When Positivity Is Selfish

I recently received an email from someone who was unhappy with my work.  It was a fascinating email, albeit one that I have received in many forms in the past.

In it, he described the horrible effect my work is having on the world, on the Jewish world, on the Jews I’m in touch with.  He detailed my low standards, my subpart commitment to my beliefs, and how he thinks I’m failing horrifically as a leader.

That wasn’t the fascinating part.  It was the way he said it.  So positively.  

“I would love to work with you, but unfortunately…”

“I wish you great luck as you find your way…”

“I’m sure you will see the error of your ways…”

Although I had received similarly “positively negative” emails before, this one struck a particular chord with me.  One I felt finally explained something that bothers me deeply, that I think the world is confused about.

It’s this: positivity is not a good thing.  Not inherently, at least.

So, someone can say horrible things in a positive way.  Someone can advocate for positivity while also destroying dreams.  Someone can be a “positive person” and contribute absolutely nothing to the world.

 

I’ve noticed something about many people who are overly-positive: they are inherently interested in maintaining the status quo.  Positivity, in its damaging form, is an attitude that celebrates the present.  And while that can be a good way of expressing things of true substance like gratitude, it is not a good tool for much else.

If we were to be completely positive all the time, we would never try to change things.  We would simply be satisfied with the way things are.  We would be so happy with the present that we would not want to change the future.

That is why, I believe, I receive so many “positively negative” communiques.  They aren’t actually being nice.  They are cloaking an attempt to stop me from changing their world in words that they think will convince me to stop.  They think they are being nice, when in reality they are simply trying to maintain their inner status quo.

 

The only people worth anything in this world are the ones who aren’t happy either with their own inner status quo or the world’s.

The Rebbe, one of the greatest leaders of all time, said that most of us are “Satisfied spiritually and unsatisfied physically,” and that we should instead be “Unsatisfied spiritually and satisfied physically.”

That requires a certain level of unhappiness.  A certain lack of positivity.  A willingness to see the darkness around us.  And to delve right in.

There is an entire industry around encouraging people to be “happy.”  The assumption is that happiness has value in and of itself.

However study after study has shown that happiness does not lead to true inner fulfillment and even mental health.  Instead, it is meaning that provides us with true fulfillment.

In a study by Stanford on the subject, it claims:

One central idea behind this investigation is that happiness is about the present whereas meaning is about linking events across time, thus integrating past, present, and future. Meaning links experiences and events across time, whereas happiness is mostly in the moment and therefore largely independent of other moments.

The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy.

Finding meaning in life does not mean we should be happy.  Happiness is an outgrowth of working to change our inner and outer lives to reflect the meaning we are pursuing in life.

In other words, people who are focusing on maintaining positivity are simply people who are happy, and who want to stay happy.  Positivity, for such people, is the method by which they attempt to maintain a constant state of happiness.  Those of us who are disrupting that happiness (with the goal of reaching meaning) are then a threat to their happiness, and are thus labeled as dangerous.

In other words, positivity with the goal of maintaining happiness (inner or communal) is selfish.  Our real goal should be meaning.  Positivity is sometimes a tool to arrive there, but not always.

 

The worst part about positivity as a tool to maintain the status quo is that it damages those who are trying to attempt to find meaning.  Those who are trying to integrate past, present, and future in order to create a more beautiful, more meaningful life.

It is this kind of positivity that leads to people who fight sexual abuse in their communities to be demonized.  It is what leads to innovative ideas being ignored by the “establishment.”  It is what leads to a stasis in a person’s spiritual life.

Because inevitably, meaning leads to dredging up negativity.  It leads to pointing out what is wrong in order to rectify it and elevate it to a place of goodness.  As Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychologist who pioneered the concept of meaning replacing happiness, put it:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Why are those who search for meaning in the darkness demonized?  Because those who obsess over positivity and happiness are in a constant state of denial: constantly trying to convince themselves that life is good, life is good, life is good.  And when someone points out that life is good, but imperfect, and in constant need of reevaluation, that someone is then seen by the positivity-obsessed with having created the evil that is being pointed out.

Why else would people who have been raped be so constantly accused of lying when there is so much statistical evidence that rape is horrifically underreported?

Because people don’t want to believe we live in a world where rape is a reality.  It is so horrific that even thinking about it makes us unhappy.  So much easier to deny its existence than to live in a world where we aren’t just responsible for acknowledging its widespread reality but for helping change that reality.

 

This is ultimately what those who only want positivity in their lives actually want: to avoid responsibility.

The Stanford study goes on to say that:

Two key items asked people to rate whether they were givers or takers. Being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, while being a taker was negatively related to it. Meaning is thus about being a giver rather than a taker. With happiness, the correlation trends were in the opposite direction.

If all we want is for the world to be a positive, happy place, we turn into nothing more than animals, eating up the goodness of the world without acknowledging the mountains of human effort that it took for any of that goodness to even exist.

 

So, next time you’re unhappy, don’t worry.  Think about what your responsibility to the world is, and wonder if you are achieving it.  And if anyone accuses you of not being positive enough, you’ll know they’re just being a taker, and they are trying to use you for their own selfish ends.

You’re better than that.  So are we all.  That is what it means to be human.

  • Jeremy McCandlish

    meaning ~~ truth? If it is about making the whole whole, truth seems the better word..what’s the difference?

  • Tiiffy

    This piece reminded me of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s experiences in preparation for going into space: astronauts prepared for every single terrible situation. I happen to have his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth right beside me; “They visualize defeat, not victory– and this builds confidence. They embrace the power of negative thinking– and yet the outcomes, both professionally and personally, are resoundingly positive.”

    I ought to get to reading that book, since I identify myself as a positive person, but now I’m noticing disappointment negatively affecting me more than anything else.

    • Rebecca K.

      It reminds me of something you do in CBT therapy. They have you imagine just what would happen if the “worst thing” happened. You’re supposed to picture every detail, as vividly as possible. And then you realize: you could survive that.

      It’s pretty scary, but freeing, too.

  • Rebecca K.

    I’ve gotten a few of those super-positive emails from editors, too.

    I think they are just rubbish and come from a fake moral high ground.

    If they really wanted to help you, they would tell you straight up: this is just not a good match. We’re not on the same wavelength here. Our editorial perspective is not aligned with your article.

    Or: We dislike your piece/disagree with your sentiments.

    Or: We liked XYZ. However, we have several problems with the piece. These are (lists them so that if you want to improve your writing, in case some of the problems are actually with writing skill, you will have feedback).

    I hate it when an editor sounds all judgy-judgy. “Due to the high volume of submissions we receive, we can afford to be highly selective, and you just don’t measure up,” is bad enough. (I’ve actually received similar wording from at least 2, if not more, publishing venues.) That’s an attack on your writing. But when it’s “we don’t agree with you and you’ll see we’re right some day,” rather than “we disagree here,” it’s clear you’re being judged on your spiritual character.

    That’s not the role of an editor. That’s the role of a rebbe, mashpia, primary teacher.

    • Fascinating. I never thought of it in that context, but I would imagine the professional environment would also make such misthinking quite common too.

  • Rivki Silver

    This is something that I have long struggled with, as I had been firmly in the “only say positive things about Judaism in the public sphere” camp for such a long, long time. It’s only been in the past few years, when I started writing about more personal struggles, like with birth control, and with my conversion stuff, that I realized the importance of shining light on the more difficult topics that don’t get discussed, and the problematic aspects of pretending that everything is peachy all the time.

    At the same time, I think that every time we write something about the frum world that is critical, that is yearning for change, we have a responsibility to be very honest with ourselves about our own intentions. I know that I have to make sure that I am writing from a place of real desire to help other people who are dealing with similar issues. It’s crucial for me that I feel that any delving into negativity is ultimately for a positive purpose. Not just writing about the darkness for the sake of not being selfishly positive, you know what I mean?

    And for the people who are so bent on being positive, I feel for them. I’ve been there. I think, most of the time, their heart are in the right place. And I think it’s only through love and connection (and davening, of course, I always forget that part) that they will come to understand why it’s important to do what we do.

    • “It’s crucial for me that I feel that any delving into negativity is ultimately for a positive purpose. Not just writing about the darkness for the sake of not being selfishly positive, you know what I mean?”

      100%. Being negative for the sake of negativity is no different than being positive for the sake of positivity. Both are inherently not meaningful.

      The semantics in this piece are a bit tough, but I would argue that we’re not so much looking for the positive in the negative as much as the meaning in the difficulty. In other words, positivity doesn’t always have to be the result, does it? Is there really “positivity” in stuff like the Holocaust? No, but we can find meaning and light (which was the goal of my post about the new “Holocaust Narrative”).

      But finding purpose, meaning, understanding, and inspiration are much more powerful than “positivity” in my opinion. They can change and uplift us. Finding the “positivity” as I define it in this post, IMO, is really just an attempt to return to happiness. I see no need for that except for personal comfort.

      • Rivki Silver

        Yes. The meaning in the difficulty. What I had been doing for years was equating difficulty with negativity. Not just any difficult, but any difficulty I had with something in Judaism.

        Everyone can openly admit that the Holocaust was difficult (understatement, obviously), but not everyone can openly admit that asking a sheilah about birth control is difficult, or that the way conversion is handled is difficult, or that the way the community deals with abuse (or doesn’t deal) is difficult.

        And this is the difference, I think. For some people, discussing difficulties that are specific to Orthodoxy is a form of lashon hara, or motzei shem ra, or just airing dirty laundry where it doesn’t need to be aired, or providing fodder for the haters. It’s like if we discuss these challenges, it puts all of the sanctity of Judaism on the line, and that freaks people out. It freaked me out.

        That’s more of what I meant. If I’m going to be discussing something about Judaism that I struggle with, I want to be 1000% sure that I’m doing it for the reasons you listed, to find purpose, meaning, understanding and inspiration. Not just because I know that it will be popular. Because discussing struggle is usually more popular. Right? Maybe I’m wrong there.

  • Lloyd David Aquino

    You’ve really put into focus a discomfort I’ve had with the positivity-obsessed. And it makes me reevaluate the language of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a dangerous/damaging ethos.

  • Count chocula

    These people are such fcking assholes. They are the psycho women screaming at the hitler parades. Everything about them is fake except their self interest.