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

Enjoy Every Moment

serif text says, "Time is like a river. You can't touch the same water twice, because the flow that has been passed will never pass again. Enjoy everyone moment in your life." Credit is given to "LifeLearnedFeelings" at the bottom.

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.

What is God Trying to Show Me?

Content note: Cancer

The background image is a pink and purple-tinged sunset with a cloudy sky above, reflected in a still lake below. The bold sans serif dark font (possibly navy blue, possibly black) says, "When you replace 'why is this happening to me' with 'what is God trying to show me' everything changes." The attribution at the bottom says "Liftable."
The background image is a pink and purple-tinged sunset with a cloudy sky above, reflected in a still lake below. The bold sans serif dark font (possibly navy blue, possibly black) says, “When you replace ‘why is this happening to me’ with ‘what is God trying to show me’ everything changes.” The attribution at the bottom says “Liftable.”

For a while I tried to avoid macros that used sunsets as backgrounds. They are pervasive, but not in a particularly funny way.

Frankly, a sunset seems like a solid choice for making a quote feel more substantial when you haven’t really examined the implications of what you’re saying but it seems deep af.

There are just too many pithy quotes that have gone the sunset route, though, and I concluded that it’s more challenging to avoid them than to accept them.

I tried to come up with a pithy* shorthand quip to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss the cliché, and it was surprisingly difficult. Here’s what I ended up with:

“Nice sunset, asshole.”

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I didn’t find myself wondering, “Why did this happen to me?” nearly as much as I wondered, “Why did this happen to him?”

There’s a slight, strange comfort in the agony of asking that unknowable question.

I appreciate the short answer that there is no simple, single reason, beyond that he was a human, and humans die.

It’s more like the comfort of bracing one’s back against a cold wind, rather than the comfort of retreating into a warm shelter for some hot cocoa.

Shortly after Dad died, a person in my small hometown offered me condolences and said, with no other preamble, “It’s really a blessing, though, isn’t?”

I understand that they meant well, and were struggling (as we all do) to offer appropriate words for unspeakable pain.

But the direct leap from “I’m sorry for your loss” to “It’s really a blessing” stands out in my memory as the worst** thing anyone said directly to me during that time (though there are certainly other close contenders).

The unwillingness to sit with the discomfort of ambiguity forces an even more uncomfortable narrative of intentionality.

This kind of dismissal of grief seems like at least one outcome of replacing “why is this happening” with “what is god trying to show me.”

Reframing is a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with looking for growth opportunities in difficult circumstances.

But that’s not a reason to stop asking “why” questions.

There may not ever be any grand, universal answer as to why a specific terrible thing happened to a specific person, but there are likely structural and systemic reasons that identifiably contribute to any given tragedy.

I trust that religious folx are able to create beautiful, substantive, and thoughtful things.

Art, architecture, arguments, image macros, and more.

And.

This kind of unselfconscious self-centeredness, which underlies so much of contemporary American Christianity, creates fertile soil for powerful institutions to deflect attention from themselves through victim-blaming and rationalization.

Of course your perspective changes when you stop trying to understand how things work.

It’s way easier to say “God is showing me things that are good for me to see” than it is to accept, “Many support systems are so fundamentally biased that some groups people are bound to suffer severe negative consequences” or “This is one of many possible outcomes of a confluence of circumstances, and it may not have happened for any grand ‘reason’ at all.”

The advice in this macro is to not focus on yourself so much, and yet you accomplish that by “realizing” (not “choosing to believe”) that an omnipotent, omniscient deity manipulated the world around you specifically with the hope of teaching you a valuable lesson.

That way, it’s your responsibility to accept that you have failed to discern the divine purpose behind your own suffering, and as a bonus you won’t even have time to question your government for allowing humans to die as punishment for not having hoarded enough dollars.

Sure, sometimes weak rationalizations look better in front of a sunset.

And sometimes the reasons “why something is happening to you” are nonexistent, and sometimes they’re utter crap, and it’s okay to feel unhappy when you notice that.

*Yes, yes, I see the irony.

Also, I am still figuring out the best way to handle footnotes in WordPress. For now, I am literally just using asterisks, and I hope to make it better in the future.

**Specifically, this was an unpleasant thing to hear from a person with a presumably Christian background (it is a very small town). In the lovely Jewish practice of saying “May their memory be a blessing” to mourners, it comes through clearly that the person’s memory is the blessing and not their actual death.

It Doesn’t Matter

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault and abuse.

Content Note: Animated gifs.

A light tan, textured background has a stylized line drawing of a couple who appear to be a man and a woman, embracing, with a heart covering their faces. The black serif font says, "It doesn't matter who hurt you, or broke you down. What matters is who made you smile again." The word "smile" is in red. The lower left-hand corner logo says "Heart Centered Rebalancing."
A light tan, textured background has a stylized line drawing of a couple who appear to be a man and a woman, embracing, with a heart covering their faces. The black serif font says, “It doesn’t matter who hurt you, or broke you down. What matters is who made you smile again.” The word “smile” is in red. The lower left-hand corner logo says “Heart Centered Rebalancing.”

NO.

Animated gif of the character Titus from “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” shaking his head “no” and also shaking his finger “no”

NO.

Animated gif of the character Lana from “Archer” saying “noooooope”

NO.

NO.

NO.

You don’t need to invalidate your partner’s (or your own) history of trauma in order for good times to also exist.

Three guesses about who wrote this:

  1. A person who once caused another person to break down and just wants them to get over it, already.
  2. A person who wants to be the person who makes someone else smile again, once they just get over that time they were broken, already.
  3. Brett Kavanaugh #topicalhumor2018# #ioriginallywrotethisin2018 #thatfeelslike20yearsago #abortionishealthcare #nomeansno

The categories of “having been hurt” and “being able to smile” are not mutually exclusive.

Why are they being presented as if they are? Let’s explore!

I get the sense that the author was going for a chiasmus-type thing, and failed, but they wanted the basic infrastructure to uphold the illusion of forethought.

I could probably find a more precise rhetorical term for this setup than “failed chiasmus,” and maybe some day I will learn it, and then update this post. Hold your breath for that. #itsbeenthreeyearsandistilldidntdoit

At any rate, let’s see how the basic point holds up without the syntactic support of not-quite-chiasmus.

“The identity of who hurt you and how they did it isn’t important, as long as you don’t forget that there are also people who make you happy!”

“It’s important to remember to smile after you’ve been hurt by abuse, and also that you remember to give humble li’l me sufficient credit for making you do it. Smile, that is!”

“The experiences that shaped you aren’t as important to me as the warm, fuzzy feelings I want you to be having right now!”

“Happy is better than sad!”

We’ll just table cisheteronormativity for now. (Which, I know, is basically all day every day in so many contexts, but this blog post isn’t gonna fix all those. If I find compelling evidence that this image and message were created by queer folx for queer folx, I’ll certainly update some of my commentary.)

I just doubt that the creators of this image were progressive or intentionally transgressive with respect to gender, sexuality, or intimate relationships. I think we’re safe to read this as a stylized rendering of a passionate cis-man-to-cis-lady embrace and also possibly they are getting married.

If this was a photo in this couple’s scrapbook, I would interpret the big ol’ heart sticker covering their faces as an effort to mask obvious tension, rather than as a cheerful decoration.

That dude just gives me bad vibes. I can’t read his body language as unaggressive.

He’s leaning down and leaning in. His hug looks restraining, and she kind of looks like she’s pushing back on his chest.

Just me?

Animated gif from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” showing the character Gaston leaning aggressively in to plant a non-consensual kiss on Belle after he’s weirdly abruptly proposed to her, and she backs into the door and opens it outward behind her so that he falls outside

On a side note, when I looked for animated gifs à la Pepé le Pew, I was surprised at the frequency of this same posturing: taller man on left, leaning down, arms constraining if not restraining, lady looking up and backing away.

Ew.

Anyway, it turns out that it can matter that you were hurt and that you are ready to smile at the same damn time. The latter doesn’t cancel out the former.

It’s entirely reasonable to be suspicious of people who are aggressively insistent that you have to “get over it, already.”

And it’s entirely reasonable to remember that you can take the credit for learning to smile again all for yourself.

Choose Not to Find Joy

An image of mostly white sky, with some snow-covered pine trees along the lower edges and bottom of the square. The black sanserif font says, "If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow." It is credited to @mindfulfitness.
An image of mostly white sky, with some snow-covered pine trees along the lower edges and bottom of the square. The black sans serif font says, “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.” It is credited to @mindfulfitness.

Granted that joy is just a lifestyle choice that’s unconnected to circumstance, I still kind of wish that @mindfulfitness didn’t have to flaunt their joyfulness all the time.

You’re joyful. I get it. Keep shoveling. 

Unless there’s a possibility that joyfulness isn’t any more of a lifestyle choice than sadness?

And that real people who experience real joy in their daily lives are actually less likely to make a big deal about it than aggressively sad people?

And maybe really joyful people aren’t secretly trying to get everyone to fall in line with their nefarious pro-shoveling agenda?

And real people who experience real sadness, frustration, and apathy can actually just not be super into snow without channeling their misguided and possibly jealous resentment toward their more joyful neighbors?

Shit.

That kind of holds up.

Maybe it’s okay to talk about your joy or sadness and it doesn’t necessarily mean you made better or worse choices than anyone else.

But then how am I supposed flaunt my emotional superiority?

Adjust Your Attitude

A picture of a hand reaching out and upward, with a yellow swallowtail butterfly just above it, and a blue sky with fluffy clouds in the background. The black serif font says, "Remember, most of your stress comes from the way you respond, not the way life is. Adjust your attitude, and all that extra stress is gone." The original source is  "Positive Outlooks," but the attribution was cut off.
A picture of a hand reaching out and upward, with a yellow swallowtail butterfly just above it, and a blue sky with fluffy clouds in the background. The black serif font says, “Remember, most of your stress comes from the way you respond, not the way life is. Adjust your attitude, and all that extra stress is gone.” The original source is “Positive Outlooks,” but the attribution was cut off.

I’m gonna try to be funny, but I honestly almost burst some blood vessels when I first read this.

Just so we’re clear, my right eyeball nearly exploded because I am bad at having responses to things that exist.

Not because of the way that this image macro is.

The fact that it’s possible for humans to persevere in the face of unfavorable circumstances is inspiring.

And it’s fair to remember that our knee-jerk responses to upsetting situations do not always dictate the most reasonable course of action.

But it is a slippery, slippery slope that slides us from “be mindful of your reactions” to “if the way life exists around you creates negative feelings inside of you, then your feelings are the real problem.”

The latter interpretation is especially popular among folx who want to rationalize the inevitability of structural and systemic issues like poverty.

“Those people who are struggling are just having bad responses to normal circumstances, and people who are successful have better responses!”

Right.

Across all situations, any dissatisfaction you ever feel is just a problem with your feelings-haver.

Let’s practice.

Sexism isn’t limiting your career. It’s your rage about patriarchy that’s holding you back! So relax.

Climate change isn’t stressful. Your house just happens to sometimes get in the way of naturally-occurring disasters, so you should really be grateful that you have a house! Just breathe deep.

Homophobia isn’t preventing you from adopting children. It’s your choice to prioritize your own life goals over the unfounded anxiety of random straight people! Go ahead and chill.

Your poverty isn’t preventing upward social mobility. You’re just poor because of your choice to not cope more effectively with your chronic depression, which is unrelated to your poverty! Smile for once.

Racism isn’t making people call the police on you for existing in a public space. It’s your conscious decision to not have a better attitude about the possibility that those people might have to want to call the police on you for co-existing in their space that’s really the problem! Ease up.

Image from KC Green's comic "Gunshow," featuring a yellow cartoon dog with a small hat sitting at a table with a mug of coffee, saying “This is fine,” while the surrounding house is actually on fire.
Image from KC Green’s comic “Gunshow,” featuring a yellow cartoon dog with a small hat sitting at a table with a mug of coffee, saying “This is fine,” while the surrounding house is actually on fire.

The picture here feels like a Photoshop tutorial.

Like, “Find a background and two images, and combine them!”

So, as an outcome of an exercise like that: “okay job, Photoshopper!

Some of those edges are crisp, and I am comfortable pretending that the butterfly isn’t sitting on a flower!

Good thing you didn’t stress about it too much.”