I recently read a post on Facebook by a woman who was having a hard time getting motivated to run her business. She shared how she wanted to stay in bed, and by the time she got showered, ready, and engaged, it was time to pick up the kids.
Now, understand that this post was in a group specifically created to support business owners who are also mothers. That’s key.
Most of the comments were supportive, commiserating, offering words of solidarity as we all manage the shit show of a global pandemic, kids, and businesses, many of which are flailing as much as we are.
But one woman, who calls herself a “healer,” responded that she could not relate to this struggle because she “loves her life!” She then went on to speculate on the energy vibes of the woman’s house and suggested she clarify the air or some shit by calling on angels to wash the pandemic death vibe out of her spoiled habitat. I may be taking some liberties there with my summary.
My point is, it was condescending, holier-than-thou bullshit. “Toxic positivity” as many call it.
The small part of me wonders what kind of sociopath you have to be to see someone struggling in a very NORMAL WAY under the weight of extremely abnormal circumstances—namely, widespread global death at the hand of a novel virus—and all you can think to contribute are meaningless platitudes that do nothing but boost your own ego.
And then I wonder if people like that burn puppies or something. Like they walk around robotically smiling and telling everyone how much they love life and then on Sunday around midnight they walk into the cold dark night and harm small, fuzzy mammals. They scare me is what I’m saying. It is not normal.
I suppose a bigger part of me, if I really dig deep into myself where my Mama and James Baldwin have tried to teach me to be a decent human who sees a larger whole, feels empathy and sadness for people like that—because what a fucking quandary that must be.
If we’ve convinced ourselves that “loving life” translates into impenetrable positivity and unwavering enjoyment of all the things, we’d be walking around having to lie to ourselves ten to fifteen times a day. At least I would. Every time we lose patience, get annoyed, act like an asshole in one way or another, we’d have to turn away from the truth, deny it outright, and grab the closest sage bundle.
Exhausting. And confusing. Shouldn’t I have good-vibes-only’d my way out of this by now?
Oh, god, and the constant reconfiguring of ourselves to present Endless Joy Only. Who could live like that?
If we really believe that being a good, enlightened person means eternal sunshine, what do we do with the side of ourselves that gets on Facebook to shame a woman who’s struggling?
What do we do with the part of ourselves that is more interested in catering to our own ego’s need for superiority than offering a word of empathy and support for a person causing no harm and having a hard time?
And how can you say you “love life” while denying one of the most vital parts of it?
Pain, grief, and disillusionment have invariably led me to the greatest changes in my life. They are often signs that something is amiss, usually inside myself, and my job becomes to find a bit of balance again. I have to learn to live with loss. I have to learn to function through pain. And I have to, at some point, surrender to reality. Not that I like it or don’t do anything, but rather I have to accept that it IS before I can change it.
And some of it I can’t change at all, and I have to simply accept that the darkness IS a part of life. I mean, is grief not the logical outcome of deep love? You can’t have one without the other. If I love you, and I lose you, I grieve. And I will inevitably lose you.
IT IS REALLY FUCKED UP.
And what we face now seems to me a collective grieving, a collective squaring off with our own volatility, our own deep reliance on each other. We have seen the world shut down because one person in one place ate an animal with a disease. We have read accounts of loved ones dying alone in hospitals, an iPad propped up to Facetime eternal goodbyes. Maybe we have said those goodbyes ourselves. We have seen refrigerator trucks in streets as overflow morgues.
We have watched our children lose their senior years, their first years of college. We have watched our little ones sit in front of screens rather than go outside and run and be with their friends. Like some sort of dystopian sci-fi movie, we watch them act out on video what they used to live.
We have all lost holidays with our loved ones, parties and festivals and concerts we never knew we needed until now. We have lost a year of our aging parents’ lives.
We have been alone. We have been afraid, and we have been without the power to change it. We have been insecure. We have lost jobs. We have watched head-spinning conspiracy nonsense rise from the dark corners of brains we didn’t even know existed a few years ago. We have watched selfishness and greed rise to the top and we have seen great acts of compassion, comradery, and friendship insist on their place in all of it. We have watched a harmed earth try to hold us and we have been reminded of the way we refuse to work with her, love her—and we know we’ve only seen the beginning of what’s to come.
So yeah, MAYBE IT’S A LITTLE HARD TO GET OUT OF BED.
Maybe it’s hard to stand up and face our days as if it’s all as it was, or should be, as if the whole house of cards hasn’t fallen around us and we’re left wondering what it all means, how we fit in, where we go next, and, most importantly, what the fucking point is.
Fuck the “healers” who deny the truth of our existence, the darkness, the moments of loss and being lost, that teach us how to live in a new way, in new days, especially in a time like this, when it all depends on us changing, together, in an actual love of being alive.
I’ve never found peace in pretending. It isn’t sustainable. At some point the truth of me I’d like to forget rears its head and reminds me I’m just a standard human, ill-equipped for the weight of it all, and yet somehow, they say, made of stars.
For now I’ll stay in this paradox, the mother in bed, showering at 1pm, wondering again what to make for dinner, and if, in the end, it matters.
Speaking of good vibes, I’ve got a whole line-up of writing workshops happening in 2021:
Write Anyway in January (5 spots left)
A brand new workshop, “As You See It,” on personal essays & blog posts called (March)
Our 30-day writing intensive, Renegade Writers’ Group, in March
And finally, From Memory to Memoir in May
Email me to discuss installment payment plans.
AllisonTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 8:47
Damn. Nailed it again. Thank you for being the permission to wallow in my shit for a minute. I’m always trying to be all unicorns-farting-rainbows but sometimes let’s just get real and acknowledge that life can be a shit show too. Imma wallow in my shit for a minute and feel all the feels, and then put on my big girl pants and deal with it. Thank you for keeping it real. You’re a fucking rock star and you’re totally doing it right.
Anne HTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 8:47
Ohhhhh Janelle. I needed this one today. Thank you thank you thank you.
BriannaTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 8:54
Thank you for this Janelle. I own a yoga studio so you could say most people would think I’m in the literal business of “good vibes only.” But I have never espoused that mentality and shit is HARD this year. We can all use these reminders to not spread that toxic positivity bullshit. It doesn’t do anyone any good. Feeling it all is where it’s at.
Cherri PorterTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:22
Kate Bowler and Rebecca Solnit write about sloppy hope and everything happens bullshit and say very smart and interesting things about it. That’s it. I can’t remember what they wrote or where to find it.
Everything sucks balls. Whatever.
That’s where I’m at. Someone researched something somewhere, said smart things about it which comforted me for approximately two breaths in the nonlinear time loop, and then…. What was I talking about again. That’s not a question.
I sit in my chair, read genre fiction, and guilt-trip myself about all of those things I could/should be doing. I’ve been eating pringles and eggos, washing them down with root beer. Like a responsible, healthy, adult person.
What I’m saying is, fuck all.
I actually have a running google doc of things that can fuck right the hell off. I’m gonna add “healer” to that list.
What even have I written here. Not a question either. A question would suggest there is an answer. We aren’t living in a time of answers. People act like hope is an answer. It’s not. It’s the only question when we’re drowning.
I’m sure that makes sense somewhere.
My brain is like this every fucking day. Reading papers is a nightmare.
Again, making sense with words.
WayneTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:32
wayne maceykaTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:32
Yes. Thank you for keeping at it.
I pretty much don’t talk sometimes because I’ll start spewing about how the people need help and I’m minding my own business by finishing our basement. See. It’s about me.
Good news is, the sweet new storage shelves I just assembled will hold a LOT of canned food and bottled water.
Katie STuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:38
“There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
And I’m frightened by those who don’t see it”
~ The Avett Brother, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”
Katie STuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:39
AnneTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 9:41
Really need this one today. Thank you.
LauraTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 10:00
America is so obsessed with projecting positivity all the time! But shaming people who are having a hard time for not focusing solely on their feelings of joy or gratitude is a denial of a person’s emotional reality, and is not helpful. There is a way to offer encouragement and reasons for hope without glossing over someone’s suffering or expecting them to simply slap a smile over their problems for your own comfort.
Years ago, I read a great book on toxic positivity; Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Recommended reading for anyone having trouble understanding how “positivity” could ever be toxic or problematic.
AmyThursday, 3 December, 2020 at 20:16
It’s funny–I used to work with a Russian. She said that nobody smiled in their pictures because if you did, people thought you were stupid. That makes a lot of sense this year. We should make 2020 the year of non-smiling selfies.
Judith W.Monday, 15 February, 2021 at 12:50
My gawd I detest the word, “positivity,” whether used in coronavirus reports, suggesting something favorable, when the opposite is true, or, even in a well-meaning comment. False happiness. False smiles. Words are important. The bastardization of meaning, and even use of words – even “cloud” is not “cloud” but a computer thing.
Talk about not raising assholes? Men are raised to present in public as being A-OK, and the women who serve them, wait on them, give medical cater to them, and continue to be guilty of this sham. “Toxic positivity?” Call a lie, a “lie.” But put on a cheerful face because that is what counts, as with individuals suffering incredible pain, who never complain – oft cited in obituaries.
DierskiTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 10:19
Thank you for always saying what we are all thinking, Janelle.
I’ll be right there with you struggling to get out of bed, wondering how our lives will go on after this, scared at how different my son’s life will be from this endless year of homeschool, sad with recognizing that my parents aren’t getting any fucking younger, and how dismal the outlook still is for the entire world right now.
Honestly, the ‘healers’ spouting toxic positivity reminds me of when I was a teenager and older men would tell me to ‘just smile more,’ spouting some good ol’ toxic manliness. I don’t know if that analogy is quite right, but it popped in my head. It’s the continuation of people telling other people how they would like to see them, instead of seeing others exactly how they are in reality. Bullshit.
Live and let live, and let’s all just admit how fucking hard this is already, please. Thanks, Janelle!!!
christyTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 10:28
You mean the fact that I feel disgust and rage at my children, and then feel even more horrendous disgust rage and shame for myself for feeling that way, you mean this might have something to do with the pandemic and the shittiest year ever? Well. I’ll be damned.
Katie BTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 11:34
Wow. Here I thought I was the only person having these feelings.
Ruth DavisTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 10:47
Exactly the topic of Dax’s Armchair pod with Susan David this week…we need to recognise our feelings and see ourselves, but relentless positivity helps no-one at all. Here’s to just managing as best we can and showing up for each other…
Megan CanterburyTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 11:11
How I have missed this. Yearned for someone to tell the truth about the shit show this world has become for so many of us. I’m off all the social media in an attempt to stick my head in the sand…. But you cannot hide from that damn truth. Thank you for keeping me on course.
LorainTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 12:19
I crawled out of bed today at a little after noon, ate a sandwich with bacon I zapped in the microwave, and finally got around to checking email Jumping Jehoshaphat, yes! I’m so fucking tired of it all, and I’m devastatingly longing for everything at the same time. Thank you, Janette. You had me in your email at?! I can’t resist a well-placed interrobang.
DoniTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 20:09
Oof. Yes. What I’ve been caught up in lately is the duality of all my feelings. I’m feel an immense gratitude that my family is mostly healthy (physically, mentally, and financially). AND I’m disappointed, sad, angry, for all that we’ve given up in this pandemic.
My daughter had my first grandchild in late September. (Which I couldn’t attend as we both would’ve wanted). Her pregnancy couldn’t be normal given the circumstances, but she also suffered from complications and had a dicey emergency, traumatic delivery that didn’t allow her to meet her beautiful daughter until several hours later. She’s struggling with some PTSD, but feels “silly” for seeking therapy because she ended up with a perfect, healthy baby. Again – I’m validating that she can feel both. One doesn’t negate the other.
You can feel a lot of conflicting things that don’t cancel out the other. Life can be weirdly beautiful and fucked up at the same time.
LauraTuesday, 1 December, 2020 at 21:04
Huh. So I read this and my realization was that I was soldiering on ops normal – and it isn’t normal at all. I’m so used to most of things being shit that all this going on has just about registered as “normal”.
It really hadn’t changed
… And that is fucked up.
lindsayWednesday, 2 December, 2020 at 2:30
A-fucking-men. Especially when social media feeds tend to be filled with so much damn HOPE, that at the end of a mindless scroll, I can feel guilty and invalidated for my other feelings. Thank you.
Peggy MillerWednesday, 2 December, 2020 at 7:00
Pandemic death vibes is a good phrase. Also, we moved and sold our house this summer. It was a good thing, but to overcome the challenge of selling, my husband did sage smudge our old house to balance the vibes and get rid of a weird smell.
Erin GustafsonThursday, 3 December, 2020 at 4:19
Thank you so much for saying everything inside my head. All of this. If this year has taught me anything is that I can exist in the darkness and survive and still have moments of joy and magic. But always acknowledging both.
Mindful GardenerThursday, 3 December, 2020 at 18:26
On this theme check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. Boy does she nail it, which she wrote while dealing with breast cancer. Actually all her books are insightful and challenging of the cultural status quo in so many ways.
Fiona GeogheganMonday, 28 December, 2020 at 0:49
You said it Lady, You said it. Thank you.