severity and complexity of serious situations. It’s like celebrating a cold snap to pretend that global warming isn’t so bad,” writes Sydney Loney in Chatelaine.
So what’s the alternative? Surely we can’t be walking around sobbing all day. In an article in The Atlantic, writer Scott Barry Kaufman explores the idea of “tragic optimism,” or the search for meaning during the inevitable tragedies of human existence.
He writes: “Researchers who study ‘post-traumatic growth’ have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times – including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active search for meaning that people undertake during and after it.”
Kaufman refers to the work of Kristi Nelson, the executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, whose own brush with cancer led to a life that takes nothing for granted, an approach that Kaufman might call tragically optimistic. (Notably, Nelson makes the distinction between the Oprah-approved word “gratitude” and “gratefulness”; the former, she says, is more fleeting and transactional, a response to something specific. But she describes gratefulness as an approach to life, irrespective of a specific event.) The goal isn’t “staying positive” at all costs, but rather building a resiliency that will help long-term. (For more on what that looks like, see the pointers Kaufman shares here.)
For my own part, I think I’ll start with honesty. Less “thoughts and prayers” and more “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” Less, “it is what it is” and more “let’s talk about it.”
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but The Ministry for the Future is a standout. This 500-page fictional tome by Kim Stanley Robinson asks a central question: What would it look like if the world got serious about solving climate change – or as the author more urgently describes it, “averting a mass extinction event”? Each chapter cleverly takes the vantage point of various stakeholders – central bankers, glaciologists and yes, even the stock market – which together paint a vivid picture of just how monumental the challenge ahead really is. Spoiler alert: There’s hope.
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