The negative side of a positive mental attitude

Yesterday I wrote a post inspired by Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. It was about trying to see the positives in difficult situations. Of course, this is good but it can result in a rather simplistic interpretation, of which I can be rather critical. I don’t want to be another source of twee quotations on a Instagram filtered background that you see all over Facebook. Superficially, they are fine. However, I don’t want to be content with “superficially”. Yes, my blog can be whimsical and lighthearted at times, but sometimes that’s not always appropriate. After writing yesterday’s post (and a night’s sleep) I woke up feeling uneasy about how I’d left the post and wanted to clarify a few things.

Despite not for

Corrie and Betsie ten Boom we’re thankful despite their circumstances. And they were in the midst of some of the most atrocious circumstances history has seen. They were never thankful for the Holocaust; in fact, they actively opposed it by sheltering Jews. They, however, had the presence of mind to realise that in order to endure such conditions they needed to see and focus on the tiny glimmers of hope  provided to them.

However, sometimes people will struggle to see the positives in their situation and that isn’t wrong. Some people will experience terrible tragedy and loss. We are not to blame them for the situations they find themselves in and their natural and understandable reaction to it. Also, sometimes sorrow and despair is the only appropriate response. When I observe evidence of the child trafficking that blights Cambodia, a positive mental attitude is not appropriate. Sorrow, however, is. Sorrow can be a great agent for change if it is followed by action.

We like to think that if we think positively about a situation, we can change it. In a brilliant TED talk, disabled rights campaigner, Stella Young, said “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” We need to honestly acknowledge the struggles we and others face.

It’s a choice not imposed

Often well-meaning people will try to help a distress person by offering platitudes like “it could be worse.” Also, telling people to look on the bright side (sometimes called “silver-lining”) is not always helpful. This can include statements such as “at least they’re at peace” or “be thankful for the times you’ve had” when a loved one has died. I’ve even heard people use “at least…” then end the sentence with some terrible human tragedy (e.g. “At least you’re not in Haiti right now”). First there’s the questionable act of appropriating the terrible suffering of others for our personal comfort. Then, there’s just the plain fact that you are writing-off the person’s feelings. We should always seek to validate people in the midst of the pain, not dismiss them.

I once read a fascinating article, but time has rendered the details hazy. It was about a woman who had witnessed atrocities during her childhood (either the Rwandan genocide or the apartheid in South Africa). She had then gone on to be a therapist in America. She was asked how she coped with hearing rich people problems having witnessed the true depths of tragedy and pain in her life. She replied that suffering is suffering. Regardless of how significant or insignificant the pain or its cause may seem, it is still to be regarded the same.

My post yesterday was about a personal choice I am making, to be positive in the situations I find myself in. It was in no way an attempt to chastise or teach a moral lesson. I simply want to be in a position next year, when I return to the UK, where I can say I love Cambodia, I love its people and I love the experiences I was privileged enough to have. Sometimes this takes a conscious effort and that’s what the post was about.

Sometimes despair is not a choice

People in the midst of grief, depression or trauma do not want misery. They want happiness as much as you do. Asking them to have a positive outlook is patronising and harsh. It’s turning their difficulties into a problem of character not of the circumstances. The struggle they have is not going to magically disappear if they just tried harder.

So what do we do?

It’s hard to know what to do when people are in the midst of suffering. I know I’m rubbish at it. I turn to the Bible when faced with these conundrums. It tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. We need to share in their experiences. There’s an interesting mourning practice I heard about (by a particular Jewish people group, I believe). When someone has lost someone close, friends and family will join that person. And they will just sit there in complete silence, for hours if necessary. They will wait for the grieving person to speak, then and only then they will join them in their grieving. They are available and ready to mourn with them, but only in their time.

I think we should always be ready to listen, acknowledge and share in the grief and struggles of others, no matter how big or small. Then, you are providing some glimmer of hope they may be thankful for.