Special Bonus Rant: How Are You Complicit? (Academic Edition)

Trigger Warning: reference to sexual assault

This isn’t the blog post where I’ll unpack issues with social media and blurry boundaries between personal and professional self-presentation, but I will lead with an acknowledgement that this type of blurry boundary is a complicated thing.

(Says the relatively anonymous blogger.)

I debated about whether to link to the original article here, and I’ve decided to go ahead. It’s not like the source text is too inappropriate to share, and it’s also not like this humdrum little blog is going to generate a lot of foot traffic for the original author one way or the other. 

So, here is the link to the article, titled “How Are You Complicit?”

I am avoiding naming the author directly in my post, which I think should prevent this blog from turning up in searches for his name, as I’m not interested in having any impact on this stranger’s actual career (as though I even could if I wanted to, but weird things happen on the internet) or frankly bothering him at all.

He’s just a guy promoting his own dude thoughts in the interest of his public and professional image, which is a pretty reasonable thing for an aspiring academic to do.

I’m clarifying all this because I haven’t read this person’s actual academic scholarship, and I don’t know them personally, so my response here is purely based on this one article they wrote that I happened to encounter one day when I was already feeling cross, and little bit of casual poking around on their website after I started writing out an impromptu rant that turned into this blog post. They’re not, like, my nemesis or something.

Although I do not imagine that the article’s author would enjoy this post if they came across it, they’re still not my real target. My issue is with larger patterns and beliefs that happen to show up particularly clearly in this one little post of theirs.

So, just a reminder that everything on this blog should be taken with a grain of salt, and that the lives people live independently of my opinion have value and worth that my crabbiness cannot and should not be presumed to diminish.

The author interrogates the question “How are you complicit in creating the conditions in your lives that you say you don’t want?”

It’s a short article, but it does reference one outside source (i.e., the author of a book), in the context of a second source (i.e., said book author was interviewed for a podcast). 

Both that author and that interviewer appear to be square-jawed white men with lots of money. 

Incidentally, the author of the source article, the one who references only rich white men in developing his argument about how we are complicit in our own oppression, is an apparently white man who is an assistant professor. 

Assistant professors can hardly be presumed to be wealthy people (though exceptions exist), especially in the humanities and social sciences, but it remains an extremely privileged (even when tenuous) position in the buyer’s market of academia. 

This fellow talks a lot about leadership. He studies the learning practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. 

Just, you know, all the individuals.

Who would benefit from the perspective of rich white cis male CEOs.

Anyway, I’m particularly interested in the framing of the last clause of the question: “that you say you don’t want.”

I’m curious as to how this framing might differ from the standard fallacies of victim blaming:

“You say you didn’t want to have sex that night, but why did you wear sexy clothes and then keep talking to that guy who wouldn’t leave you alone?”

“You say you don’t think workers should be exploited, but why do you still work at a job where you yourself are exploited?”

Ah, the convenient threat of hypocrisy. 

To be clear, I’m not really so obtuse that I don’t understand how individuals can perpetuate patterns that keep them stuck in unfortunate situations.

Of course self-sabotage is a thing. 

Of course unhealthy and unproductive patterns can create frustrating personal ruts. 

But this is hardly an either/or situation, and the context of academia is a particularly inappropriate setting in which to imply that it might be. 

How hard is to begin from the premise that while most people can, indeed, take steps to do better (whatever that looks like relative to their own situations), it’s also true that their ability to successfully and consistently do better may still be hindered by social and logistical factors outside their control? 

Is that too much to ask?

The author continues:

“…we are taking part in the things that make us mad, sad, or unhappy.” 

Buddy, that’s just called living

(Italics for emphasis! Like a confident leader would do!)

Now, I recognize that this article is vague because it’s meant to be a quick little think piece, and not like a well-researched manifesto. The author is personally keeping up with the creation of daily content, so of course each individual post isn’t going to be exhaustively reviewed and revised and polished.

Still, if I were to be asked for feedback on that article as a draft, I’d ask for some specific examples to support at least a few of the sweeping generalizations.

Specific examples like

“What are some problems you’ve invited into your life?”

“Under what circumstances have you been unwilling or unable to make a personal change?”

“What are some times when you accepted responsibility for your actions and for your circumstances?”

“What are some examples of times you placed responsibility on others?”

“What kinds of responsibilities belong to individuals?”

“Who dreads and fears doing what kinds of self-work?”

“What critical framework shapes the critical lens you recommend being applied to everyone’s lives and belief systems?”

“What are some examples of times you’ve been wrong or silly or stupid?”

“How are you defining both ‘responsibility’ and ‘complicity’?”

“What are some examples of burdens that have been passed on to you by others’ fear of failure?”

Just a few, off the top of my head. 

Then again, maybe me asking all these pointed questions just stems from my unwillingness to accept my own complicity in letting confident assholes make the kinds of important decisions that they’ve positioned themselves to make within a system that elevates that particular brand of uncritical confidence. 

“Doing self-work is often dreaded and feared,” the author opines.  

Look, I don’t have access to stats on this, so anecdotal evidence is the best I can do on the short notice I’m giving myself for this post. 

But anecdotally, I’d say that the vast majority of folx who have committed to doing the dreaded self-work of shouldering the responsibilities borne of unfavorable conditions are not the same folx who are writing books, intended to coach future business executives, with subtitles like Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.

I’m aware that it may seem redundant to complain about such a personal take on “self work.” How else can you work on your own self unless it’s personally? 

But “we don’t want to put a critical lens to our lives and belief systems,” he says dismissively about all humans. 

As though you – uniquely, individually, personally, solely you – are responsible for those belief systems that it may be time for you to challenge. 

And as though your conclusions about how you’ve chosen to bear the burden of your own responsibilities will be fundamentally better than how you were before you did that self-work, all because you knew from your own knowledge and feelings (but mostly knowledge, because feelings are just excuses for weakness) what substantive improvement would entail. 

As though the critical lens of your own opinion is sufficiently and appropriately tuned to meet or even exceed its own limitations. 

This author seems like someone who should know the difference between “criticism” as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes” and “Criticism” as “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of the object of study.” 

This post really seems to be leaning into the former definition. 

Which is really a less useful tool than the latter. 

And yet that former form of criticism is likely to be a familiar tool for people who’ve had inferiority imposed on them by external forces for their entire lives: they talk the wrong way. They look the wrong way. They feel feelings the wrong way. They get horny the wrong way. They handle money the wrong way. They manage their time the wrong way.

The kind of wealthy faux-Buddhist advice being peddled as wisdom here seems so fucking novel to white dudes who have never believed that something fundamental about their way of existing in the world is a problem to be fixed.

(Do I have to do the #notallwhitedudes business? If you’re a white dude reading this and you know you’re doing real work to resist patriarchy, you probably don’t need that reassurance in order to understand my point, eh?)

It can be true that there are some practical nuggets of actual wisdom hiding among the gross oversimplifications in an article like this one

AND

it can be true that this article is an uncritically selfish framing of what self-work means and why it matters. 

The weight-lifting analogy at the end reveals something the author probably didn’t intend.

It’s like doing self-work is about getting ideologically swole. Like the point of self-work is self-gain (and kind of getting off on the pain of getting there). Not “pass[ing] the burden on to others” is about your ability to shoulder that burden yourself, rather than about sparing others from the burden of your own irresponsibility. 

Then again, I suppose I could just be defensive that my own blog represents my complicity in sustaining toxic positivity, since I say I don’t like it but then I keep collecting tokens and taking the time to rage write about them. 

But honestly? In the end, I still choose to blame Jerry Colonna, author of Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, for every single one of my personal problems.

Walk Yourself Out of Your Bad Mood

Content note: reference to depression and suicide

 The background image is a muted-filtered dark photo of a winding asphalt walking path through a foggy wooded area. The white serif font reads, "WALK yourself out of your bad mood. Studies show that even a 10-minute walk immediately BOOSTS brain chemistry to increase happiness." -Karen Salmansohn." The macro itself is attributed to "Inspiring Quotes."
 The background image is a muted-filtered dark photo of a winding asphalt walking path through a foggy wooded area. The white serif font reads, “WALK yourself out of your bad mood. Studies show that even a 10-minute walk immediately BOOSTS brain chemistry to increase happiness.” -Karen Salmansohn.” The macro itself is attributed to “Inspiring Quotes.”

Fuck therapy, sad sacks.

Y’all obviously aren’t walking enough.

Who needs drugs to manage their mental illnesses when plain old movin’ your body parts will do the trick?

And just to preemptively address the anger I’ve created in the pro-walking community I’m imagining in my mind: please recognize your big feelings and take a few moments to sit with them. (That’s the kind of advice I’ve always resented, because it actually is pretty helpful.)

I’m not writing this up because I don’t think walks can ever be good for anyone’s mental state.

I advocate for movement when feeling funky, in all senses of the word.

And it’s true that the reasons walking can help boost your mood actually do boil down to “brain chemistry,” since chemical reactions in your brain literally inform your experience of every single thing.

But people don’t die by suicide because they’re a little grumpy about missing their evening constitutional.

Consider the possibility, if you have not experienced depression (or if you have experienced it in the past but feel better now) and you agree with the sentiments expressed in this macro, that you might be projecting your own experience onto people who are dealing with something very different from your own experience.

It may not have been the intent of the original author to go into full medication-shaming mode, but those sentiments are rampant in Positive Thinking Land.

I Googled the person that the quote is attributed to, and I had to go take a 10-minute walk to be able to review her site more charitably.

I will just say this: I came across another pithy quote macro on her site in which she introduces her proposal for coining the new word “blesson.”

This is indeed an unfortunate blending of “blessing” and “lesson,” which she defines as “what happens when you see the blessing in the lesson that your challenge taught you.”

I’m clearly not her target demographic. It looks like she probably offers some decent resources that aren’t entirely shame-based or victim-blamey, but her whole ethos is buried under so much toxic positivity that I can’t take the good parts seriously.

To each their own. If she has helped you in the past or seems helpful now, I do genuinely want for you to be helped. Please try to hold onto at least a kernel of the healthy skepticism I advocate for, but do what you need to do for you.

Onward.

We all know that Big Pharma sucks, right?

A lot of kinds of research-based evidence for medicating all kinds of mental health diagnoses are actually sketchy as hell.

And at the same time, casting aspersions on the people who have chosen to rely on available medication to make their lives feel more manageable is not going to cause the collapse of the legal drug industry any time soon.

I get the impression that arguments like this one – the old “have you tried NATURE?” schtick – are not about resistance to capitalist neoliberal oligarchy etc. as much as they are about preserving the moral high ground that appears to exist within the WellnessTM branch of that same oligarchy.

Psychiatry’s public-facing emphasis on brain chemistry is to some degree an effort to legitimize the medical reality of potentially life-threatening diagnoses like depression.

I mean, there’s also dirty money and institutional pressure to pathologize humans’ normal reactions to abnormally difficult situations.

You win some, you lose some.

Even if that emphasis on brain chemistry began as a tool of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s still true that the concept has helped muster more widespread support for letting people seek help for their problems.

Concepts like “brain chemistry” have also become part of public discourse because there are a lot of non-depressed people who prefer to assume that depressed people are just bad at existing.

It’s still important to legitimize the fact that depressed people need support, even if drug companies will inevitably exploit that information .

The point here is that there are lots of internet folx (who, it turns out, also exist in the non-internet world) who don’t believe in using medication to balance out “brain chemicals” because they are super sure that there are better ways to get un-depressed than “professional medical treatment.” 

I mean, sure.

Sweeping structural and systemic change that prioritizes individual security, access to health care, and an overall sense of purpose are really nice ways to combat depression.

Exercise, vegetables, water, and sleep are also pretty good.

It just also happens that the same WellnessTM Industry that promotes disproportionate numbers of images of fit, serene women doing yoga and drinking from recycled glass bottles is simultaneously invested in keeping the public focus off of neurotransmitters and back on “lifestyle choices.”

The connection between those narratives is very clearly highlighted in this macro.

Neither the Big Pharma or WellnessTM frameworks truly offers some kind of objectively moral high ground to shame other people for struggling to cope with this nonsense world. We’re all competing with way too many systems that are rigged against us to be able to push back against all of them and fully thrive in equal measure (as tempting as that sounds).

Anyway, in a conclusion that’s allowed me to bury the lede, let it not remain un-noted that neither a bad mood nor severe depression are just about “not enough happiness.”

More Than They Need to Know

An edited image of a person's silhouette in profile. They have long hair, and are facing towards the right half of the photo. In the background, a distant horizon line is visible. The entire image is grayscale, although with a bluish tinge to the gray. It's difficult for me to determine if the horizon line has low mountains or plateaus. Most of the background (behind the silhouette) is an overcast sky. The silhouette has had an image of puffy clouds and a crescent moon superimposed over / inside of the head, creating a surreal effect. The white sanserif font reads, "Stop telling people more than they need to know." It says "unknown" after the quote, and the whole image has been marked with the "Power of Positivity" logo at the bottom.
An edited image of a person’s silhouette in profile. They have long hair, and are facing towards the right half of the photo. In the background, a distant horizon line is visible. The entire image is grayscale, although with a bluish tinge to the gray. It’s difficult for me to determine if the horizon line has low mountains or plateaus. Most of the background (behind the silhouette) is an overcast sky. The silhouette has had an image of puffy clouds and a crescent moon superimposed over / inside of the head, creating a surreal effect. The white sanserif font reads, “Stop telling people more than they need to know.” It says “unknown” after the quote, and the whole image has been marked with the “Power of Positivity” logo at the bottom.

The relatively interesting image here (compared to, like, a generic sunset) makes the relationship between that image and the quote feel ambiguous.

It is good that their head is full of puffy clouds and moonbeams, or is it a cause for concern?

Is the silhouetted head giving the advice to other people? 

Like, is their head full of all kinds of beautiful things already, and they’re just like, “Please stop talking to me”?

Or is the silhouette the one to whom the advice is being given?

Like maybe they are under the impression that all the stuff they have in mind is super important, but they are actually just an insecure over-sharer? 

Variants of this piece of advice are pretty common, so I understand why the quote is simply credited as “Unknown.”

And Power of Positivity as an organization doesn’t seem too bothered about copyright or intellectual property, in general. 

When it comes to images, it seems like the basic attribution policy is to assume that the creator is “unknown.” 

Probably it’s because most of the photography is already in the public domain, but there are still usually other design choices being made. 

This image here, for instance, required at least two photos, and someone to put them together. 

At that point, why make the effort to specifically establish that the words originated from an unknown sources?

Your heart’s in the right place, anonymous macro creator, if a bit misguided. 

I get that you want to make it clear that you are not the brilliant philosopher-poet behind these words of pithy wisdom. 

You just felt compelled to design a space for those words to exist in a social media-friendly medium. 

But where do your design choices begin and end, my friend? 

Did you Photoshop the moon onto this person’s silhouette? 

Is it your own silhouette, or an image of a stranger from Shutterstock? 

Do you truly know, person who humbly acknowledged distance from the creation of these words, the face of the human whose profile graces your macro?

I have the sense that when the author of a quote is left unspecified in a context like this, it’s kind of implied that they’re either unknowable or so well-known that it there words can be expected to be common knowledge. (Including those situations where a quote is commonly but erroneously attributed to a very famous person.)

The advice in these anonymous words is actually potentially useful, but ironically it lacks sufficient context to account for how and why it’s useful.

A reductive but useful example of finding The Right Amount of Information is the IT classic: “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”

Opening your conversation with tech support with a play-by-play of everything you’ve tried already, just to prove to them (but actually to yourself) that you’re not totally incompetent, is an example of “telling people more than they need to know.”

I imagine that most of us have put our foot in our mouths at some point, insisting something like “Of course it’s plugged in!” only to have to later sheepishly admit that it wasn’t.

But the person whose job it is to troubleshoot whatever is preventing you from getting your work done has no obligation to care about your pride or sense of self-worth. (Not that IT folx are uncaring, of course. Just that it would be unreasonable for them to invest that much emotional energy into each case.)

Then again, you often have to be able to explain your problem before they can begin to help you fix it.

My own anxiety often compels me to explain exactly how I arrived at any given decision to anyone I’m communicating with, so “telling people more than they need to know” is kind of my default. 

I’m aware that my process is not always efficient.

It’s been suggested by very patient and wise people at various points in my life that it’s okay if I provide just a little information to get started, and remember that whoever I’m talking to has the freedom to decide whether they have any follow-up questions about what they need or want to know. 

Apparently, it’s not a failure on my part for not having already predicted and preventatively addressed every conceivable reaction to my very normal bids for reasonable responses.  

Weird. 

I’m still getting used to it.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I developed a tendency to overcompensate with Too Much Information was how often people bring up things that I’ve already considered, dismissed, and/or attempted.

I know I’m always on about this whole “context matters” business, but…

stop framing situationally-specific advice as generalizable imperatives that are more likely to reinforce shame and silence among mentally ill and/or traumatized and/or marginalized folx who’ve developed those targeted behaviors as coping mechanisms than they are to promote understanding, mindfulness, or useful self-reflection.

Successful Outcome

Content note: animated gifs

A square with an orange filter over a photograph of college students rappelling on a climbing wall. In the upper right hand corner are the hashtags #momentummonday and #uwec, the educational institution that shared the post. In white sanserif letters, it says, "It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome." -William James
A square with an orange filter over a photograph of college students rappelling on a climbing wall. In the upper right hand corner are the hashtags #momentummonday and #uwec, the educational institution that shared the post. In white sanserif letters, it says, “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” -William James

I originally wrote this post in early 2020.

At that point, I had heard of coronavirus, but people were dismissing whispers about lockdowns.

More recently, here in mid-2022, I was reading the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, and I was struck by their chapter on “persistence.”

The perspective they present there is much more nuanced and thoroughly researched than my blog post here (which makes sense, because they wrote a whole book), but I’ll go ahead and admit that I was chuffed to see a well-rounded argument by people I respect with some thematic parallels to my burned-out thoughts from two years ago.

Back in the before-times, I was feeling especially salty about this featured quote because I had just received a long-overdue confirmation of rejection for a job that I was extraordinarily confident about my ability to perform, that I was ridiculously prepared for, that I was eminently qualified for, and for which I made an exceptionally strong argument for myself for in both preliminary and final interview stages.

I also received my poorly-handled rejection notification the day after Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race.

It wasn’t a great day to see an inspirational quote about attitude.

My attitude had varied over the months of the academic job application and interview process, but overall, I remained uncharacteristically positive.

I mean, I was still fundamentally me.

Of course I experienced bouts of doubt and anxiety.

But for once, my professional self-doubt felt like a lie that could be countered with evidence.

When I saw the original advertisement for the position, I thought, “Well, that’s me. I can do all of that, and I can do it well.”

(It was far more common for me to read the bulleted Preferred Qualifications list and feel great about three of them, okay about four or five, ambivalent about a couple, and terrified by at least one.)

When I started pulling my materials together, I told myself, “I will turn in an application that they can’t ignore. They may not actually contact me for an interview, because that’s out of my hands, but by god, they’ll have to work hard to justify keeping me out of the running if that’s the case.”

And they contacted me pretty promptly to schedule an interview.

And when I prepared for the interview, I told myself, “I will not give them any reason to second-guess choosing my application, and by god, they’ll have to sweat if they don’t put me through to the next round.”

And I made it to the next round.

Every other time I had a campus visit, I’d leaned into a “fake it ’til you make it” approach to get me through, but this time, I just felt a qualified colleague.

It would be unfair for me to resent the fact that another person existed with pertinent qualifications, which they proceeded to show off to good advantage in their own interview. The person who got the job was presumably confident, prepared, and qualified, and capable of making a strong argument on their own behalf.

Awareness of this fact didn’t do much to alleviate the sting.

So, back to William James (and those who like to quote him out of context):

How does “attitude at the beginning” really come into play when we arrive at an unsuccessful outcome?

I admit that I threw myself a big old pity party when I got the rejection, and I stand by that. Pretending not to be bitter will only exacerbate bitterness.

I also admit that my above question originally arose from a place of resentment and frustration.

But once the emotional lava has hardened, the issue still stands: what’s the connection between attitude and success?

The quote in this macro is being used in service of this broader Power of Positivity enterprise that blames individuals’ thought patterns for individual failures (or successes), rather than engaging more meaningfully with the social infrastructures that reinforce patterns of success (or failure).

If we’re looking to define an attitude that helps to determine success, it seems like confidence, persistence, and resilience are good personal qualities to have, eh?

I don’t know Elizabeth Warren personally, and I’m in no position to ever speak meaningfully about her mental or emotional state.

But at least in terms of her public image, she remained engaged, forward-thinking, and determined. She shows it when she’s angry, but she remains broadly “positive,” and does not appear unconfident or underprepared.

Elizabeth Warren’s own attitude wasn’t the problem with her campaign. Her attitude was demonstrably on point.

Of course she’ll persist. Of course she’ll be resilient. Of course she isn’t going to stop working altogether. She knows the drill. She’ll stay on her feet.

But still.

Fucking hell.

I’ve focused a lot on that word “attitude” in the original macro, but here I’ll start folding in that idea of “successful outcome.”

A “successful outcome” for a job interview – both at the local and national level – is a job offer.

That’s what it looks like your own attitude is mirrored by that of a larger system (which may or may not be rigged in your favor). 

Now, I promise that I know that “not achieving a desired outcome” is not the same thing as either “failure” or “total lack of institutional support.”

When multiple people are competing for only one position, it’s obviously not possible for everyone to “succeed” in the sense outlined above, and so of course there’s going to be disappointment somewhere.

Toxic Positivity encourages us to elevate the lesson at the expense of acknowledging the disappointment, though. 

Sure, I get to practice resilience this way, and I can identify opportunities for growth, but “someone else got the job” still wasn’t a “successful outcome” for me. (Or Elizabeth Warren.)

It’s a reasonable outcome.

It’s a manageable outcome.

It’s not a total failure, and it’s not the end of the world.

I’ll persist. I’ll be resilient. I won’t stop altogether. I know the drill. I’ll stay on my feet.

We can’t all have successful outcomes all the time, and that’s normal.

Now, I think that’s a reasonable attitude to have at the disappointing conclusion of a difficult task.

Cognitively, I know that this is my baseline “actual” attitude, even though I may struggle to stick with it as circumstance and emotions fluctuate.

This “attitude determines outcome” framing doesn’t seem to encourage a healthy, balanced response to unsuccessful outcomes, but then again, what do I know from healthy?

There are a couple of ways to justify this relationship between “attitude determines outcome” and what “a successful outcome” actually looks like compared to an “unsuccessful” one.

1) Play with the definition of “attitude.” If you have an unsuccessful outcome (e.g., not getting the job, not winning the race, not nailing the performance, etc.), it must be because your initial attitude wasn’t truly what was needed for that particular kind of success in that particular situation. Your attitude was always the problem, rather than anything circumstantial, and you need to try harder to have a more situationally-appropriate attitude if you want to achieve your goals. (Okay, I’ve been a bit flippant there, but then again I never promised not to be.)

2) Play with the definition of “success.” If you don’t achieve your desired outcome (the job, the medal, the gig, etc.), it’s okay to retrofit your idea of success to accommodate whatever actually happened. That sounds a lot like the ol’ “Everyone’s a winner” schtick that never made anyone feel any better in elementary school.

“You succeeded because you tried.”

(Don’t tell Yoda.)

Animated gif of the shriveled green character Yoda from Star Wars (specifically The Empire Strikes Back, for the nerds) saying his iconic line, "Do or do no. There is no try."
Animated gif of the shriveled green character Yoda from Star Wars (specifically The Empire Strikes Back, for the nerds) saying his iconic line, “Do or do no. There is no try.”

Now, I’ve offered several either/ors here, and you know how I feel about binaries.

Of course success is not an absolute binary, and it’s reductive to treat most outcomes as “SUCCESS” vs. “FAILURE” with nothing in between.

At the same time, of course it’s disingenuous to act like “NOT SUCCESS” has so much overlap with “SUCCESS” that the difference is functionally negligible.

I have a background in social science research, but I’ve really only dabbled in psychology. I’ve spent more time engaging with popular psychology resources than digging into the academic theory and history of the discipline.

So I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure who William James was when I initially snagged this screenshot.

In fact, when I started writing, I was thinking of Henry James, and I was all ready to lay into him.

Wrong James, though. 

It turns out that William James is often referred to as “the father of American psychology.”

The history of the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, as James defined it and as it has since evolved, wasn’t exactly light reading, and I’ll be upfront about the fact that I just don’t feel like summarizing it here.

And at any rate, this blog isn’t a great space to develop a lengthy and well-researched essay on the history of ideological debates that have influenced contemporary psychological practice. I’m just here to pick apart their outcomes.

I liked the sound of “pragmatism,” though, so I considered the possibility that his quotable quote was pulled from a context that could offer some illumination.

I briefly searched for that original context.

Early efforts to identify the source beyond the author’s name were fruitless. This sentence has been macroed a LOT:

Screenshot of the many results of a Google image search for the William James quote "It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome." There are many different treatments in terms of font, color scheme, and imagery. 14 are represented here, but that's just what fit in the screenshot.
Screenshot of the many results of a Google image search for the William James quote “It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” There are many different treatments in terms of font, color scheme, and imagery. 14 are represented here, but that’s just what fit in the screenshot.

I have just a couple highlights to bring in from my very brief historical review.

“Pragmatism” as a movement has been paraphrased as “a return to common sense.”

Well, that sounds less promising. Naturally, I wondered whose senses were considered to be most common, and naturally, I have some hunches, William James, but we’ll table that for now.

(*cough* abled-ish financially secure cis het white dudes who were likely to have been raised with broadly Christian values if not beliefs *cough*)

I didn’t find the original context, but I came across another James quote that seems like a helpful expansion: “a belief can be made true by the fact that holding it contributes to our happiness and fulfillment.”

I.e., “fake it ’til you make it.”

It seems a little on the nose to me that the “father of American psychology” advocated for magical thinking that he preferred to rebrand as “pragmatism.”

Admittedly, I’ve presented a judgement about an influential figure and the significance of his entire career based on just a couple of Google searches and the brief perusal of a few articles. I stand 100% ready to be educated by the perspectives of those more familiar with his work (as I pretend that multiple people with relevant and informed opinions are reading this blog).

Shortly after writing an early draft of this post, I read a chapter from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America that expanded more on the historical context that led to the emergence of William James’ psychological philosophy. In short:

it seems like James approached the then-emerging pseudoscientific fad known as “new thinking” (the idea that people could manifest things simply by thinking about them) with a reasonable degree of skepticism.

His original motivation seems to have been practical enough. I respect anyone who is driven by a desire to disprove popular bullshit; yet the outcome has led to terribly impractical results (i.e., more people in contemporary society who lump his eventual admission that “thinking positive thoughts can in some cases seem to correlate with positive outcomes” into the same kind of magical thinking he was contesting in the first place).

So in that sense, his optimistic attitude at the outset does not seem to have resulted in a particularly successful outcome for his theories.

Just sayin’.

I write a lot here about what I don’t believe and not as much about what I do believe.

I want to stress that I believe deeply in the value of acceptance.

I can and always will learn from disappointment.

I know my Bob Ross, y’all. 

Animated gif of painter Bob Ross from his '90s TV show "The Joy of Painting," standing in front of a nature-scape with his palette in hand, saying, "We don't make mistakes - we just have happy accidents."
Animated gif of painter Bob Ross from his ’90s TV show “The Joy of Painting,” standing in front of a nature-scape with his palette in hand, saying, “We don’t make mistakes – we just have happy accidents.”

 I absolutely appreciate the value of being able to identify positive potential after a negative situation has unfolded.

I comprehend and respect the idea that the anticipation of success can have benefits that the anticipation of failure may not.

I recognize the ways in which negative thinking can perpetuate cycles of self-sabotage.

But.

Attitudes don’t exist in vacuums.

Having a good attitude IN A SYSTEM THAT PRIVILEGES AND PRIORITIZES YOUR ABILITY TO MAINTAIN THE IDEA THAT YOUR OWN ATTITUDE IS THE BEST ONE will, indeed, probably encourage successful outcomes.

You can have the best damn attitude in the world, but that’s not the primary thing determining your success. It just helps.

Know your strengths, know your limits, and know your value. That’s in your control.

But also know that there are plenty of folks out there who want you to be fully responsible for the “failures” that you encounter, just so that they can justify their own relative comfort and “success.”

I feel like this post turned out more ranty than usual. That’s not what I planned for when I started, but that’s where it ended up.

Unintended and unexpected outcomes are normal and fine.

It is possible to turn your mistakes into birds.

But that doesn’t have to mean that your attitude was always going to lay eggs in the first place.

The Stuff That Weighs You Down

A photoshopped or filtered photo with a heavily saturated warm pastel color palette, featuring little spindly pink flowers, an orange butterfly on the left of the image, and some kind of light-colored circles that may be out-of-focus dandelion fluff or dust or sunlight reflections. The gray serif font in the middle reads, "If you wanna fly, you gotta give up the stuff that weighs you down." It also attributes the work to a photograph, saying "Photo by Joel Olives" in a new, darker gray sanserif font at the bottom, and lists what is presumably the name of a site or company, "Butterflies and Pebbles," in a third sanserif font across the bottom of the entire image.
A photoshopped or filtered photo with a heavily saturated warm pastel color palette, featuring little spindly pink flowers, an orange butterfly on the left of the image, and some kind of light-colored circles that may be out-of-focus dandelion fluff or dust or sunlight reflections. The gray serif font in the middle reads, “If you wanna fly, you gotta give up the stuff that weighs you down.” It also attributes the work to a photograph, saying “Photo by Joel Olives” in a new, darker gray sanserif font at the bottom, and lists what is presumably the name of a site or company, “Butterflies and Pebbles,” in a third sanserif font across the bottom of the entire image.

I love how this image feels positively weightless!

It’s like how the world would look if gravity wasn’t even a thing!

But I mean, still more fun than outer space. There’s oxygen here.

Does it really matter whether this gentle universal message is being shared by a physically healthy and mentally/emotionally supported person with a solid 401K and too many possessions, or if it’s being shared by a physically disabled and mentally ill person who is not entirely confident from month to month that they will be able to pay for all the things that they rely on for survival?

I mean, they both still have baggage to unload.

But poor people just also have extra baggage to unload before they can responsibly think about something like flight, amirite?

Okay, I have to push “pause” on the sarcasm button because I’m less comfortable leaving this open to minor misinterpretation than usual.

The point of invoking disability and poverty in this example is NOT to suggest that you, dear reader of any ability or financial status, are expected to feel sorry for “those people” on account of how their existence is.

Nor is the point of invoking disability and poverty to imply that you ought to be more grateful for all that you have, because “it could all be taken away in an instant.”

I’m not invoking disability and poverty as an appeal to pathos, or as a very special lesson, or as a cautionary tale.

I am using these relevant examples because CONTEXT MATTERS.

Allow me to offer a brief, honest anecdote in the interest of developing a thematically appropriate metaphorical framework.

One fine spring morning, not so very many years ago, I paused as I was about to open the latch of my back door and step outside.

There was a sparrow on the top step. I held my breath and hoped I wouldn’t scare it away.

It was just a magical little moment.

I marveled at the confluence of circumstances that had brought me and this little bird together for such a brief time.

Then the sparrow pooped on my stoop and flew away.

Of course, in order to take flight, birds freely and routinely give up the stuff that’s weighing them down without any regard for the mess it leaves behind.

Just look at how fluffy this picture is.

It’s like all you’ll ever have to throw away is cotton balls and glitter.

I get that the macro is not meant to be taken entirely literally, and that it’s referring to, like, emotional weight and not necessarily physical things.

Trust me, I read that message loud and clear.

But this macro wants you to perceive the relationship between you and your troubles to be like the relationship between a cute little sparrow bird and the way in which it’s perfectly poised to evacuate meaningless excess because physics (e.g., gravity) and biology (e.g., evolution) have been collaborating for millennia to bolster its precious body.

In life, one charming li’l stoop sparrow poops and takes flight and goes home to its cozy bird house and 2.5 chicks, and another adorable li’l flutter bucket gets snagged by a hawk and its untended eggs get eaten by a weasel.

That’s nature for ya.

But that doesn’t leave room for all the other factors that need to be accounted for in this metaphor, tho. Like society.

 animated gif from the ’90s movie “Billy Madison” (which is definitely a terrible movie but it burned so many quotes int0 my brain) of actor Adam Sandler saying “society” while doing air quotes with his fingers to explain a heavy-handed metaphor

Here’s where I’ll depart from any lingering evolutionary parallels, because social Darwinism is just racism, and we’re coming back around to the land of choices, folx. 

You’ve got to be able to choose to let go of the things that are weighing you down in order for this macro to work.

If you can’t choose to let go of something that\’s holding you back, you don’t get to fly.

For many folx who have access to appropriate treatment for any conditions that they are managing, though, it isn’t those disabilities or illnesses that are weighing them down. The heaviest barrier is the people around them who don’t understand that they won’t “get better” or “try harder” than they already are.

For folx who live with the most unpleasant realities of poverty on the daily, it’s not an option to just “give up” being poor. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people living beneath whatever the poverty line is defined as in their own neck of the woods would like to give up on debt and exhaustion in exchange for a nice long flight (or metaphorical flight of their preference).

It’s the people clinging to a dysfunctional system because it’s not terrible for them that prevent the system from letting go of what’s weighing it down.

Sometimes the stuff that’s weighing you down the most is not, in fact, coming from inside the house.

I mean, still check in on what’s coming from inside the house.

Poop away, my little birdies.

You may need to learn to poop more freely and efficiently, like that unencumbered and dropping-optimized stoop sparrow, and of course it’s okay if you need to practice that kind of jettisoning.

I firmly believe that we all have metaphorical emotional pooping to do, and that there is no shame in admitting this.

Just be careful about letting go of so much of what you’re carrying inside that you forget who fed it to you in the first place.

It’s not necessarily your little birdie poops that are contaminating rivers and polluting the groundwater, eh?

That metaphor got grosser than I originally anticipated.

Sorry-not-sorry.

Animated gif of actor Lucille Ball, in character as “Lucy,” shrugging broadly and and squinching her face in a “Whaddaya do?” kind of expression

Like a Flat Tire

The top two thirds of the photo is just clear blue sky, with white sans serif letters over it that read, "A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can\'t go anywhere until you change it." The bottom third of the photo is a navy blue muscle car (sorry, I can't tell the make or model, I don't know kinds of cars) with its hood popped open, with digital smoke coming from the engine. The car is pulled over to the side of a road in a flat landscape. A tan, thin, blonde person in a white tank top and jean shorts leans against the passenger side of the car (yes, sitting on the actual road, which seems inadvisable), looking dejected and frustrated. The source is Power of Positivity.
The top two thirds of the photo is just clear blue sky, with white sans serif letters over it that read, “A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can’t go anywhere until you change it.” The bottom third of the photo is a navy blue muscle car (sorry, I can’t tell the make or model, I don’t know kinds of cars) with its hood popped open, with digital smoke coming from the engine. The car is pulled over to the side of a road in a flat landscape. A tan, thin, blonde person in a white tank top and jean shorts leans against the passenger side of the car (yes, sitting on the actual road, which seems inadvisable), looking dejected and frustrated. The source is Power of Positivity.

I don’t have a clear visual of both tires on the driver’s side, but this vehicle doesn’t appear to particularly lopsided.

And even if they were both as flat as pancakes, the state of those tires is functionally irrelevant in terms of forward momentum, because the engine is smoking.

It’s not the most convincing Photoshop on the smoke, but then again it’s actually comforting to know that it was added in post, in case this person was asked to pose in shorts on hot asphalt, leaning against a dark car in full sun. (It seems likely that they were also shot separately, but I am not an expert digital manipulation sleuth.)

The point is that all four tires could get changed as fuck, and this automobile would not be going anywhere.

I don’t think I could create a better representation of the characteristic gaslighting of Toxic Positivity if I tried.

See, this message insists that a specific thing has to be done, and done by the metaphorically stranded motorist that is you, at the expense of engaging with the more salient situational factor that you’ve clearly accepted is beyond your control.

(This is based on my interpretation of the driver’s look of defeated exhaustion as an acknowledgement that they aren’t in a position to fix the engine, rather than an indication of a bad attitude towards an unambiguously unfortunate circumstance.)

It may be that the creators of the macro, who probably just added text to an existing stock image, intended the driver to be an embodiment of a bad attitude. I don’t know.

But still, in that case, what the actual fuck does a different attitude accomplish in this situation?

Putting on a smile while you wait for AAA does just as much good as a changing a tire on a car that won’t start. Sure, it might feel better to do, and that’s enough reason to do it! But don’t pretend it’s going to solve the bigger problem.

I’ve been consciously avoiding gendered pronouns in my descriptions, which I generally try to do unless gender is central to my commentary, but that’s really the second elephant in the awkward room created by this macro, isn’t it?

(The first elephant, if you’re keeping track of elephants, is the fact that the folx who made this beauty couldn’t be bothered to find an actual image of a car with a flat tire, but also don’t think that this discrepancy should prevent you from accepting their feel-good life advice.)

Power of Positivity tends to paint with pretty broad strokes, and their consistent framing of whiteness and heterosexuality as default states of being is just the very tip of their victim-blaming iceberg.

So what the heck. Let’s make some irresponsible assumptions about gender, for old times’ sake.

Let’s suggest that we’re dealing with a conventionally attractive young white lady whose fancy hot rod broke down.

The image is basically a boring cis het dude’s wet dream.

Viewed through the lens of the straight male gaze, a lens I grew up believing was both normal and fine, I get the sense that this woman is meant to be seen as

a) helpless and

b) eager to smile when a thoughtful, helpful, handy man who just happened to be driving by informs her that she ought to change her attitude, and maybe also that she’d be much prettier if she just smiled.

Like, maybe she’ll be a little feisty at first, and maybe she’ll briefly show up Mr. Gosh-Are-You-Okay-Miss by having some advanced technical knowledge about what’s under the hood of this machine that dudes are always trying to explain to her, but you just know she’ll ultimately benefit from this totally-innocent-and-non-predatory-hashtag-not-all-men interaction.

Et voilà, I’ve just written Flat Tire, a new romantic comedy to be directed by Judd Apatow.

I assume you can figure out the other, wetter dream on your own.

At any rate, just a reminder that while it’s a good idea to be aware of what your own attitude is doing, the advice to focus on that exclusively is often a diversion from what’s causing your attitude to be “bad.”

And a reminder that context matters.

The place that’s pushing for you to buy tires probably doesn’t give a shit about your engine.

What You Feed Your Mind

[A cartoon image of two pink cartoon brains with faces and floating hands. There is a black line between the two brains to separate them. The brain on the left is grotesque and scary, with angry eyes and a frowning, open mouth that reveals pointed teeth and a long pointy tongue. The brain and its floating hands are covered with either spots of dirt or bruises. The floating hands are clutching a knife and a fork, and the brain itself is hovering over a plate of what appears to be a pile of excrement (although the illustrator held off of making it too visually unpleasant so that the pile is more like the poop emoji or a swirl of chocolate soft serve ice cream). The poo has the words "Drama, Bad News, Negativity" written on it. The brain on the right is clean and happy, with a big smile on its face and excitement lines coming out of its head. The position is the same - clutching the eating utensils and hovering over a plate - but the plate is full of fresh produce: apples, broccoli, and lettuce, as well as a banana that says "Positivity," a carrot that says "Discipline," and an avocado that says "Dreams." The slogan, in black impact font at the top, reads, "You become what you feed your mind." It has the letters "opw" at the bottom, presumably for an organization but I can't determine what organization it is, and the bad brain's knife has a copyright for "successpictures" running down the blade.
[A cartoon image of two pink cartoon brains with faces and floating hands. There is a black line between the two brains to separate them. The brain on the left is grotesque and scary, with angry eyes and a frowning, open mouth that reveals pointed teeth and a long pointy tongue. The brain and its floating hands are covered with either spots of dirt or bruises. The floating hands are clutching a knife and a fork, and the brain itself is hovering over a plate of what appears to be a pile of excrement (although the illustrator held off of making it too visually unpleasant so that the pile is more like the poop emoji or a swirl of chocolate soft serve ice cream). The poo has the words “Drama, Bad News, Negativity” written on it. The brain on the right is clean and happy, with a big smile on its face and excitement lines coming out of its head. The position is the same – clutching the eating utensils and hovering over a plate – but the plate is full of fresh produce: apples, broccoli, and lettuce, as well as a banana that says “Positivity,” a carrot that says “Discipline,” and an avocado that says “Dreams.” The slogan, in black impact font at the top, reads, “You become what you feed your mind.” It has the letters “opw” at the bottom, presumably for an organization but I can’t determine what organization it is, and the bad brain’s knife has a copyright for “successpictures” running down the blade.

Ah, yes, the two food groups: steaming shit and fresh produce.

Why feast on the disappointing Poop of Negativity when the Avocado of Dreams is within reach of the fork you’re using to eat the deconstructed mishmash of the salad that is life?

A powerful reminder, to be sure.

I might be overthinking this*, but fruit turns into poop, right?

I promise I understand that the image is meant to emphasize the contrast between the brains and their diets rather than depicting any direct correlation between them, which is why we go from poop to fruit.

But still…

I’m just saying that the contents of that shit pile used to be something else.

It’s the circle of life.

I feel like the Angry Krang recognizes that its dreams and positivity have served their purpose, and it’s only left with bitter, smelly remnants to work with, but is still committing to feeding itself with whatever’s on hand, so, honestly, that looks a little more like the face of resilience to me.

Sub-question: are the pointy fangs and lizard tongue practical evolutionary adaptations for a coprophage?

Like I don’t know much about what kind of ecosystems are happening in Dimension X.

Maybe Angry Krang is a predator who is also willing to scavenge?

I’m very interested in the morphology of Happy Krang, because if it’s got the same tooth and tongue situation, I just don’t think that fruit and veg plate is going to be a walk in the park.

I like to think that this is literally explaining that some brains are herbivores and others are predators, and showing how they developed appropriate adaptations over time.

I suspect that this may be a case of divergent evolution, and that this image has actually been shared as a picture on the page “Science Diagrams That Look Like Shitposts” in an alternate universe.

*I am overthinking this

The Generation That Respected Our Parents

Content warning: reference to child abuse; guns; death

An image of a brick wall, with white text, mostly in a bulleted list, that reads, “I’m part of the generation that:
Respected Our Parents
Drank From a Garden Hose 
Stood for the Flag 
Played Outside 
Had Toy Guns 
Got Spanked 
And I SURVIVED
SHARE IF YOU DID TOO!” There is also a smiling Minion wearing goggles, from the “Despicable Me” franchise. The credits in the lower right-hand corner say “Minions - for the Old Folks.” Really.
An image of a brick wall, with white text, mostly in a bulleted list, that reads, “I’m part of the generation that:
Respected Our Parents
Drank From a Garden Hose 
Stood for the Flag 
Played Outside 
Had Toy Guns 
Got Spanked 
And I SURVIVED
SHARE IF YOU DID TOO!” There is also a smiling Minion wearing goggles, from the “Despicable Me” franchise. The credits in the lower right-hand corner say “Minions – for the Old Folks.” Really.

As an elder Millennial, I admit that the rhetoric of the whole Millennials (et al.) vs. Boomers (et al.) feud can feel irrelevant and reductive at times.

As much as I love the utility of an all-encompassing catchphrase, and respect parody in the service of iconoclastic comedy, “Okay, Boomer” is sometimes used in ways that force much more complicated issues into the framework of a simple generation gap.

So, I acknowledge that simple inter-generational snark has its limits.

Still, I’m going to paint with broad strokes today, because this macro has handed me an enticingly broad brush.

I’d almost like to believe that this was created by a 30-something with more qualifications and fewer prospects than most financially-secure 65+-year olds ever had to face, but ultimately I think it reads like a genuine artifact by and for “the Old Folks.”

Most of the bulleted items are clearly dog whistles, but I’m really hung up the “garden hose” one.

“Respect for parents” covers all manner of “kids these days” sins: majoring in English, not having kids when it sure seems to be the right time, enforcing healthy boundaries, being gay… the list goes on.

No respect.

In “stood for the flag,” we have a defense of all kinds of thoughtless patriotism, including implicit support for police brutality and the willingness (some might say obligation) to attempt to conceal the hardwood foundations of American racism beneath the questionable beige carpeting of respectability politics.

“Played outside” feels like general pearl-clutching about the Video Games, the Computers, and/or All Those Electronic Devices turning everyone into screen-obsessed couch potatoes (who also know how to set up All Your Electronic Devices).

“Had toy guns” could be an enormous and depressing post of its own, but we’ll just settle here for a general preference to minimize the scope and sociopolitical clout of the NRA.

That spanking bullet is good old Normalization of Child Abuse*.

And then what’s left is… non-traditional drinking apparatus.

Am I missing the dog whistle?

My best guess is that it’s somehow meant to be sissy (read: feminine-adjacent; read: weak; read: inferior) to NOT be willing to drink out of the garden hose, but I also have to admit that still feels like a stretch.

Just, has drinking out of a hose vs. a faucet really ever been a point of contention? It’s so oddly specific.

BOOMER: You look like someone who used a KITCHEN tap your whole life! Go ahead. Drink from this sun-hot rubber hose.

MILLENNIAL: I mean, I CAN, I’m not technically opposed to it, I just don’t see why…

B: DRINK IT!

M: …if I do, will you stop telling me to hit my kids?…

B: *shakes head slowly*

*maintains eye contact*

*proffers hose*

Also, the whole “Share if you survived!” thing feels unnecessarily cruel (but then again, I’m one of those Easily Offended Millennials, so what do I know?).

I think the intended meaning of “I survived” is just an effort to minimize the validity of all of these other debates.

Like, “Geez, no one DIED.”

Except… some people did.

Because of institutionalized racism.

Because of child abuse.

Because of both real and toy guns.

The dead ones just aren’t out there posting Minion memes.

Animated gif of Ted Danson on the show “The Good Place,” holding up a plush Minion doll in amazement

*This is actually old but it is not actually good

Happiness is Just Four Tricks Away! (Special Bonus Rant: Business Insider Edition)

Content note: animated gif

I don’t feel obligated to protect the identity of the original author here, since it’s just a widely available article.

He’ll be fine.

So, the original title of the piece we’re working with today is “I’m Taking Yale’s Class on Happiness – and Halfway Through, These 4 Tricks are Already Working.”

Good for you, buddy.

I knew there had to be a trick to substantive, lasting, soul-fulfilling happiness!

And it seems so right that a white dude named Justin should be the one to reveal those tricks to me.

After spending just a few weeks taking an course created by an elite institution.

You see, hacking happiness works like flying with pixie dust (an equally actual thing).

It’s just as simple as changing your habits.

I wonder which bad habit Justin started with first.

The “too much melanin” habit? Perhaps the “too much estrogen” habit? Maybe the “not enough money” habit, or the “neurodivergence” habit?

“Again, the point here is that these positive habits have been tested and proven to work, based on psychological science.”

The creator of the class he’s taking has “collected all the psychological science out there,” so I’m glad that’s been taken care of.

Mmmm. Delicious, objective science. Home of the placebo effect.

Which is totally irrelevant here.

The science is in, because science is about finding absolute answers and shutting down further inquiry, and the history of psychology research is also free from bias, caveats, or limitations.

Unrelated, maybe don’t look up “replication crisis.”

Anyway, it’s comforting to know that it only takes five weeks to get the gist of this happierness thing. That’s way faster results than I got from that cult I joined last year.

The four “tips and tricks” Justin has chosen to feature in this piece of substantive journalism for Business Insider, a publication with no investment in maintaining a docile and uncritical workforce, are:

  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • Invest in Experiences
  • Learn to Savor More
  • Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness

So simple. So practical. So efficient.

I’m sure some asshole could find a lovely sunset to superimpose this list onto, and then we’d really be in business.

Regardless of circumstance, happiness is equally available to anyone who follows these easy steps.

It doesn’t matter whether they were born already owning a yacht or if they’ve lived their entire lifetime without access to professional health care. It’s still true that both of those hypothetical people have strengths and things to be grateful for!

A cynical person might suggest that “happiness” as an end goal could be seen as a convenient diversion for rich people by rich people to avoid engaging with the real reasons that unhappiness is so persistent in the world in the first place, and maybe even as an excuse to blame unhappy people for their own failures rather than accepting at least partial complicity in perpetuating oppressive and exploitative systems.

But that’s just not backed by the entirely unflawed, objective, and apolitical science of psychology.

I wasn’t sure if there was any way I could savor this listicle masquerading as an article any more than I already did, but then I read the advice in the voice of the Hedonismbot from Futurama, and added the words “in bed” to the end of every sentence, as per fortune cookie tradition.

  • Focus on Your Strengths … in bed
  • Invest in Experiences … in bed
  • Learn to Savor More … in bed
  • Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness … in bed
Animated gif of the Hedonism Bot character from Futurama, eating bunches of grapes and saying “I apologize for nothing!”

Closing thoughts:

There is plenty of trustworthy research that supports some aspects of positive psychology.

And the goal of understanding how to help humans feel less bad about living their lives certainly has value.

And I grant that the kinds of suggestions provided in the article are purposefully framed to be as generalizable as possible, in order to be applicable across more circumstances and contexts, so that they aren’t as easily dismissed by a jerk like me saying, “That’s not actually practical for most people.”

Still, I can’t get over how it’s decontextualized to the point where the reasons why we need to study and practice something as fundamental as “experiencing good feelings” are secondary to the goal of “experiencing good feelings.”

The fact that positive psychology is so widely embraced and promoted by rich white people definitely gives me pause, when it is also largely a framework that blames disenfranchised individuals for not having felt or thought right.

On this blog I’ll frequently reference Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. In this excerpt, she describes some encounters she had with Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.” She writes, “When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology ‘applied behavioral economics,’ because ‘it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,’ nobody laughed.” The popularity of positivity psychology and its disdain for ‘learned helplessness’ reminds me too much of social Darwinism as a means of justifying beliefs that disproportionately harm members of already marginalized populations.

I’m not here to question whether there’s merit in recognizing strengths, having experiences, savoring things, and expressing gratitude.

I advocate for all of these things.

Just, maybe feeling happy after understanding and practicing these habits isn’t as much a “trick” as it is a normal consequence of not ceding control of your good feelings to a ubiquitous conglomeration of rapacious systems that benefit from your misery.

Expect Nothing

 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine's Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, "Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed." The source is "Power of Positivity."
 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine’s Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, “Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Did you ever read The Giving Tree?

It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.

The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!

We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?

People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.

The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions.  If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.

Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.

Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.

Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!

At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?

Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.

Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.

While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.

This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy. 

It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.

His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive.  Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment. 

My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probably didn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.

The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory  just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.

We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.

The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.

It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic. 

The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate. 

(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)

A few years ago, I revisited another short Silverstein favorite from my childhood: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).  

To summarize:

The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.

But that’s not the end.

Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O. 

It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.

It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.

This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.

Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.

The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.

The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.

Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.

Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior. 

So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?

Expectations, communication, and complexity.

Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree

Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.

The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.

What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold. 

At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.

As always, context matters.

The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.” 

She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.

The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.

And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.

But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.

It happens, and then you need to move on.

The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.

And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.

Happy Valentine’s Day!