Having been an unquestioning subscriber to the PPT theory for as long as I've understood what it was, I was intrigued to read an article in last weekend's "Weekend Australian Magazine" written by a breast cancer victim, who had an interesting take on the ubiquitous "smile though your heart is breaking" school of thought.
Barbara Ehrenreich has recently written a book entitled "Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World". The article is based on an extract from her book which states it was her experience with breast cancer that changed her irrevocably from an optimist to a pessimist; or rather, not necessarily a pessimist, but a realist.
Despite having (as far as she knew) no predisposing factors, she was diagnosed following a routine mammogram. Her subsequent experience of surgery and chemotherapy exposed her to an environment where despite the potentially lethal nature of the disease she had, the mood was consistently if unnaturally upbeat. She felt obliged to assume the mantle of a survivor, not a victim, to consider herself in some way fortunate to have the opportunity of joining the cheerful sisterhood of brave battlers. Understandably she saw this as a form of denial, a perception that was strengthened by books such as one she came across called "The Gift of Cancer".
She remarks also on the burgeoning commercialisation of breast cancer evidenced in the flood of pink beribboned items we are encouraged to buy, presumably to demonstrate our support for victims or our enlistment in the fight against the disease. The emphasis in the consumables market interestingly is on the ultra-feminine, perhaps to compensate for the radically de-feminising experience that breast cancer can be for many women, which now that she mentions it, does seem a tad patronising.
There is nothing inherently wrong about the relentless message of cheerfulness conveyed by pink ribbons unless it also imparts the idea that it is not acceptable to feel bad. This is the message conveyed to this author by all the forced cheer surrounding her, and what she found so alarming about her own encounter with the mythology that surrounds cancer.
Perhaps the most insidious of the contemporary theories about disease is based on the concept that we can directly affect our immune system, through either negative or positive thinking. This of course is just a more specific example of the generalised idea that if something in life goes wrong, it's your attitude that's to blame (which I've ranted about excessively before). It is a particularly compelling theory when it comes to physical illness. There is something neatly rational about the hypothesis that nasty feelings will invade our cells and stimulate those pernicious little viruses or bacteria or tumours into life. And, so the logic continues, if the doom and gloom linger on, the nasties will start to permeate our bodies like salt damp in a wall and pretty soon the rot will set in. Unless of course we get a grip, turn the dazzle of our pearly whites on the world and bask in the heady glow of the bright side, however minuscule a glimmer on the horizon it happens to be. Otherwise, we're goners and we've only ourselves to blame.
This is not just an undeserved castigation of those who are sad, frightened or anxious about their illness but unhealthy in itself because it hits them over the head with guilt, an emotion that helps no-one. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, wallowing in guilt because you've got a disease is unhelpful in another way. It can distract you from attempting to understand what real factors contributed to the disease, an endeavour that is often unlikely to be assisted by the medical profession. In her case, she believes her breast cancer resulted from taking HRT, a possibility which needs to be looked at a lot more closely than it has to date (and I dare to suggest would be if men had breasts). There is also the as yet insufficiently researched link between the rising incidence of breast cancer and highly industrialised societies, to the extent that the environment is arguably a predisposing factor equally as significant as genetics.
Justified discontent is not bad. Anger, grief and fear are aspects of the human emotional spectrum equally as valid as happiness, optimism and acceptance, and sometimes they are not only more relevant to the situation, but precipitators of a search for meaning. If blind optimism means we stop questioning, then it is not only blind but stupid.
There is a time for feeling bad and serious illness has to be one of those times. By trying to disguise our distress by smiling through gritted teeth, we not only do ourselves a disservice we are subscribing to the puerile notion that the feel-good school of philosophy rules.
The power of positive thinking I'm sure has a place, somewhere, but the exhortation to adopt an eternal smile come what may is, as Barbara Ehrenreich so eloquently points out in her book, not only facile, but dangerous.