Against Positive Attitudes

A few days ago, I lost someone I cherish, my mother-in-law of seventeen years, Marjorie Feldman Springer, who died of an extremely aggressive form of leukemia. Marge was a vivacious, energetic, athletic person, who biked, hiked, swam, played a devastating game of tennis, and was rarely sick with even a cold until eleven months ago, when she received a diagnosis I wouldn’t wish on anyone. 

Yesterday, I found a draft of a letter I’d written to her while she was in a Manhattan hospital last fall, when her immune system was too compromised to have visitors who had so much as a sniffle and I had lost my voice and couldn’t speak to her on the phone. I wrote the following in my notebook, copied it in my best handwriting (which isn’t very good) onto a watercolor painting one of my children had made, and sent it along with someone healthy enough to visit her.

Dear Marge,

Things have come to a pretty pass when I’m too contagious to visit you in person and my voice is so shot that I can barely squeak into the phone to you. So, I’ll communicate with the one means left to me, hoping that after a few days of antibiotics, I might be sterile enough for a visit.

I was reading a blog the other day by a breast cancer survivor who was railing against what she called the tyranny of the pink ribbon, the cult of relentless, cheerful enforcement of mandatory feminine positive attitudes. Bad enough that I have cancer, she was saying, but now I have to have a positive attitude about it too? Or what? I’ll die? People won’t like me? I’ll be considered an unsuccessful cancer patient? Not a good sport?

To hell with it, she seemed to be saying. I feel what I feel, and maybe when I finish feeling nauseous and sad and scared, and express it to my family and friends, then maybe, if I want to, I’ll have room in my heart for a positive attitude. And until I do, don’t tell me that I should.

You can’t enforce one feeling, nor banish another. We have no choice but to feel or repress, and repression is just a worse way of feeling.

So, if I could visit you, I’d pull the chair really close to your bed and whisper, “God damn this thing,” and give you the space to agree or disagree or change the subject or express whatever you want. I hope you’ll do it whether I’m there are not, with family or the nurses or friends who come to visit. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad. If you want to think about something else for awhile, and you can, then do it. And if you feel like having a positive attitude, then by all means, have one. I hear it’s helpful. But don’t let anyone manipulate you into faking it. All obligations to put a cheerful spin on the world are suspended for the time being.

Now, I’m also free to have whatever attitude I like, and I have to tell you that I’m very optimistic. You are very strong and resilient. If anyone can survive this, I think you can. I think we’re all going to be together again soon in the Catskills or at my house or in Florida, looking back at this experience, grateful that it’s over and that you are fully recovered. “Wasn’t it horrible?” we’ll say. And someone will say, “But at least Marge never lost her positive attitude,” and you and I will exchange conspiratorial glances. I will pour you another glass of wine and pass you another brownie.

I hope you continue to respond well to treatment. I’ll come when it’s safe and call when I can talk again.

Love, Julie

I was able to visit her a week or two later, and I did draw my chair close and say, “God damn this thing, huh?” and she did tell me exactly how awful everything was, but it’s strange how transgressive it felt, as if we were whispering about a shameful secret.

We pile such impossible, heartless expectations onto dangerously ill people in our youth-obsessed, death-denying, positive-thinking society.  People who can’t survive a traffic jam without screaming or a bad day at work without an extensive happy hour afterward expect cancer patients to mystically transcend the pain, uncertainty, humiliation and fear of their illnesses and become inspirational to us. While some cancer survivors have said that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them, that it made them more spiritual, less materialistic, and more engaged in the present rather than focused on the future, that is their experience, not a standard against which all cancer patients must be judged.

And what is this positive thinking that is demanded of sick people, anyway? I’m going to guess, because I’m too sad and exhausted to look it up right now, that there have been studies suggesting that cancer patients with positive attitudes had better outcomes than those who didn’t.  Maybe the science was good, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe people who knew they had a better chance of survival were unsurprisingly able to have a better outlook on their lives than those who suspected that they were doomed. I don’t even know how anyone could design a study to control for a positive attitude. Diagnoses vary, even within the same type of cancer, and people are diagnosed at different ages, with different medical histories, not to mention different doctors offering different treatment plans. How would a researcher ever be able to ascertain that the positive thoughts were the determining factor in someone’s survival?

But pushing all skepticism aside, supposing that it is irrefutably the case that cancer patients with a positive attitude outlive those without one, the attitude would have to be genuine. It would have to arise from a deep conviction that medical science and luck were entirely in that patient’s corner. We can’t fool our cells, or God, or the Universe, or whatever one believes is compiling the “Naughty or Nice” list of cancer patients’ attitudes. Thinking we can would be bad science and worse theology. A positive attitude that truly aids healing couldn’t be faked. It couldn’t be parroted. It certainly couldn’t result from a sick, worried person being commanded, bullied, or shamed into saying whatever she must say to convince her friends that she has a positive attitude so that they can go home from the hospital visit feeling better.

If we want to help those we love when they are really sick, we need to hold their hands and listen. They need the space to talk about whatever they are feeling, not instruction in the correct way to feel.  We can’t cure them. We may not be able to ease their suffering. But we can all open our hearts to hear whatever they need to say, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those of us who find ourselves, for now, on the other side of the sickbed.

In memory of Marge.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: Mastodon
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9 Responses to Against Positive Attitudes

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    So sorry for your loss. You are so right. I, too, hear all the time about ‘the difference a positive attitude can make’ and uplifting as it is to believe and hope that it’s true, who knows. Our desire for our terribly sick loved ones to be positive and fight with all their might is really about our own inability to deal with the reality of potentially losing them. The disease robs all of us — the patient and us — of our control. It didn’t ask if it could invade our bodies, it just did. It didn’t ask if it could change our lives forever, it just did. Randomly, with no rhyme or reason, it just shows up and brings with it pain and suffering and anguish and grief. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. So we decide to ignore it and tra la la our way through it in the hopes it will just go away. And the medical profession and the researchers and the not for profit foundations encourage us to do it because despite their efforts and hopes and dreams they, too, are powerless. The disease is beating them just like it’s beating us. Some patients are lucky and it’s not yet their time and some aren’t. And as it stands right now, no amount of surgery, chemo, radiation, cheering, fighting, walking, running or biking for the cure is going to help unless you’re one of the more fortunate ones. But, as you did with your mother in law, we can and should allow them (and ourselves) to express our feelings — the fear, the anger, the grief, the pain and sorrow. We should be able to talk frankly and not be forced to hold anything back. Denial is not a cure for anything. Your mother in law was as blessed and lucky to have you in her life as you were to have her in yours. I hope the two of you were able to talk about that.

  2. Mae says:

    Having studied Psychology, I can tell you there are LOTS of studies of that type, but you’re right, the attitude that helps is the sincere one, not the forced smile. I would imagine the insincere positivity is more damaging than helpful, and, like you, I despise the culture that demands happiness in the face of adversity. We forget that it’s ok to be stressed or sorrowful or angry- these are natural reactions, and they’re an important part of living a truly balanced life.

    That said, there are ALSO scads of studies showing the positive impact of a strong social support system on all kinds of outcomes. It sounds like you were part of that for your mother-in-law. I’m so sorry for your loss, and for the pain of watching someone you love and respect suffer through something so terrible. As always, thank you for your words.

    • Thanks, Mae. Can you post a link to a study or two that you consider to be particularly strong? I am curious now about how they know that it is the positive attitude that is the determining factor, and how they know that the positive attitude is a cause and not an effect. My brain is back where I think I could read and understand some studies now.

  3. Brian Hanson-Harding says:

    This is beautiful. I’m so glad you wrote that letter to Marge and that you shared this with us. I think it does make sense to let people feel their emotions, whatever they are. Your post brings to mind a video clip I recently saw of David Rakoff, who just passed away from cancer, on the Daily Show. I don’ t know if he was making this up, but he said something like “studies have proven that cancer patients with a positive attitude live no longer than those with lousy attitudes; it’s just that people are happier when we go.” Here’s a link to the clip:—david-rakoff-tribute

  4. Naomi says:

    As a previous counselor of young women, the thing I loved most was getting to be with someone when they finally began to grieve…to feel…for real! No pressure to say the “right” thing, or shame in saying the truth. And amazingly, after having the freedom to be honest, and feel what they feel, people normally felt more positive…just being able to open up and have someone understand and validate the legitimacy of suffering. We get stuck when we jump over honesty and “try” to be where we think we should be, or where others are more comfortable with us being.

    As a young woman, I’ve also gone through my father dying 2 1/2 years ago to a rare form of brain cancer, and only a year later my brother was diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 lung cancer. He is currently undergoing treatment with cancer in 9 different places in his body. The process of all the crappy things they have to go through is unbelievable, and the roller coaster of emotion, including having to go through unbelievable pain and body issues and face the potential of death, is so huge, its amazing anyone can have a good attitude! It requires major support networks just to get through those times. My brother is one of those blessed with a good attitude, hardly a spoken complaint through the entire 9 months so far, but it can’t be faked! I believe we all need to grow in our ability to suffer with those who suffer!

    Your post was so inspirational and I was cheering along with what you were saying, knowing the freedom it would give to others and the challenge it would be as well! Thank you for your honesty and transparency and I can only imagine the gift your words were to your mother in law. Bless you as you grieve such an important person in your life!

    • Thank you, Naomi. It does amaze me that anyone can have a positive attitude while undergoing treatment. Just the process of being a patient is so incredibly difficult. I wonder what gives your brother and others their positive attitudes? I wish your brother a complete and speedy healing.

      • Naomi says:

        Thank you Julie! I truly don’t know. Both my dad and my brother suffered so quietly, without complaint. My brother wants to become a Jesuit priest, and that calling has been solidified through this process. Although my dads cancer was acquired at random, we are pretty sure that my brother acquired his from burn pits in Iraq, during his tour in Iraq. They breathed in so many devastating chemicals. He is now a conscientious objector and speaks out for the Iraqi people and about peace. So, his faith and his beliefs are deep. I, on the other hand, have dealt with a lot of chronic pain and can tell you right now would not be able to journey so positively!

        I remember conversations(after our miscarriage 7 years ago) with a friend who’d lost 4 babies through miscarriage, where we talked about how people don’t actually want to hear how you are or what you feel when they ask. Somehow its seen as more heroic if you pretend you’re succeeding in life in spite of all the pain, when in reality MOST people do not have that experience! I think we have a culture of people who have never been taught that their feelings matter, that they are valid under the circumstances, and that healing happens as a result of going through, not over or around your feelings! I used to love being able to tell girls, “Of course you feel like crap! Let’s look at what you’ve been through. Don’t you think it makes sense you’d feel like crap?” And I’d see their shoulders relax, I would watch them exhale finally, and often cry because no one had ever given them permission to feel…anything! I do think that there’s something to be said for looking on the positive side of life, and that adding joy to the journey, but we reinforce false joy because it relieves us of the pressure to try and “make it better!”

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