The Tyranny of Positivity
While I do think it’s important not to give in to despair, my experience tells me that when it comes to the hard stuff in life — difficult relationships, mental health struggles, money problems, addiction, questions of faith, and political action — the only way out is THROUGH.
This means accepting and acknowledging that we’re not going to feel good all the time. Some of us may not even feel good most of the time. And that’s just the way it is.
Feeling bad isn’t actually a bad thing. Assigning morality to our human emotions penalizes us for simply being who we are. Feeling bad is part of life — and I would argue that it’s even a beneficial because if we don’t feel bad, we feel no impetus to change; and if we feel no impetus to change, we stagnate. Our full potential is reached through a dance between wins and losses, achievements and failures, teaching and learning.
The most powerful thing you can do for another person is to witness and affirm their pain. This is also the most powerful thing you can do for yourself.
On the other hand, one of the most abusive things you can do to another person is to refuse to acknowledge their pain. To try to compete with their pain. Or to make them feel like they are morally/spiritually inferior because of their pain.
Affirmation isn’t approval. Acknowledging that you feel shitty, or that you’re struggling with something big and awful and scary isn’t weakness — nor does it mean you’re willing to stop trying. As Susan David said in her talk, “courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s fear walking”.
To expect people — to expect YOURSELF — to show up constantly as an inhuman source of positivity to guide others isn’t realistic. It’s also sort of taking away from the role of The Divine (if you subscribe to that kind of thing). Even history’s most beloved prophets and gurus were not free from the hardship of life and or from their own internal demons.
I am here to tell you: you can learn to appreciate the pain. You can learn to embrace the difficulties, and recognize that they are part of the rich emotional tapestry of your life. You can reset your expectations for yourself and others and make room for the natural, normal human responses to life’s challenges — and you can do it without getting stuck down there forever.
When you embrace the struggle and really feel the discomfort, that is when you know you’re growing.
Over the past few years, I have been faced with multiple situations that hit me hard in some of the most intimate places of my heart. I’ve experienced anxiety, dread, hopes crushed, overwhelming worry, and plain old sadness. I’ve been challenged physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually in ways I never thought I could be.
And yet…I find myself emerging from this period with feeling empowered and optimistic. Things have been tough, but I have an overwhelming sense that THIS IS WHAT I WAS MADE FOR; and as I find myself rising to the occasion again and again after being repeatedly knocked down, I’ve realize that this is what life *is*.
Remember the quote from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own? “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.” It’s like that.
Not everyone is up to the challenge. Most of us, myself included, tend to spend a whole lot of time looking for ways to avoid staring our pain in the face. We self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, food, entertainment and social media. We want fun trips and bonuses and awards and celebrations, and we consider these the only valuable, important parts of our life.
But it is in the nitty-gritty of showing up for people who need me even when I’m exhausted; of stopping in the middle of the day to reassess my priorities; of doing what needs to be done in the most unglamorous, uninteresting way that we meet our true full potential. Not the potential that gets us press…I’m talking about the full potential that will allow us to rest easy on our death bed, knowing we did right by the people with whom we are in relationships.
I guess what I’m trying to say is — I’ve found joy in the struggle, and I’m not afraid of what hangs over me anymore. So much of my life has been an exercise in avoidance, but I’ve slowed myself down, and I’m feeling it all now- the good and the bad. And it is beautiful.
All I can do now is show up, meet my responsibilities with everything I’ve got, and lean in when things get hard.
I’m doing it… and so can you.
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