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.

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!

Your Enemies Can’t Swim

A photo of mostly dark gray cloudy sky, with a turbulent sea at the bottom. White sans serif text reads, “I asked God, ‘Why are you taking me through troubled water?’ He replied, ‘Because your enemies can’t swim.’” The sharing source is “Purpose of Life.”
A photo of mostly dark gray cloudy sky, with a turbulent sea at the bottom. White sans serif text reads, “I asked God, ‘Why are you taking me through troubled water?’ He replied, ‘Because your enemies can’t swim.’” The sharing source is “Purpose of Life.”

Holy shit.

I’ve never loved that “Footsteps in the Sand” poem, but…

* spoiler for the Jordan Peele movie Us*

…but this macro is like encountering the twisted subterranean soul twin of “Footsteps in the Sand,” and then realizing that it was mainstream American Christianity all along.

A black and white photo of a shipwreck on a beach at high tide. The ship is in the bottom third of the image, and the rest is mostly cloudy sky. In the sky space, there is black serif text that says, "Ships don't sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don't let what's happening around you get inside you and weigh you down." The source is "Power of Positivity."
A black and white photo of a shipwreck on a beach at high tide. The ship is in the bottom third of the image, and the rest is mostly cloudy sky. In the sky space, there is black serif text that says, “Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Ships sink because they let themselves sink.

The Edmund Fitzgerald just wasn’t trying hard enough.

And don’t even get me started on the Titanic. 

Boo-hoo, poor me, my hulls are all breached!” 

But did it really think about the signals it was sending when that iceberg starting hitting on it? I think maybe somebody wanted to become synonymous with catastrophic hubris.

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.”

True Self-Care

Content Note: Animated Gif

Square image from quotecatalog.com with a cartoon piece of strawberry shortcake on a black background. The pink sans serif text reads, "True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don't need to regularly escape from." -Brianna Wiest
Square image from quotecatalog.com with a cartoon piece of strawberry shortcake on a black background. The pink sans serif text reads, “True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.” -Brianna Wiest

People who are well-off enough to periodically reject some of the many comforts available to them at any given moment are good about weirdly moralizing other people’s inconsistent access to comfort, at least partly due to a complex combination of projection and rationalization.

I am leaving that rat-maze of a sentence there, and barreling on to the cheese at the end.

For some reason, I haven’t seen a macro that says, “Don’t weirdly moralize other people’s access to and use of comforts you assume are equally available for everyone to reject in the name of self-righteousness!”

The rest of the article that this quote was pulled from does account for the fact that hygiene and food are not necessarily bad forms of self-care, but someone’s choice to pull the quote from that context speaks for itself, too.

The other squiffy implication of the framing “…the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from” is that you, cake-eaters and bath-takers, are wholly responsible for the stressful conditions that exist elsewhere in the world.

Probably your own shortcomings created the context in which you are mired in an exasperating, unsupportive, and/or dehumanizing workplace and/or life situation.

The infrastructures behind those exploitative systems supported by your employer / government / family / etc. are irrelevant here.

“…the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from” is just code for “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

The implication that small indulgences are “lesser” forms of self-care is grounded in the warped mentality that suffering and denial are inherently noble.

You built your own hedonistic little prison out of minor indulgences! For shame.

ME: Fix my problems, cake!

CAKE: Nope, sorry – you did your life too wrong to get to want things that are nice!

ME: (SOB)

        (NOMNOM)

        (SOB)

Decadent bath cakes will only shield you from the harshness of reality for a little while, without addressing the real roots of your own inadequacies.

This macro is the decontextualized quote version of the Onion article “Local Woman Authority on What Shouldn’t Be in Poor People’s Shopping Carts.”

I can’t stand the kind of petty assholes who judge the adequacy of another person’s argument based on adherence to arbitrary grammatical conventions. That is some classist nonsense.

But you know what?

I bet that the Venn diagram of “people who have shared this macro” and “people who pride themselves on correcting internet grammar” is barely two circles.

And so, I’ll go ahead. I’ll be petty right back. I can get pedantic about a rule that doesn’t really matter to me.

Show a semicolon some love, you independent clauses.

From a design perspective, who decided to use strawberry shortcake instead of chocolate, like in the quote?

“The background is black, so chocolate wouldn’t contrast,” you say?…

THE SAME PERSON WHO CHOSE THE GRAPHIC CHOSE THE BACKGROUND.

The creation of this image did not require a design team. Stick that in your back pocket.

Lastly, I feel like the point of the quote is to reject the value of the cake, because finding comfort in cake means that you hate your life so much that cake is an escape from it.

So if you loved your life more, you wouldn’t need to seek solace in, like, physical comfort.

Shouldn’t the picture be… I don’t know… not cake?

Being truly happy because of how right your choices always are is like eating cake in the tub all the time, but without the guilt of knowing that you shouldn’t be eating cake, because you actually aren’t.