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The Trouble With Toxic Pandemic Positivity

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Almost a year into a global pandemic, and with the news that wonderful vaccines are rolling out and people we love are starting to feel the benefit, there is much talk of a light at the end of a long and very dark tunnel. So I’ve been thinking a lot about positivity lately.

So many of us are longing for good news after a year of seemingly endless bad. This past month alone has been particularly grim, what with nasty weather, pitch-black nights and the continuation of lockdown. We’ve found ourselves in a new year after subjecting ourselves to the onslaught of “New year new start!” posts. Like masochistic social media Christian Greys, we’ve set ourselves up for all the inevitable pain with none of the pleasure.

Things are still hard and will likely be for some time yet, and while there is absolutely room for positivity, there’s also plenty of space to be left for caution.

My parents recently got vaccinated and it made me incredibly happy and overwhelmingly emotional. It felt like such a huge relief after spending so much time worrying about their safety and health. In a wider sense, it felt like things are truly changing for the better little by little. And they are! But within that excitement and relief is a nagging feeling that we’re still in it. There’s still so much to be done, so many people to be pumped full of the good stuff, so many masks still to be worn and so many Z-list celebrities still to argue with on the internet.

I’ve been shielding for the majority of the pandemic. Like so many people, that means the occasions I’ve seen those I love have been rarer than an underdone steak. I’ve been told many times that “it won’t be long now!” and to “stay positive!” and “you’ll get your jab soon!” etc. All of which is lovely and well-meaning, but my cynical mind knows that positivity isn’t going to speed the process up, or ensure my safety or that of those around me.

I often feel my discomfort at being pushed to “think positive” makes me a bad person — negative. I’m the wrong end of the battery. But my restraint is based on hard-worn experience.

With chronic illness and disability, we are often reminded of the importance of “thinking positively.” We shouldn’t focus on the negatives and myriad what-ifs involved in managing and treating our conditions, we should keep open minds, keep smiling, keep looking to the “success stories” for inspiration!

As pleasant an idea as this is, unfortunately, that train of thought often screeches to a halt at the first station, and reality leaves itself on the line.

Those of us who live with incurable illnesses, life-altering disabilities, or even terminal conditions know that positivity has its place, but that place is often one we arrive at for the sake of those around us. We’ll want to paint on a smile, talk only of the less upsetting elements of medical appointments, or play down the pain or trauma of surgeries and invasive procedures to spare those who care for us. We understand the pain our pain can bring others and can often feel a sense of responsibility not to compound that. This is often to our own detriment and something many of us have to continually work on.

The truth is, the truth often isn’t what people want to hear. When we feel a sense of foreboding or have a deep-seated knowledge that things won’t improve any time soon within our own personal health battles, it can be difficult to express that without sounding self-pitying or even fatalistic. When we are encouraged to ignore a glaring neon sign directing us towards a BAD THING, it doesn’t actually serve to help us work through said BAD THING in any productive or logical way. It merely allows us to push it behind a proverbial curtain while we speed-read inspirational Instagram quotes and mainline aloe vera.

This sort of enforced positivity and continuous narrative that it’ll all be all right if we just think it, is nonsensical and frankly as twee as me attempting to say “tree” post-wisdom-tooth removal. No one benefits from simply smiling through the pain. We benefit from doing all of it in beautiful technicolor moderation.

Be positive by all means, there is so much to look forward to! Make post-pandemic plans, think about cuddling your friends and family, revel in vaccinations; just please don’t give too much of a hard time to those who are not seeing the world as so full of unrelenting joy. Those of us who were ill pre-Covid will still be ill post-Covid, so the new world we’ll all enter at some point soon will still be a frightening one full of uncertainty for many of us. Perhaps even more so now after so long in isolation.

Be gentle with those who might not be as eager to think as positively. It doesn’t make them a party pooper, just perhaps more attuned to dealing with bad stuff.

Be patient with patients. The sun is setting later in the day. There is light — we’ll all bathe in it soon.

Getty image by Nuthawut Somsuk.

Originally published: February 25, 2021
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