The Power of Positive Thinking

If everybody’s faking it there’s no need to worry about what’s real. Truly, optimism doesn’t get much crueler than this.
Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash.

So enticing, deep dark seas
It’s so easy to drown in the dream

Sturgill Simpson, “Breakers Roar”

Happy New Year! I have a good feeling about 2023. I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of positive thinking. Which is understandable given the year we just had.

2022 was absolutely fantastic.

I mean that quite literally. Having suffered through many months and years of a never-ending pandemic, deteriorating material conditions amid a malfunctioning economic system, a darkening future of climate change and geopolitical chaos, and the generalized emotional exhaustion of watching life turn out to be much more disappointing than we were promised, 2022 is the year we all decided to say: no. No, I’m not dealing with this.

Confronted with a perpetual motion machine of grief across so many cascading crises that instability is the only consistency we have—with nowhere to put the anger, no one to negotiate with, no stomach (or time) for sadness, and no hope of acceptance without fully losing our minds—everyone, collectively and individually, has gone all in on flights of fancy. Our options are limited, our resources are dwindling, and we need to preserve our fragile and battered psyches at all costs, so we grabbed the only tool left at the bottom of Pandora’s box: fantasy. Fantasy allows fragility to masquerade as power, prison to masquerade as freedom, profound and aching sadness to dress itself up as manic joy—as well as all the other ways around.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt; it is the palace we live in every day.

“You know, it’s a positive time,” our Premier likes to tell us. Opportunities abound and everything is looking up. We’re all out here committed to the work of self improvement and being our most authentic, empowered selves. We can live, laugh, and love together again because the pandemic is officially over. We can finally take off our masks, and put our smiles back on—a much more familiar and comforting kind of mask.

There’s just too much doom and gloom, you know? This year, it’s time to focus on the positive.

Cruel Optimism

I say this not in scorn or judgment. “Fantasy” in the technical, psychodynamic sense is the means by which we structure our attachments to things and people in the world—how we impose meaning and narrative on the raw and otherwise incoherent sensory inputs we experience. This mental processing is mostly unconscious and formed out of the events and relationships of our early lives.

Making sense of the world by absorbing certain elements into our attention while excluding others is necessary not only for basic survival, but the precondition for anything we might meaningfully call “life” at all. Fantasy is both what takes us outside ourselves and into something greater—and what holds us together when what is outside threatens to overwhelm and break us.

“Fantasy,” writes Lauren Berlant, “is an opening and a defense.” As an opening, it is a way of bringing us out of ourselves, something that shatters our everyday habits and rituals and makes a new world and a new way of living possible. It creates the space for something new to emerge, something better—a better version of yourself, of a relationship, of “this.” It provides a way and a means of changing.

As a defense, it is a way to protect us from being forced out of ourselves, to fortify our everyday life against disruption, to patch over it when it’s punctured, or glue its fractured pieces back together when it’s smashed. It’s something that preserves the habits and rituals that we can’t bear to live without, that we need to make sense of living in the world at all. It is a means of holding together those things that are most precious to you—your grounding in yourself, in a relationship, in “this.” 

Part of the burden of being a human in the world is constantly negotiating between these two poles—of knowing when to open, and knowing when to close. Fantasy only becomes a problem when you become so lost in it, in either direction, that it blinds you to painful attachments and dangerous realities.

A place, a way of life, a political system, a relationship (romantic, familial, or friendly), a job, a reflection in the mirror, whatever—these are all attachments we either want to preserve or change, for any (or no) reason at all, as much or as little as our conditions and conditioning allow. Sometimes you feel good about what you see in the mirror, or the people you live with, or the way you earn your living, or how many drinks you had this week, or the rules your government enforces. Sometimes you don’t feel good about any of these things, and you need to change them.

But how to tell the difference between what’s good or bad for you is more complicated. It is not the same thing as what feels good or bad, or what you think should feel good or bad. Sometimes the thing we are really attached to—what we think we need to flourish—is actually the very thing that blocks our flourishing.

A bigger house in a better neighbourhood. A new truck, new boss, new baby or new bae. A few pints (or lines) with friends every night on the weekend, or running compulsively every day at dawn. More followers on Twitter, or a new look for the ‘Gram. The top job in your social circle; the top job in your field; the top job in your government. Leaving (or going) home to start things over; getting (or refusing) one last chance to make things work. Going back to “pre-pandemic” normal; scouring creature comforts out from the murdered Earth. Anything that helps you get it out; anything that helps you fill the void.

This is what Berlant calls cruel optimism: “when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” The thing we can’t live without is killing us; the thing that would save us seals our doom. It can be hard to tell the difference from a distance—and nearly impossible to tell up close.

Once you start to bear this in mind—that we are all enmeshed in fantasies that help us navigate an unforgiving world in bodies destined to decay—you’ll start to see it everywhere, at every level, from international affairs to your own daily life. (Incidentally, learning to notice when and how your own mind starts filling in the gaps with stories is one of the most valuable skills you can cultivate.)

A Plague of Fantasies

Consider two events that bookended 2022—both connected to the digital thought disease colonizing the human soul, and both characterized by the intrusion of personal fantasies onto public reality.

Last year opened with a Facebook-poisoned mob of psychotically lonely people descending on Ottawa, all of them denying the reality of the pandemic and a few of them demanding the overthrow of the federal government on the basis of some freemen-on-the-land gobbledygook. (They were successful in that first thing; now everyone is pretending Covid is over.) It closed with the ex-richest man on Earth, trapped in a bubble of his own bunker mentality, purchasing and immolating Twitter (and himself) in a desperate bid for the only things money cannot buy: earnest love and admiration from the Other. (Or, put another way: better to lurk and be thought uncool than to post and remove all doubt.)

If it’s true that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” then perhaps the same can be said for its neuroses and delusions.

Closer to home, we are getting a masterclass in this from Andrew Furey. The Premier has encased himself—and, by proxy, the rest of us—in a prison of “positivity.” Not that you can necessarily blame him; there are few jobs as thankless as being in charge of Newfoundland and Labrador, especially at this moment in world history. The problem is that he seems to insist on being thanked, and gets visibly agitated when he’s not.

You can understand Furey’s exasperation. He left a lucrative career in orthopedic surgery because his province needed him, and all he gets in return are Rodney Dangerfield-levels of disrespect. He’s out here hustling to create a brand new hydrogen economy and all people care about are his off-the-clock friendships with the billionaire industrialists actively lobbying him for a slice of the pie (before it even goes in the oven). Doctors and nurses keep bitching and moaning about their problems on social media instead of thanking him for trying his best. The man can literally mail most of the province $500 cheques and it barely moves the needle. It’s astonishing how ungrateful some Newfies are. (Not this writer: I spent my bailout cheque on therapy. Thank you for this generous investment in accessible mental healthcare, sir!)

Fortunately, the Premier is a man fixated on the power of positive thinking, and cannot be deterred. Where the public can’t or won’t affirm his desire to be seen and appreciated as a good man doing good work, his friends at the Board of Trade will. He is at his most charming when safely cocooned within the fantasy that the success of the province’s business class and the success of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are one and the same. And the secret to that success has nothing to do with having rich friends, powerful benefactors, inherited wealth, or the messianic destiny of a Liberal Party Nepo Baby: all you really need is a positive attitude.

The crisis in healthcare is an opportunity for entrepreneurial innovation; hurricanes and forest fires are actually a stronger argument for pumping even more ‘clean’ offshore oil; even the cod moratorium was less a socioeconomic cataclysm than a model for how to quickly transform an ocean-faring workforce. All news can be good news if you put your mind to it. Feeling good is nearly the same as doing good, and a lot easier to achieve if you turn your frown upside down. And if you can’t, well: that’s on you, man. Fake it until you make it—and never complain about it if you don’t.

If everybody’s faking it there’s no need to worry about what’s real. Truly, optimism doesn’t get much crueler than this.

New Year, Old Me

OK—some of the things expressed in the preceding section were said with a little bit of scorn and/or judgment. Old habits die hard. But I’m setting a New Year’s intention to beat swords into plowshares, so I’m going to try and check that snark at the door. When you’re surrounded by so-called ‘toxic positivity’ it can be easy to overcorrect in the opposite direction. Swinging back and forth between the two poles of manic optimism and depressive fatalism has carved a well-worn rut in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history. The hot new trend this year is breaking out of broken patterns. It’s time for something different.

Perhaps what we need is a kind of Dry January of the mind. A sobering up of the senses amid the narcotic allure of fantasy; a commitment to adapt them to reality instead of the other way around. But that brings us back to the challenge of how to tell the difference. “Everyone, after all, goes the same dark road,” James Baldwin writes in Giovanni’s Room. “And the road has a trick of being most dark, most treacherous, when it seems most bright.”

When does clear-eyed realism slip into a sadomasochistic fantasy of ‘hard truths’ for hardness’ sake, a self-fulfilling prophecy locking you into a safety net of sadness? When does a determination to see only silver linings become a willful blindness to the real pain and suffering of ourselves and others? What would it really mean to live without illusions—to live, in other words, as truthfully as we can?

I will not pretend to know. There is no easy answer for this question, and you will find no answer at all except the one you can craft for yourself, if you dare, out of the detritus of your dreams. This much I know for sure, having exhausted all the answers handed down to me by others.

There are some other things I know for sure: that the past is never fully closed nor the future fully open; that heaven and hell are real places, forged and broken by our own hands, together; that you’re only going this way once, time is shorter than you think, and there is absolutely nothing you can take with you; that there is no one on this earth who can’t be redeemed, only those who refuse it; that miscommunication is the foundation of all interhuman relationships; and that despite this, the sole duty of a writer is to speak the truth as well as they understand it, and that the moment they shirk this—whether through fear, vanity, or willful ignorance—it’s time to pack it in.

These are some truths as I see them. But the deeper truth is that we never, on first glance, see things as they are; we see them as we are. And until you really know yourself, you are liable to be lost in a hall of mirrors forever.

Or, at least, until reality inevitably gets the last word. Because the other thing is that no matter how deeply you retreat into fantasy, the bill always comes due—and the postman always rings twice. The more baroque the dream, the more devastating its collapse, and the more wreckage you will need to scavenge in search of something meaningful. As hard as it can be to let go, it’s always harder to have it ripped away.

Don’t worry. When you let go of what’s false you will be free to take hold of what’s true. All you need is the insight to tell the difference, and the courage to do something about it.

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