When you've had enough of people telling you, "Just be positive!"

Attitude About Platitudes

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
      –Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

These last few weeks, I’ve noticed an onslaught of judgment on social media where cancer patients, including those who are metastatic, have been slammed for being too negative. I mean down and dirty. Personally, I’m tired of the positivity puppets.

How do you stay upbeat when the sword of Damocles hangs overhead?

How do you not grimace with cancer in your face so close you smell its putrid breath?

How do you stumble through each day in a body whose parts don’t work the way they should, the way they once had, and not feel frustration?

This requires honest grieving. To keep it in allows it to build like a pressure cooker until you explode, or quietly fester and corrode, not unlike cancer. And yet it’s so easy to let it out. Really it is.

But not too loudly. Shhhhh! Because if you’re too loud, some people might say you’re:

Negative

Ungrateful

Morose

And you’re bumming them out!
just-be-positive

To know cancer is to plunge deep into the dark night of the soul. While it would be nice to go through each day pumped full of happy juice, it’s not reality. We’re not two-dimensional cartoon characters. Remember the Looney Toon characters who would get run over by a truck or fall from a cliff? They’d be flattened like pancakes, then bounce back to normal in seconds. It sometimes feels as if that’s what’s being demanded when people say, “Just be positive!”

Many years ago, I met a young mother who told me she disciplined her children when they weren’t happy because the Bible commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I don’t know how her kids turned out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re fucked up.

Speaking of which, cancer has an uncanny way of coaxing trash vocabulary out of even the most devout. Nothing like a barrage of expletives to vomit out that anger. Yes, I have a name for it: verbal vomit. We try not to unload it where it doesn’t belong, try to make a beeline to the toilet, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

If the Attitude Police happen to stop by, they unload their arsenal of platitudes. Look closely and you’ll see they’re nothing more than pacifiers for adults.

Sometimes platitudes masquerade as spirituality. Believe! Visualize! Manifest! and health and wealth are yours! 

That’s all good and fine, but what if you’re diseased and your body fails you? Does that mean you failed your body? Because the implication is we’ve failed on some important level.

It’s my opinion that pop spirituality has failed the cancer community by spoon-feeding simplistic, formulaic solutions to deeply complex and painful situations. I am not without faith, but I believe these messages are to religion what pink is to cancer. They appeal to the desperation of the crowd, offering hope without substance.

You can eat fast food from the In-and-Out Burger drive-through or you can eat a healthful meal that takes time and preparation. The hard stuff has a particularly distasteful but effective way of stripping away the superfluous and getting down to what is real. Depth of insight doesn’t come without going through stuff. We don’t ask for it. I’m tired too, but I can’t stomach junk food.

The dance from sorrow to joy or anger to acceptance is not a quick-fix event fueled by formula. It’s an ongoing deeply personal process. It’s not a linear process either. It bounces artfully all over the place at any given time and isn’t easily contained within the lines.

I find that people who spout platitudes often haven’t known the depths of suffering or they’re too entrenched in dogma. The challenge to our long-held beliefs is a threat to our foundation. Some keep at it while questioning what they’re doing wrong, but it’s an ideal opportunity to rediscover your truth and leave the fluff behind.

So why do we get negative?

Because there are no good answers.

Because people keep dying.

Because others survive but don’t thrive.

This makes us feel vulnerable and helpless.

Sometimes I’ll read someone’s blog and think: Oh, so-and-so just needed to vomit… Feel better, dear?

No one likes being the target of projectile anger. Who can blame them? But they can get out of the line of fire. No need to read the post if it doesn’t give the buzz of inspiration they hoped to find. The exit is just a click away. Go and do something else. Anything except fighting back with comments about a person’s negative attitude.

You might think this is weird, but I have more issues with platitudes than with cancer. Okay, not exactly, but with cancer, you know where you stand. It doesn’t pretend to like you, to look out for your best interest or be your better half. It’s upfront. The delivery of platitudes, on the other hand, often comes dressed in outerwear of patronizing sweetness, condescending concern or plain shallowness.

The next time you see a platitude, shoot it.

Or maybe not. I’m definitely against gun violence, even if it’s a worthless platitude.

Why not go snarky? When someone says, “Just be positive,” stare back wide-eyed and ask, Why? I’ve done this. It’s a mouth stopper. They don’t actually know why. They give you a pacifier? You give one right back.

But if you’re in no mood for messing around and just want to call a spade a spade, you might shout

Fuck that shit!

I usually express myself more delicately on a public forum, but you know what? That felt good. I recommend it. Shout it in the privacy of your home. Sing it in your car or the shower. Leave it as a comment on this post. Consider my comment section to be your very own vomitorium. Bring your own words or use mine. It’s a judgment-free zone. This is your lucky day. When was the last time someone offered you that?

Comments

  1. FUCK THAT SHIT!!!!! Indeed. Love this so much. xx

  2. Needs to be said-people like the status quo they don’t like being shaken up by different viewpoint.
    Having to look at things differently might mean they could be wrong and might have to change.

  3. And change might be uncomfortable or even hurt.

  4. Platitudes keep people from acknowledging their feelings–or yours. No wonder they substitute for real conversation! My most hated favorite is “You just have to believe that it’s gone.” Really????

  5. FUCK CANCER , SCREW FEEL GOOD SAYINGS! and fuck it to those who think you cant have a bad day or two or three or four. its my life its now or never, when i feel good its good when i dont its a bad day. BTW I enjoyed your post keeping it real

  6. Profanity only begins to touch the anger, but it sure helps express it better than non-profanity

    • Linda, I agree. It’s like letting out a small leak of air from a huge balloon, but how frustrated I felt reading those comments from people trying to put a plug in the mouths of people expressing pain. Thank you for reading. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. This post right here…is awesome! Thank you for writing about this and for being so open/honest about it. I LOVE Looney Tunes and I think this is an excellent analogy. People do expect us to be like a Looney Tunes character, yes! It is a constant struggle to the point when it becomes difficult to keep the relationship because I can’t pretend. The separation is real and I am starting to experience this with a few people. I still have some friends that allow me to explode but I often wonder, for how long?

    And I love your suggestion to ask the question “why?” when people tell us to stay positive. I will try this.

    I am going to share a recent quote by Tim Lawrence: “Platitude — a mechanism of control, avoidance and condescension typically offered to someone with great pain, adversity, or in the wake of tragedy. Generally packaged in a veil of flowery language, comprised entirely of bullshit.” To me this is a spot on definition.

    • Love that definition!

    • Rebecca, I LOVE Tim Lawrence and that definition is perfect. Thanks for sharing it. As for the gap between you and some friends, I think this is fairly common. In fact, isolation from some people or in general is another one of those universal themes cancer people find themselves dealing with. Definitely a topic I plan to write about.

  8. Great post. Thank you for providing a spew bucket comments section too. FUCKING CANCER ITS SHIT SHIT SHIT!!!

  9. Fuck cancer and all it takes away from you.. Its the fucking pits!!!!

  10. Still chuckling hours after reading “positivity puppets.” Perfect.

  11. I’m always so happy for people when the find “the gift” in their disease. I’m amazed by how they do it. I’m not one of those people and I’ve hated the fact that I’m supposed to be grateful or positive for having powered through. It’s not fair! So, I’m going to take your advice and shout “FUCK THAT SHIT!!!!!”

    • Carrie, it seems everyone’s path is so unique to their own selves. I too am happy for those who find the gift. I never discount their experience just because it’s not mine. Yes, I’ve grown as a result of what I went through, but I paid a big price that in no way made my life better. Thanks for singing Fuck That Shit! with me. The duet felt good.

  12. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve got prostate cancer and been treated with radiation therapy. There seems to be a feeling that a man with prostate cancer has nothing more than a “man cold”. Suck it up buddy. Grow a pair. It can’t be all that bad! Well Fuck You! I’ve had an ultrasound probe shoved up my ass, 22 needles inserted into my groin, 86 radioactive seeds left behind, been catheterized, had some of the worst side effects you can have from this treatment, been up to the bathroom 5-10 times per night, know where every public washroom in the city is located, and someone implies that it’s nothing. I don’t want you to try and make me feel better. I just want you to listen. Thanks for letting me vent. ☺

    • Nelson, you have been heard. I’m honored that you’d vent on my page. And thank you for educating us about what prostate cancer is really like. “Man cold” indeed! I can see those with prostate cancer put up with similar shit as the breast cancer community.

  13. Fuck that shit, thanks that did feel good .

  14. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Eileen,
    Well, I’m pretty sure you know my thoughts on the mindless platitudes too often doled out in Cancer Land. And I did give my book the title I gave it basically because I am so darn weary of some of them… So yes, fuck that shit. Cancer has certainly loosened my tongue a bit. Thanks for the post. It’s a good one. Again. xx

    • Nancy, yes, your thoughts about platitudes are no surprise at this point. 🙂 Thanks for sharing the post on social media and all of that you do for those in cancer land.

  15. FUCK THAT SHIT, indeed! People who always provide empty platitudes are empty people indeed. Those who have been screwed by cancer have every right to feel negative.

  16. Has anyone else experience this – that the highest compliment paid by one cancer survivor to another is “You’re so positive!” I hate this. I think it forces those of us still processing our forever-changed reality to silence our pain, our grief, our anger. And without doing that we can’t even begin to heal. It also turns cancer into a ‘positivity contest.’ It’s wonderful for those who truly feel positive and uplifted by cancer to feel that way but it seems thoughtless of them (and the world) to assume that’s the desired paradigm and that the rest of us are just some wet blankets, wallowing in our self-pity.

    Thanks so much, Eileen, for speaking out – and Nancy, too, for your excellent book. The title alone is a gift!

    • Julia, I love how you expressed it, that they “silence our pain, our grief, our anger.” It’s maddening, isn’t it? This topic may be my greatest pet peeve in Cancerland. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It feels good know we’re not alone.

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