Sunday, July 30, 2017


Not long ago a stranger on the street chirped at me to "Smile!" and it made me want to do this:

Of course, I know what she was trying to do: I expect I was showing a sour face to the world and she was trying to remind me to look on the bright side, to buck up, to take heart in the half full cup. It was well-intended, but instead it snatched me from my thoughts (which weren't necessarily gloomy) with a flash of anger.

Why? Well, for one thing it was a command and, no matter how cheerfully offered, humans never like to be told what to do: I don't owe anyone a happy face. But at a deeper level, she was suggesting that I buy into her street corner philosophy of half truth and self-deception. You see, I understand the idea behind "positive thinking," that thread woven through most popular psychology and self-help regimes, but it's always struck me as a kind lie one tells to oneself, one that might serve a temporary purpose, but is unsustainable and ultimately destructive as the "negative thinking" will, one way or another, insist on its day. It's a repression of half of reality and everyone knows that repressed things always find expression, usually as malformed ooze, dangerous explosions, or a rotting away from the inside.

From the spiritual teacher Osho:

Positive thinking is simply the philosophy of hypocrisy -- to give it the right name. When you are feeling like crying, it teaches you to sing. You can manage if you try, but those repressed tears will come out at some point, in some situation. There is a limitation to repression. And the song that you were singing was absolutely meaningless; you were not feeling it, it was not born of your heart.

The cult of positive thinking permeates western culture and to the degree that it reminds us to not just pessimistically dwell on the negative I suppose it has a place, but this idea that eternal optimism is a mentally healthy goal, that we must always look on the bright side of life, is adsurd:

Perhaps nothing shows us the full truth of the light and dark sides of life than being an important adult in the life of a young child. No where else are the highs so consistently high and lows so consistently low: they fill us with love in one moment, then drive us to distraction in the next, and while keeping a stiff upper lip is perhaps an appropriate courtesy we extend when out in the public eye, it would be unhealthy to persist in only seeing the bright side when our children, those honest non-hypocritical children, insist on unerringly showing us the full truth.

There is a line from the Tao that I find useful: "Let your feelings flourish, and get on with you life of doing." Young children are the masters of this, not generally caring when or where they vent their strong negative emotions. When one can step outside of it, it's hard to not be impressed by their ability to honestly engage with the "dark side of life," especially when, often in the next moment, they can also so fully embrace the bright.

There are things we learn and things we unlearn as we go through life, becoming wiser in some areas while moving farther from the truth in others. In this case, children generally see more clearly than we do.

So I appreciate you reminding me to smile, I do, but I'm not likely to appreciate it in the moment any more than a child is likely to appreciate your admonitions to "cheer up" in the midst of a tantrum. Indeed, you should know that in my head I'm probably flipping you off.

Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .

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