Sunday, March 13, 2011

Responses to disaster: optimism as a form of resistance

Dominique Browning has done it again, with a moving post on the Japanese tsunami.

In this case, however, I was equally struck by some of the comments in response to her blog. A few responders seemed eager to cheer up Ms. Browning, who wrote of her anguish and anxiety over this catastrophe. Though I can appreciate caring individuals not wanting a friend, even a virtual one, to fall into the slough of despond, I think there is a tendency among us to be quick to "console" by urging a pollyanna-ish cheeriness. The Brits keep a stiff upper lip; we want to keep smiling. Maybe the French shrug (who knows?).

Although we do need to somehow maintain resilience in the face of catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, acute or chronic, it seems to be a strange American affliction to insist on being positive all the time. In fact, given the real world we live in, and the thorny challenges we face, it seems downright delusional. At the very least, it is inauthentic, responding to an intellectual construct of the world as opposed to the way it really is (and we know how well that works in personal relationships).

But there are consequences well beyond one's individual psyche, and this is where I find my real objection: the "stay positive" mantra isolates the sensitive among us, condemning them to shame and persecution for their realism and insight, when we should really promoting collective action and seriousness of purpose. Changes of behavior at the individual level, though important, cannot tackle political, economic, or social problems, because they exist at a different level of scale.* I cannot help but think that the Pollyannas are actually the most cynical of all, and that they are trying to fortify themselves and everyone else from falling into the black despair that otherwise is a perfectly justifiable response to so much of our self-inflicted human misery.

I am reminded of this passage from C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man:
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. [...] By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
Nor, I might add, is a soft head any use against hard problems. We need soft hearts, hard heads.

Barbara Ehrenreich, among others, has made a compelling argument that our relentless commitment to unrealistic optimism sowed the seeds for the banking crisis—and that an insistence on being cheerful actually leads toward a lonely focus inward and to political apathy.

So let's get serious about understanding the challenges we face, raise the level of discourse in this country, and act together to exert change. And when sensitive, intelligent people look at what's happening in various corners of the earth and express their despair, let's listen and let them irrigate our spiritual deserts.

* Consider recent events in the Arab world: after decades of abuses of power, wars, economic sanctions, and diplomatic efforts to influence the regimes, it finally took hundreds of thousands of people acting together, marching on the streets of Egypt for a month, risking life, limb, and freedom, to get rid of one measly dictator. That's the power of collective action. Speaking of which, I am inspired by Bill McKibben's creative leadership of global efforts over at to promote serious political action to address climate change.