Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Power of Positive Thinking ??

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.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome to a Tiger of a Year

Well here we are, having survived the noughties and moving inexorably into the .... what ... teenies? Teenie naughties of course brings other thoughts to mind, but my philosophy has always been, if you're going to be naughty, make it a biggie!

The old year was certainly a biggie for many people, in good as well as bad ways, although sadly we always hear more about, or rather get beaten about the head with, the bad. The world moving into 2010 is still the incorrigible messy disaster it's always been as we steer our course towards environmental annihilation, according to some, while having had a miraculous escape, at least this time, from economic annihilation. In terms of the environment, hopefully the old globe will be able to stagger on for a while yet, although if the abject failure of the world's leaders to reach consensus at the recent Circus of Copenhagen is any example, perhaps we shouldn't hold our collective breaths.

On a personal level, I feel a sense of achievement in that I have spent the year consolidating my aspirations for the foreseeable future. As I've written about before, my latent passion for writing has become a much more fully fledged reality and I have been steadily working away trying to learn the craft, through voluminous reading and many attempts at writing, some of which have been satisfying, others of which have been clumsy and frustrating. Having laboured in solitude mostly, I have reached the conclusion that as writing is largely a craft, certainly a skill and arguably a God-given gift, like all other such ambitions, it should be possible to learn from the experts. As a result I applied late last year to undertake a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Macquarie University, and to my delight was accepted. This begins in late February and is a two year part-time degree. To qualify, I will have to produce a significant creative work, suitable for publication, so there can be no more excuses for putting off that challenge. It is an exciting prospect and I am looking forward to it, albeit with some trepidation as it will demand all those skills of self-discipline and time management that I had to rely on so heavily when I did my under-graduate degree. For me though, this is simply a matter of following my dream and I will make it happen.

On an even more personal note, I have been enormously fortunate in meeting a wonderful man and we are in the process of developing what I hope might be the relationship I have been dreaming of all my life. As well as being a source of great joy, such relationships of course, especially in their early stages, demand sensitivity, openness, courage and willingness to move ahead in optimism and understanding, while being aware that both people come from long lives of other experiences and commitments. It is exhilirating and especially delightful for me, having reached a few bumpy patches in the road before now and sworn "never again". I'm not swearing anything now, just being grateful for every moment.

My friends and family have all experienced highs and lows over the year and some are struggling still with health problems, either of their own or affecting their loved ones, with bereavement, loneliness, loss of beloved pets, career crises and a multitude of life's challenges. We will never be without those, but let's hope that they are balanced out for all of us in this year ahead by joyful moments and times of love, peace and contentment.

Happy New Year in this, the Year of the Tiger!!!