Barbara Ehrenreich and Positive Thinking

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I wanted to share this interview with Jon Stewart and Barbara Ehrenreich, whose new book “Bright-Sided” discusses the dark side of positive thinking: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-14-2009/barbara-ehrenreich

Many times, when you are coping with an unexpected disappointment or particularly challenging time in your life (like cancer), people (even people you love) try to help you feel better by suggesting you just “think positive” and “don’t dwell on the negative.” I talk about this in Chapter Five of my book, Recipe For Lemonade.

I can’t tell you how annoying this is for someone going through cancer.

Now, there is a difference between a heartfelt, “It won’t always be like this; hang in there,” (which I love) and a somewhat self-righteous, The Secret/Law Of Attraction-motivated attitude that implies a person can bring misfortune on themselves deliberately through a combination of their thoughts and the science (or magic) of quantum physics.

I myself have been buoyed by hugs, e-mails with supportive, encouraging messages, and belly laughs brought on by joking coworkers. Whether these things have changed my white blood cell counts remains to be seen, but I do know that they have given me a reason to get up in the morning – something to keep living for – which is very motivating when you’re fighting for your life. To put it frankly, these things can be the difference between wanting to live and wanting to die. What they cannot do, however, is cure cancer.

We don’t want to believe this, of course. We want saving someone’s life to be as simple as the power of prayer. We don’t want to believe that sometimes, people die and there is nothing you can do to stop it. That’s a terrible world to live in, isn’t it? A world where someone you love, no matter how much you love them, or how much they love you, can be beaten by a lack of T-cells. And yet, this is the world we live in, and no amount of happy thoughts can change it. Why is it we can believe positive thinking can cure cancer, but it can’t cure AIDS? Why do scores of people bash chemotherapy when it has saved millions of lives? I know it’s not perfect, but it’s ALL WE’VE GOT. If you have a better solution, for God’s sake, get some medical training and go prove it at the Mayo Clinic, because we could certainly use an alternative. But don’t sit there when you haven’t had a doctor tell you that you could die if you don’t do what they say, and then suggest I meditate on rainbows to shrink my tumor.

When people I love tell me not to be so negative (i.e., realistic) about cancer and the ramifications of having had it, I wish that, for just a moment, they could be in my shoes. That, for just a moment, they could feel the fainting heart and nauseous stomach that comes with a cancer diagnosis. The sinking feeling that accompanies the realization that the life you thought lay before you – the one you were working towards, hanging in there for, and getting up in the morning for – has been utterly wiped out, like Nagasaki, in a split second. I wish they could know what it feels like to go through week after week of treatment – each chemo drip reaffirming the unavailability and inaccessibility of that future – and know how hard it is to keep getting up in the morning, despite your uncertainty about the future. But mostly, I wish they could feel the way I feel when someone suggests in the face of all this that staying positive can not only cure cancer, but keep it away. Are you fucking kidding me? I want to say. You do four rounds of AC and twelve rounds of Taxol and tell me how to stay positive when I look like Uncle Fester and my future looks like Hiroshima (circa 1946). It is taking everything I have in me just to keep waking up in the morning, I want to say.

Now, all that being said, there is a way to come out of cancer without hating your life and the people who have loved you through it.

The first thing you must do is recognize that there is a pro and a con to nearly everything. Sometimes, the only pro is, “this will not last forever,” and that is what you must hang onto if you want to make it to the other side of disaster. Sometimes, the cons build up so much that all you can do is curl up in a ball and cry. When this happens, cry. Cry, cry, cry. Cry till your eyes are swollen shut. Stay away from drugs, alcohol, and anything else that’s self-destructive, and curl up in bed until you fall asleep. When you wake up, that crappy day will be over and done and a new one will have started. When you get out of bed, on this new day, don’t think of it as one more crappy day to get through – think of it as one day closer to the end of a crappy week, a crappy month, a crappy year. It won’t stay crappy forever – sooner or later, things WILL get better. Your job is to make it to the end of the crap. Trust me, it will come.

Whenever the crap breaks, take a breath. Entertain the possibility that, even if this amazing life you were working so hard for and imagining every day is not to be, that there might be some alternate, happier (or just-as-happy) future available to you now. This is all you have to do – drive the wedge into your crap-centric thinking – to jump the track. Find the things in your life you can be content with, even happy about, and you will feel the crushing despair of impossibility lift, if only slightly.

This is the path to rebuilding optimism – not faking it till you make it, not pasting on a smile when you feel like giving up, but seeking out the reasons to keep living, keep hoping, keep dreaming. Giving yourself permission to imagine new happinesses and forgiving yourself for having a bad day, or a bad month, or a bad year. We only blame ourselves for misery because we don’t want to live in a world where anyone and anything can fall apart, at any time, for no good reason. We have to believe that people bring it on themselves, otherwise we’re all vulnerable. When someone tells you to “stay positive” instead of worrying about a recurrence, they’re either afraid of their own mortality, or grasping at straws because they don’t want to imagine a world without you. Chances are, they have no idea what you’re going through, so unless they’re being a pushy jerk, cut them some slack.

Especially if they bought you a pink bear.

Go Go Speed Racer!

Friday, February 26, 2010

“[It] felt as though he had his hand inside my chest… and he was trying to crush everything in my life that mattered to me.”

“You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!”

“As the cars take to the field, you can feel the anticipation mounting in the audience. Something is different. There’s an electricity in the air… the presence of Speed Racer has completely changed the equation.”

“It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us.”

- Speed Racer (2008)

My favorite song as of late (replacing, yes, even DJ Earworm’s “United States of Pop”) is the theme song to Speed Racer. Whenever I hear it, the beat brings to mind Bangkok University Cheerleading Team-Level acrobatics and the final Grand Prix race scene in the movie, where Speed closes his eyes, finds his center, and, in finding it, rejoins the race and wins. The song gets my heart pumping and makes me feel like shifting into high gear. When it plays, I am suddenly a rocket, shooting for the sky. Amazing what a 3 1/2-minute piece of music can do.

The Olympics have been on my mind, understandably. Some people think competition is about beating other people – coming in first. At the Olympic level, though, where the difference between first and second can be three hundredths of a second, most of the competitors have already come in first – first in their class, first in their region, first in their country. When you are ALL the fastest, the competition becomes about who can, in one moment, bring the best of themselves to the table. Taking the gold becomes all about who wants it most, who has the most heart, who can look into themselves and find the champion that they have been working to be.

What I really love about competition, though, is the underdog – the Venus and Serena Williamses. The ones who come onto the scene and kick the crap – not out of their opponents, but out of our expectations. The ones who have been waiting for this moment to come into their greatness and shatter ceilings and records and boundaries. They are the ones that make you want to shout, “GO! GO! GO!” The ones who will let no one come between them and their dreams.

Here’s to being unstoppable!

 

Of MacQueen and Mullins

Friday, February 12, 2010

The tragic suicide of Alexander McQueen, on the eve of his mother’s funeral, has surprised and shocked his family and friends. What breaks my heart even more is the difference between McQueen and one of his most famous models: Aimee Mullins, whose TED talks have made be both laugh and cry.

When we lose something in life, we sometimes convince ourselves that we cannot be happy without it, that life will simply not get any better. It doesn’t matter if it is our breasts, our mothers, our homes, or our jobs. We convince ourselves that without this, we will live a lesser life, a sadder life. A life, some think, that is just not worth living at all.

It is this refusal to belief in a future that could be worth looking forward to takes lives, as sure as random acts of violence.

Aimee Mullins, a double amputee at age one, is a world-class athlete, model, actress, and motivational speaker. She was in one of MacQueen’s shows, famously wearing a pair of intricately carved wooden prosthetic legs that everyone thought were wooden boots. In her first TED talk, she detailed the story of her climb from beginner athlete to Olympic competitor in 15 months. Despite (or maybe because of ) her challenges, Aimee is funny and resilient, and has an amazing ability to see the possibility in things where other people see only dead ends. “A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore,” she said in 2009, “It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space….so that people society once considered to be ‘dis-abled’ can now become the architects of their own identities and continue to change those identities.”

What is it that Aimee Mullins can do, that MacQueen couldn’t? What is it that I can do that my own mother, who took her life following her mother’s death, couldn’t? It can’t just be that one of us is more resilient, that one of us can move on. It must have something to do with imagination, with this ability to let go of one story we’ve been telling ourselves and create a new story, with a different ending.

I think, it is not the things, the people, the jobs we lose that break our hearts, but the future that we imagine is impossible without them, that is so hard to get over. It’s not as simple as, “If I have a mastectomy, I’ll never have cleavage again.” It’s about the children you’ll never breastfeed, isn’t it? We’ve taken something as basic as an appendage, a lump of skin, and turned it into something so much harder to lose: motherhood. Can I be a mother without breasts? Can Aimee Mullins be a runner without legs? Of course. Of course.

Perhaps what saves lives is something you say to yourself, when the world you were supposed to be heir to is turning to dust in your hands: You can go on. You can be happy again. It’s possible.

To High Street and Back Again

Friday, February 5, 2010

I’ve started running again.

Remember how I said the world teaches you something about yourself every day? Yesterday, my run taught me a few things, so I thought I’d share.

First, I haven’t run in weeks. I’d been doing the Avon and Komen Walks and was kind of giving myself a break, but since I’m training for the Napa Triathlon (May) and the NYC Marathon (November), I thought I’d better start running again. Thanks to an AWESOME song from DJ Earworm, I cranked up my iPhone and hit the road with a spring in my step.

About a mile and a half into my run, I looked up to see what I thought was a chain link fence across my path, just as I was trying to decide if I was going for a “short” (30-45 minutes) run or a “long” (> 1 hour) run. “Aw, man,” I whined… only to see that my path wasn’t actually blocked off; there was a new fence but it didn’t even come close to blocking me. There I go again, I thought. Seeing obstacles that aren’t there. I chuckled and thought, how often do we make up roadblocks in our head? How many times would we see a clear path before us, if we only took a second look? Lucky for me, I kept moving.

Next, I told myself I was going to run up every hill I could. I run/walk, running for 3-4 minutes, then taking a 1-2 minute walk break. I usually walk the hills, but yesterday, I felt different. The music I was listening to gave me energy, and it was beautiful outside. I felt strong, and proud of myself for getting up early to workout.

There is one stretch of my route that always makes me want to sprint – it’s long and straight, and right in the middle of two hills. When I got to it today, a remix of The Fray’s “You Found Me” came on, and when I heard the line, I found God, which is in my favorite DJ Earworm song, I suddenly choked up. I thought of all the times, before my battle with cancer, that I said the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, that I asked God to make me a channel of His peace, and how cancer was a kind of an answer to a prayer, but not the answer I wanted. The words of the song, as my feet hit the pavement over and over, as my heart beat harder and harder, both hurt me and strengthened me, making me think about how far I’ve come, how I’m not in a hospital today getting my gallbladder taken out or having a bone marrow transplant, how I was running, running for Godssakes! As the song finished, I hit the bottom of the hill, and there, sitting on the edge of the trail, was a black cat, looking at me.

Now, I’m not superstitious, but as I ran by it, I was so exhilarated – by the run, by the song – that I said, “I DARE you! I DARE you!” The cat, of course, just looked at me like I was nuts. What can I say? In that moment, I felt invincible.

I ran/walked ten miles yesterday, in about an hour and fifty minutes – an eleven-minute mile. Pretty frickin’ awesome, considering I could barely run/walk two miles in June, at 16 minutes a mile. I guess it shows what you can do, with the right music and the right motivation.