In last week’s post, I railed against my pet peeve of the Tyranny of Positivity. After exploring what was so limiting and unhelpful about compelling each other to positivity, I decided now is an opportunity to explore a useful, if subtle, distinction. In some ways I contradict myself, railing against positive thinking and platitudes about believing in ourselves while still wishing to avoid the equally unhelpful dominion of negativity and indignation.
“Positivity” and “Negativity” are oppositions, which means they are conflicting facets of the same belief structure. To be beholden to one and reject the other is to be caught in the trap of both. Health and sanity might lie on the middle road between these poles, but even better might be to consider that the positive-negative belief structures impairs our ability to perceive reality as much as it helps us to form a coherent understanding of it. If I am desperately trying to look like I “have it all together” while someone I love is dying, my partner and I are having enormous problems, or something in my life is failing, then I am caught in the trap of positivity. If I insist on the misery of life when I am in good health, I have a home and food to eat, and I have people who care about me, then I am caught in the trap of negativity.
Real life is messy and rarely free of problems or blessings, and our minds get trained to focus on a few facets of life and ignore others. We have nothing to fear from being real. We can cultivate gratitude and connection to help us live more fully.
Gratitude is not denial of problems or focusing on personal prosperity to the exclusion of social injustice, at least, it does not have to be. Gratitude is a practice that can bring balance to the tendencies of focusing on misery and lack and personal suffering. Gratitude can be a source of generosity and healing. I feel grateful that I have people who love me and a warm place to sleep at night, and I work with people who do not have either of those things. To support them in their work and need, I need to keep filling my cup with gratitude. Giving into cynicism does no good. If “it’s all pointless,” then I have no reason to keep trying.
Connection is a state of recognition that I participate in the lives of others, the environment, political structures, and spiritual realities for those who experience such, and that these affect me in turn. A state of connection is feeling frustrated with the cashier and suddenly realizing that this person could also be frustrated with me, and neither of us is the “hero” in this interaction. You and I are people trying to work through this life as best we can with the tools and understandings we’ve got. Blame is an impediment to connection, coming from a state of disconnection. Instead of seeing our relationship as mutual, blame says that one of us is responsible and the other is not. If I want to think of the customer as an idiot, the cashier as a jerk, then I fall into a fixed role and act so. I lose the ability to change the script.
When I see that you’re miserable, your misery naturally touches my heart, sometimes at a level so unconscious that I cannot realize it. Hence the urge to comfort, to change the other person’s experience, which can be disconnecting (as in ordering the other person to cheer up) or deepen that connection (such as offering help, making eye contact, asking what’s going on and actually listening). Some who suffer from sadness, grief, and depression find that engaging in this kind of connection and genuinely helping others can help them to feel better about themselves.
As with the concepts of “positivity” and “negativity,” the gratitude and connection have their opposites and their states of dissolution. I encourage you to think of gratitude and connection as virtues that you can develop with practice. (And all of us could use more practice with these!) We do not need to be perfect or calm to practice these. When life feels hard, we can take a moment and ask, “What am I grateful for now?” “How can I feel connected now?” I encourage you to cultivate these with an open, humble heart and to avoid the urge to shame others with our practice or their failure to practice. If you find yourself wanting to condemn someone for not being grateful or connected, once again ask yourself, “What would it feel like to connect to this person?”