Why I Don't Look At The Bright Side Of Things 24/7

My son’s second grade teacher has been wonderful through this whole pandemic. She, as well as all the other amazing second grade teachers at our school district, have put together lessons and posted them on Padlet for the kids to complete at home. They divide the lessons by section, and one of the sections is called Social/Emotional Learning. Ethan has never been too into completing the lessons in that section and, admittedly, I haven’t pushed it much because I think he is already dealing with enough (aren’t we all?). I bring it up a few times a week in hopes that he will find something on the list that catches his eye that we can hopefully work on together. However, For this week, the lesson at the top of the Social/Emotional Learning list was called “Optimism Lesson”, and my first reaction to that was: there is no way I am having Ethan complete that one.

I know, what kind of mother am I if I’m not promoting optimism and the good side of things to my child, especially if he struggles with change and uncertainty? The horror! I have had so many people argue that I am a pessimist or that I live in denial. I go through life either preparing for the worst, or blatantly refusing to talk about situations that may trigger my anxiety (I refuse to watch the news or any other TV, and I am on my 10th novel since this quarantine started). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that we should always look at the worst side, or that optimism is completely useless. I do have a positive approach to some things; I set an intention after Shabbat is over every week after Havdalah, and make sure to live by it from Sunday to Friday as a conscious attempt to remain in a somewhat positive state of mind (attempt, since in reality, intention isn’t the same as impact). However, I am, at my core, a realist, and if there’s anything to be learned from current events is this: chronic optimism will set me up for failure, realism will set me up for joy.

A friend introduced me recently to the term toxic positivity. The term was initially introduced by psychotherapist Wendy Goodman and refers to the idea that people sometimes move immediately into looking at the bright side of things in the face of adversity, without giving themselves the space to process and internalize their feelings about the situation. It creates this alternative reality where we trick ourselves into believing that if we stay optimistic and positive about our situation, and we spend our time focusing solely on the bright side of it, we will not have to suffer the pain associated with the discomfort of it all.

Take the current pandemic for example. I admit, I am a fan of a good, funny meme about my incessant snacking, or the fact that it was never a time issue when it came to keeping my house together (although everyone who knows me knows, I have been busier now than when I am not in quarantine). However, there’s this one particular meme that talks about how if you don’t leave this quarantine time without having learned a new skill or accomplishing something you have been working on in your house, then it was never about time and you’re “just lazy”. There are also the well-meaning people who talk about how wonderful it is to be able to spend all this family time and post how they have all of these really cool activities together that wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t in quarantine. And listen, I am all for learning all the new things… Teach yourself a new language, pick up a new home exercise routine, love all the extra time with your family, repaint every room in your house… that’s not me.

Some of us don’t want to look at the bright side (and I know I am not alone based on my conversations with some of you). I don’t want to focus on all the new things I can learn or the projects I can finally finish; I want to focus on surviving. Through this whole pandemic, my stance on discussions has been if it’s not happening within the next 48 hours, I am not interested; anything scheduled for the long term in terms of leaving our homes, vaccines, etc., it’s too far in the future for me to consider it right now, and sitting waiting for this “positive change” to happen for the next month or two will just put me in a stage of “hopeful limbo”,  and the fact is, I do not have the emotional bandwith to sit down and spend the next two months or so hoping and being positive, when my body and mind don’t feel the same way. We put enough pressure on ourselves as parents to do our absolute best and not waiver, but now is not the time for lofty goals and overachieving for fear of judgment. If there was any time for survival mode, it’s now.

Of course, there is a benefit to chronic optimism; I don’t deny that focusing on a brighter ending helps our anxiety about this whole thing. We all want to leave our homes, hug others (we all need the oxytocin released when you hug someone!), and what I would give to not have to have my weekly Instacart fight for a delivery slot and go to the supermarket myself instead. However, the reality is, we can’t do any of those things, and our minds and hearts know it, no matter how much we try to trick them to think otherwise. We cannot and should not go through our days ignoring the fact that we are struggling, and that the world is uncertain no matter how many bright spots we see on the road. We need to process and embrace our feelings as our reality. It is only by staying within our reality that we can truly enjoy joy when it finally arrives.

So no, I won’t be teaching my son about optimism right now. Maybe I’ll save the lesson to share with him when the world isn’t as uncertain, but not right now. What I will teach him is that its ok to look at life right now and be sad about it. I will teach him that its ok to struggle, and that while being optimistic is certainly a viable choice, and that we should always try to stay positive about our circumstances, it should never be a forced state of mind. Its ok to not want to be positive about something if your heart doesn’t want to be, and that embracing those feelings is the healthiest thing he can do.  


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