As I was driving the long commute from one side of town to the other, I happened to catch Barbara Ehrenreich on NPR. Like me, you’re probably most familiar with Barbara from her earlier works, including Nickel and Dimed in America and Bait and Switch to name a few.
For those of you unfamiliar, Nickel and Dimed explored the working class- those earning around minimum wage. In Bait and Switch, she donned the persona of a laid-off white-collar worker, her goal to get a new job in a set amount of time. Personally I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed a touch more, perhaps because Bait and Switch hit a tad to close to home for my comfort.
I tuned in mid-sentence. Barbara was explaining how the idea for the book came to her during her recent battles with Breast Cancer. She was bombarded with what she describes, as the "optimistic-side of cancer." Urged by inspirational phrases, forcibly cheerful people, and coerced by the medical profession and a support system that almost required positivity at all times, Barbara shared how she was never able to deal with her negative emotions, most particularly anger.
In her book, she claims “Americans are a “positive” people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.” She uses her experience with cancer, the church and business to support her thesis.
What could be wrong with a little positive thinking?
Nothing if positive (wishful) thinking doesn’t get in the way of rational decision-making. Barbara makes the case- we, the American people, have taken positive thinking too far- to the point we are willing to stick our heads (collective and individual) in the sand to avoid anything and anyone with even a whiff of negativity.
In listening to the interview, I was most struck by how stringently opposed the audience was to Barbara’s message, (surprisingly) including the interviewer herself. As though the mere hint of cynicism would somehow impact the riches of their lives. I chuckled as I listened to the book, mind flashing back to the radio audience's reaction. For they reacted as Barbara predicted- making her argument for her.
We, the American people, cling to positive thinking as a life preserver, a shield against chaos. In hopes perhaps, positive thinking affords us a minutia of control, real or perceived.
As a self-proclaimed realist, I have to admit I was in a better frame of mind to embrace Barbara’s message than most. Life has kicked me around once too often to ever be an Optimist. Conversely there are too many beautiful moments in existence to ever commit to Pessimism. Instead I count myself amongst the Realists. Life is what it is. One cannot deal with something they are not first prepared to acknowledge and face head on.
If nothing else, Bright-sided serves as a nice counter to the plethora of positive thinking books clogging the business and self-help shelves of any bookstore.