The first time I heard the phrase "toxic positivity," I rolled my eyes. Because how much longer will it be before we exhaust all nontoxic human components? What will happen after we've attached "toxic" to all the nouns?
At the same time, I kind of understood it. Despite my occasional need for a Bon Jovi fix, I, too, have long had a distaste for empty, excessive, ignorant expressions of positivity. I also have a history of working through "difficult times" while navigating the positive boobytraps fired at me: "You should smile more," and "Why can't you just be happy," and so on.
Words like these are enough to make me ill when I'm in a certain frame of mind. So I get it. I'd prefer to call it something other than toxic, and I don't think it's on the world to change because I have certain feelings. But I agree wholeheartedly that this kind of positivity is unhelpful at best to people who are struggling, and can indeed be harmful.
That said, I also revere human resilience. It might not be for everyone. But it is for me. I have my setbacks, of course. And I have a lot of them. But in the end, it's my deep admiration for human resilience that has driven, guided, and shaped me and my life. Nothing moves me (forward or within) more than doing something constructive that I wasn't supposed to be able to do; even when it's just the voices in my head telling me I can't. I'm not a writer. I can't write. I just feel a need to. That's all these words really are, a need to do something that I think I can't.
If I may invoke Henry Rollins again, he said something great on a talk show once. Something I think about all the time, and something that I've tried to plant in many of my students' minds for whenever they might be ready for it. He said, "I don't have talent, so I just get up earlier." Many years later, he said something similar in this Big Think video: "I don't have talent. I have tenacity. I have discipline. I have focus. And I know without any illusion where I come from and what I can go back to." Both ideas have served me well. But the first one is the one that I think really nails it. With some exceptions, I think that's what most "talent" is: someone got up a little earlier, stayed a little later, tried a little harder, and decided that nothing would stop them.
Sentiments like these, to me, are invaluable. They have been invaluable. And in my perfect world, we would make them part of the human curriculum. To make room for them, we could take out the part that instills coddling and overprotection from challenges and difficulties and discomfort. Because that part, to me, is antithetical to nurturing human resilience. And it's a lack of human resilience that I think is making all those other things seem toxic. When adversity is avoided, immunity is lost, and that is what turns the world into poison.
Earlier this week, I read an article by Scott Barry Kaufman in The Atlantic titled "The Opposite of Toxic Positivity," and subtitled "'Tragic optimism' is the search for meaning during the inevitable tragedies of human existence, and is better for us than avoiding darkness and trying to 'stay positive.'" I read Kaufman's work with great interest, and this piece did not disappoint.
Here's how Kaufman introduced "tragic optimism," a phrase I'd not heard before:
The antidote to toxic positivity is “tragic optimism,” a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Tragic optimism involves the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times. Researchers who study “post-traumatic growth” have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times—including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active search for meaning that people undertake during and after it.
He goes on to talk about the relationship between gratitude, "post-traumatic growth," and resilience. He then writes:
I believe that an overlooked route to gratitude is exposure to difficult circumstances. There are many basic advantages of life itself that we too often take for granted. After all, humans have a natural tendency to adapt and become used to situations that are relatively stable. When individuals become aware that their advantages are not guaranteed, many then come to appreciate them more. As the writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.”
This paragraph in particular made me think about the Stoic practice of negative visualization that I wrote about a few months ago. Just to recap, here are the first three paragraphs from that piece:
There's a practice in Stoic philosophy called negative visualization. The basic idea is you imagine something awful, try to feel its full awfulness, then return to your present place of non-awfulness, or at least lesser awfulness. For example, you might imagine that someone you love has died. You might even imagine them dying in front of you. I'm doing it right now, and it's awful. But they didn't die. They're not now dying. And from that "new" knowledge comes renewal. It inhabits the space only briefly occupied by the fleeting awfulness, and leaves me feeling more appreciative for everything and everyone I already have and am.
Another thing negative visualization does is it prepares you for those times when things do actually get worse. Because they will of course get worse. And when they do, you will have had a taste of that experience, or one like it, already in your mind. Because you were the intrepid traveler who went straight to those harsh places regularly. And in doing so, chances are you will have already made those comparably worse situations slightly better. Not only because you'll have prepared yourself for them, but because in preparing yourself for them you’ll also likely have adjusted some of your behaviors and habits in the time intervening.
Returning to my earlier example: If you imagine a loved one dying, your inclination when you see them next will probably be to be kinder, more loving, more patient, more forgiving, and so on. And when they do die, or when you do, even the experience of death will be better (i.e., death too could always be worse). Because your time together will have been, you guessed it, made of moments when you were kinder, more loving, more patient, more forgiving, and so on. In other words, you will have been less of an asshole. And you will then be free to ride the ether, or to do whatever is done when death becomes us, with fewer ghosts and regrets trailing you.
As I see it, negative visualization is a practice of both gratitude and tragic optimism. And all three are satellites of resilience. And resilience is the ultimate protection. And it’s on offer to us all on the other side of adversity.
The idea that we should try to make the world a better, safer, kinder, fairer, and more hospitable place is one I support. But it's not that simple. In some ways, I think we've already achieved a lot of this. In others, I think we might be going backward. In others still, I think we might be going too far. In all the ways, the time when we reach a consensus on what this new world actually looks like does not appear to be upon us. And it may never be upon us. And if it ever is, it won't be the result of one period in time alone. It will be the Frankensteined result of many of them. How could it not be? How could anything that is not in some way be a result of what was?
Most of the current social justice conversations are centered on exactly this question. And rightly so. But I don't think that's where we're stuck. I think we're stuck on the questions that come next: What should we do now? And what might be the results of what we do now?
These are big and complex questions. And I’m suspicious of anyone who disregards their bigness or complexity. I extend this same suspicion to myself, incidentally, in the moments when the answers start to seem too clear to me. And therein lies the guidepost I've been returning to my whole life, the one with the sign that reads “This Way” and points back at me.
I have a pretty clear idea of the things that I can do to become a better, kinder, fairer, more hospitable, and more resilient person. So those are the things I try to focus my energy on. Maybe if I improve myself, it might rub off on someone I know. And maybe if they improve themselves, some of that might rub off on me and someone else. And I think that's about the best social deal any of us are going to live long enough to get and see the results of. I know that people can change their minds. And I believe that people can influence other people to change their minds. But I don’t believe that anyone can force anyone to change their mind. And if I were to write a motto for our times, "to force and protect" would definitely be in the running.
Outside protection from toxic positivity is not a concern of mine. My job is to make myself more resilient. If I do that, whatever protection I might need will take care of itself, and the nontoxic world won't need to do a thing.