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.
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.
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.
Content warning: reference to child abuse; guns; death
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.
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*
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
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
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.
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, probablydidn’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.)
I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).
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.
Reading this macro made me think of the character Sir Didymus from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
You know, the aggressively confident guardian of unspecified values that he’d die to defend?
The chivalrous gentleman who overcompensates for his diminutive stature by constantly asserting his dominance?
The scrappy li’l fella with no qualms about starting any beef with anyone at any time?
Yep, that’s the one.
This post is for that hairy little Muppet.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Labyrinth, it’s not entirely unlike The Wizard of Oz.
A plucky young lady goes on a magical journey of self-discovery, along the way gathering various supportive companions who are actually personifications of her inner struggles and desires.
In Oz, Dorothy’s motley trio perceive themselves as cowardly, foolish, and heartless, but later reveal themselves to be respectively brave, clever, and compassionate.
Henson’s then-contemporary fairy tale is a bit darker and a bit more introspective.
Whether it was intentional or not, heroine Sarah’s companions appear to be a trio of maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Even at their worst, Sarah treats her neurotic friends with empathy and understanding, and she stays patient with them when they lean on problematic behaviors under pressure.
Before it’s all said and done, our teenage protagonist needs a one-on-one sexually-charged power struggle with David Bowie*, but we’ll keep the focus on her little band of misfits. Each of them is able to achieve some kind of closure in the prelude to the big dance party at the end.
Hoggle represents self-doubt. He doesn’t think he has any real value, so his vulnerable and genuine offer to help if he’s needed – with the implicit understanding that he’s worth being needed, and that he can show up for his friends – demonstrates considerable growth.
Ludo is a people-pleaser. He gets his sense of self-worth from being helpful to others, so it’s important for him to be able to hang back and not take on the burden of Sarah’s conflict. (His character is actually far less problematic than the other two, but I shoehorned him into this analysis for consistency. Also, wouldn’t it make sense for a people-pleaser to fade into the background in the presence of more assertive personalities?)
And Sir Didymus?
He’s pure ego, and he learns to back the fuck off.
Didymus would never hesitate to swoop in to save the day. But in his final scene, he recognizes that he can’t. It’s more heroic for him to stand aside, and he does this admirably (if regretfully).
Again, Didymus, this post is for you.
(Please note that the therapist voice below is used for comedic effect, and so some instances that sound condescending in this ostensibly entertaining parody would not be appropriate in real life.)
I can tell how sincere you are when you say, “Never let a person get comfortable disrespecting you.” You have always upheld this value tenaciously, haven’t you?
I wonder what might happen, though, if we reconsidered some of your language choices.
I’d like to know whether you define “disrespect” as an inner feeling that you have, like a sense of a lack of deference, or if you define “disrespect” as a behavior or action that someone else does, like looking at you the wrong way.
If “disrespecting you” is an action, then I understand how you might feel compelled to reciprocate with action.
One available action is certainly screaming wildly and charging at your antagonists with a lance.
You’ve made a lot of points that way, haven’t you?
I wonder if you might have some concerns about porous boundaries, because those can turn into poor boundaries, and then everyone feels like they can just traipse through your bog willy-nilly.
So let’s agree that it’s reasonable to be protective of your space.
But I’d like to propose another framing. If you never let anyone get comfortable making mistakes around you, they’re never going to get comfortable around you, period. Because everyone makes mistakes.
And if people feel defensive because they’re afraid they might get attacked, their behavior might be more likely to come across as disrespectful to you.
So maybe we can be open to the possibility that everyone isn’t always trying to disrespect you.
I know you’re brave enough to handle that.
If by “disrespecting you,” you simply mean a feeling that someone might have about you (like, say, Ambrosius), maybe we can examine the difference between what you can control and what you can’t.
I’m afraid that you can’t control whether people feel respect for you or not.
That’s hard, fuzzy buddy.
That isn’t because you did anything wrong or didn’t try hard enough. I can see how hard you’re always trying, every day.
Your own behavior does play a role in others’ perception of you, but their reactions to your behavior are affected by a lot of things that you simply can’t fight off.
I want to let you know that you’re so strong for sitting with your discomfort without yelling or barking. I heard a little growl, and that’s okay, too.
Before we finish today, I’d like to consider your idea that offering second chances is a sign of weakness, and that people are bound to disrespect you and take advantage of you if you forgive them.
Can we really examine the implications of that?
“They get comfortable depending on your forgiveness.”
Is comfort really so bad, Didymus?
Should everyone be expected to agonize over the prospect of your displeasure?
I remember how you went after sweet old Ludo just as hard as you went after that horde of goblins. But all Ludo was trying to do was cross a bridge to help his friend, while the goblins were really planning to hurt you.
I’d say that I understand why Ludo and Sarah might have been unhappy with you. And I also think that you appreciated having their forgiveness.
Have you been hurt by someone before, Didymus?
You don’t have to answer that right now. Just think about it when you can.
I know how much you love being a good guy, I really do.
But what’s “good” in some situations isn’t necessarily always “good.”
And what’s toxic in some situations isn’t necessarily always toxic.
I mean, you literally live in a toxic swamp. And you love it, and that’s okay.
I understand how it can be comforting to have control over the definition of whose behavior is really toxic, so you be fully confident in asserting your own authority and telling them that their chances are up.
Sometimes people have ignored your firmly established boundaries. And some people might expect an unreasonable amount of accommodation from you.
But we still have consider another very challenging possibility here, Diddy: your behavior can be toxic, too.
Be honest: do you think you give Ambrosius enough space to express his feelings?
Does he really have to be afraid in order for you to feel secure?
You don’t have answer that out loud, either.
That’s a lot of big questions for one day. You’ve been so patient and so strong.
It’s okay if you need to fight off a few goblins when you get home.
And it might be even more brave to remember to say “thank you” to your friends who gave you a second chance.
*Please let this be what happens to us all when we die
And only the truly BEST women* understand that contrived comparisons designed to enable self-superior back-patting by devaluing other women for failing to reach arbitrary benchmarks recently created by internet randos are in fact the STRONGEST of all contrived comparisons.
What is the point of this weird hair-splitting between “women of strength” and “strong women” in the first place?
I mean, aside from encouraging strong women to second-guess the merit of one of their defining assets and instead shift their focus to petty trait-based competition with other women.
Also that boardwalk looks a little more like a “path” to me than a “journey,” but I’m not here to nitpick.**
Usually I pick on these inspirational macros for framing everything in the world as a choice, so you’d think I’d be happy to see a different spin on that message, but of course I’m never happy about anything (on account of how I choose to be angry and sad all of the time).
“I choose to be happy.”
“I choose to be successful.”
“I choose to be healthy.”
“It’s not like there are any systems in place that disproportionately favor the success and stability of people with my particular demographic characteristics! Nope, I am just really good at making the right choices.”
I resist the lie at the heart of the emphasis on choice (in this context) because it’s usually just denial and/or rationalization.
Among other things, people want to believe that society is fundamentally just, and that those who do the “right” things will be rewarded and that those who do “wrong” will be held accountable. Safe people want to believe that they are safe for a reason.
This enables the denial of structural inequality, which is kind of a theme on this blog.
On the surface, this quote isn’t quite playing the “success is a personal choice” game.
It should be an acknowledgement of feminine resilience, right?
In principle, I understand how I should feel both inspired by the women and angry at the unspoken circumstances.
With this framing, I get the sense that strong women did not, in fact, choose to become strong.
It just kind of happened.
Which feels just as problematic as the idea that poverty “just happens” because those people made poor choices.
Can something that is almost unavoidably dictated by circumstance be intentional? Is “the only choice” really a choice, at that point?
It’s almost like this quote reverses the typical roles of personal agency and the influence of circumstance that we often see in the “they made their choices” trope.
Like, “the cards were so stacked against this person that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t truly exceptional.”
I looked up the person that the quote itself is attributed to, and I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m still a little suspicious of some of her messaging, but I’m also suspicious of messages in general, and in the end she is just living her life and doing her job.
For now I’ll just acknowledge that this quote is decontextualized, and it could very well be part of a more cohesive point.
So to review: instead of emphasizing the centrality of free will and choice, this message (that has presumably been isolated from its original context) accepts the existence of situations in which choice is not the only important factor, but to the extent that circumstance occludes choice.
The blog / podcast You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney explores the psychology behind common fallacies and cognitive distortions, so naturally I’m into it.
The basic fallacy is the belief that “You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.” However, “When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.”
McRaney relates a story about fighter planes in WWII.
The American military was looking to improve the design of these planes so that more of them would make safe returns. Engineers were examining the damage to planes that had safely made it back to base, but it was the statisticians who recommended that they would learn more from the planes they didn’t have access to: that is, the planes that had been shot down in action.
The engineers had noted that the returned-but-damaged planes had sustained a lot of damage around the wings, and they were hoping to reinforce that area, but the stats folx pointed out that those planes had been able to make the journey in spite of heavy wing damage. The wings were fine.
By focusing their attention on the success stories, they were creating a misleading narrative. The salient information was in the failures. What had caused them to go down? That’s where they would learn to prevent more crashes.
“Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice.”
Only success is represented here.
(With the reading that at least on some level, the quote suggests that success = strength and implies that failure = weakness.)
However weakness and failure are defined in this situation is invisible, and that’s a problem because un-strong women apparently did have some options available.
So even though this quote appears to reverse the framing of “choice,” the outcome is more or less the same old refrain:
Non-success stories were chosen by those who did not choose success.
Failure was an option, and yet success was not exactly a choice.
*When the word “women” (or its variants) is used without any additional commentary on this blog, it means all women, without having to specify trans women as a subcategory of women, because trans women are women, full stop. HOWEVER I am still including explanatory footnotes because plenty of sites also use unqualified sex and gender terms to indicate their acceptance of a binary understanding of sex and gender. And that sucks.
If you’re not familiar, Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short moralistic stories that have had a surprisingly strong influence over idioms in the English language.
Sort of pre-macro pithy advice, really.
“The Fox and the Grapes” is the tale of a very hungry (wait for it) fox who simply cannot reach the enticing grapes on a nearby grapevine.
So he gives up and says, “Pshhh, I didn’t really want those sour-ass grapes anyway.”
And hence we have the expression “sour grapes.”
This macro reminds me of that fox who determined that the unattainable grapes must be shitty.
Clearly, the moral is to devalue what you can’t obtain, because you’ll be happier if you don’t have to experience regret.
Gimme an A for Aesop!
This image choice feels strange for an inspirational quote. It’s a little on the eerie side.
I don’t have to stretch to imagine this as a poster for a horror movie, if it were just paired with an appropriately tattered or blood-drippy font.
“The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.”
Or even just, “The Stairs.”
But not that one.
Or, okay, I even could see it being that one.
And then again, in the end, isn’t this actually kind of a horrifying message?
Let’s examine that idea.
In a symbolic sense, it’s not hard to see how a long staircase represents the idea of being re-directed to something better.
But why is what’s at the top of the stairs assumed to be “better” than whatever is at the bottom?
Just as it can feel like you’ve conquered something scary when you achieve a desirable goal (i.e. getting to the top of the stairs), it can feel like you’ve chickened out or failed if your sights were set on an aspiration that you aren’t quite able to reach (i.e. staying at the bottom or turning around halfway through).
The fact that a person had to walk a long way to get to a destination does not make that destination any different, let alone better, than it would have been if it was closer.
It’s scary to confront loss and disappointment.
And there’s no doubt that it sucks to be rejected from something good.
But acting like the TOP of the stairs is better than the BOTTOM of the stairs is just rationalizing after the fact to make it feel like that long walk up the mystery stairs was worthwhile.
Who wants to admit that they hauled their ass up all that way for no real reason?
It sounds way more awesome when you’re like, “I committed to climbing these stairs with a purpose that I both achieved and exceeded! Hooray for stairs! Hooray for me!”
Compare that with, “I was probably just fine at the bottom of the stairs, and I wasn’t really sure why I decided to climb them, but I did, and I’m here now instead of there, and I am still fine because both places are equally fine.”
It’s pretty horrifying how the cult of Toxic Positivity pressures us to resist disappointment, ambiguity, and frustration by rejecting, avoiding, and reframing them rather than acknowledging and sitting with them.
This commentary on the limitations of the macro has no bearing on that fable, though.
As long as we don’t get into quantum physics, that time / river analogy holds up.
I just don’t see what it has to do with the imperative to enjoy.
This reads like a syllogism, except there’s no clear relationship between the premises and the conclusion.
“Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, have another glass of wine.”
Enjoy every moment in your life just because it’s unique?
Suffering can be exquisitely unique, and I’m not about to start appreciating my pain just because it’s not technically identical to the pain that preceded or is likely to follow it.
Many years ago, I read the short story “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges, and I found it both fascinating and overwhelming. I briefly revisited a summary on Wikipedia to write this post, so that’s where I’m coming from right now.
I’ll offer a spoiler warning for my summary, but the fact that it was first published in 1942 feels like pretty fair notice.
The title character, Funes, is a remarkable youth who experiences each present moment in unfathomable detail. Ever since “the accident,” he can fully recall anything he’s ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or learned.
“Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog seen at three fifteen (seen from the front).” (Borges)
He retains memories of literally all of his previous experiences – for instance, he is exceptionally fast at learning languages, and he can carry on linear conversations – but the information stacks up as trillions of individual pieces of knowledge rather than collapsing into categories that erase specificity.
This portrait of Funes is ultimately bittersweet. He dies at a young age shortly after being interviewed by the narrator of the story (a lightly fictionalized version of the real author).
This narrator’s perception of Funes is both reverent and patronizing. He keeps talking about the tragic youth’s incredible mind and amazing gift, while sadly pondering about the lost potential of that unique mind having been tethered to such a limited existence.
It certainly offers a different perspective on the message of “every moment in your life.”
I think the macro is ultimately meant to be read as a “seize the day” kind of thing.
Borges, on the other hand, seems a little more like an “engage in melancholic reflection on the astounding breadth of possibilities that dissipate to nothingness with each passing moment of each day” kind of vibe. To each their own.
This main message isn’t really the issue I have with the macro, anyway.
Plenty of profound philosophical reflection has been dedicated to the human experience of the passage of time.
The issue I’m picking at here is the disconnect between the evidence (“time is like a river”) and the conclusion (“enjoy every moment”).
It can’t simply be profound to notice that no two moments of your lived experience have been identical – it has to be enjoyable.
This is where Funes comes in. Borges’ work hardly embodies Toxic Positivity.
Borges’ story entertains an extremely literal interpretation of the idea that every moment is unique (again, excluding technical consideration of subatomic particles, which I am severely under-equipped to unpack in a meaningful way).
Funes does not have a great time in his life. The character exists to be a tragic thought experiment.
I suppose the opposite of Funes might be something like that episode of Star Trek with the culture whose language is entirely comprised of metaphors. In that case, it’s necessary to understand the historical, cultural, and contextual application of every reference, so abstract conceptual generalizations are even more important than usual.
The macro is an active imperative to enjoy the exquisite ephemerality of every moment.
Unlike Borges, the unnamed creator of this image for LifeLearnedFeelings was probably not interested in contemplating the tragedy of squandered potential or the hierarchical structure of meaning.
Frankly, I would prefer to read Borges quotes superimposed over sunsets than most of the words that end up there:
“To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”
“I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart, I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”
And, aptly, on the subject of time and rivers:
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river the sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
Also, I cannot buy that those are river ripples. That moon is clearly rising over either a lake or an ocean.