Positive Positivity

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on March 04, 2021 # Lifestyle

About a year ago, I wrote a piece about the then-much-discussed topic of dismissive or toxic positivity and how it applied to some of the false sentimentality heard by the disabled. Toxic positivity, to review, is a knee-jerk response to someone else’s trauma, with lines like “Everything happens for a reason,” “God only gives us what we can handle,” and “You’ll get over it!” This is shorthand for “I don’t want to deal with your pain, confusion, or despair.” The result is often the opposite of what the speaker had hoped; rather than cheer you up, you feel worse by being dismissed with a trite cliche. It’s the kind of conversation that stops the conversation.positivity sign

Then came the year 2020.

Toxic positivity spread like the virus. Donald Trump was a genius at it: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear.” That line bred cynicism, not hope, and in the depth of the pandemic and the racial protests and the food lines, every positive comment was subject to scrutiny, no matter the source. When someone on TV tried to cheer us up with lines like “We will get through this…together,” it sounded hollow and robotic. Even phrases like “Minnesota nice” seemed insane in the wake of the death of George Floyd. It was a bad year, to be upbeat.

At least short term, we needed something to shake us out of unremitting sadness and worry our collective glum countenance. Growing up in the Midwest post-World War II, the dominant attitude was can-do-ism. The message was beaten into our moldable young brains: “You can do anything you set your mind to.” My grandmother, born on a farm in Kansas, embodied this optimistic outlook. “That’s no hill for a stepper.” Her favorite poem, often recited at the dinner table, included these lines:

“When you wake up in the morning on a chill and cheerless day,

And feel inclined to grumble, pout, or frown.

Just glance into the mirror, you will quickly see,

It’s just the corners of your mouth turned down.”

As corny as that might sound to world-weary readers in 2021, it got the job done. It cheered us up.

The one television show of late that had the same effect on me, and many others is the Apple TV comedy “Ted Lasso.” If you are not already a “Ted head,” Ted Lasso is a Kansas football coach played by Jason Sudeikis who is hired to turn around the last-place English soccer team, without, unfortunately, knowing a damn thing about soccer. Ted’s homespun approach to life: kill with kindness. He is, in a word, nice. You are far away from the ironic cynicism of Tony Soprano, Jerry Seinfeld, or every clever line in “The Simpsons.” Ted isn’t phony nice, phony upbeat, phony optimistic. He means it. He oozes positivity. Positive positivity. Ted is a genuine straight arrow. He’s not winking at the audience.

New York Times critic James Poniewozik put it like this: “It’s as if, after years of viciousness and chest-thumping in public life, “Ted Lasso” intuited that there was an audience for a vision of Americanness that wasn’t ugly, an example of masculinity that wasn’t bellicose.”

I watch the show because of Ted, not the shopworn plotline of an underdog sports team gloriously victorious in the third act. Ted is perceived as a rube – called by his footballers “Ronald McDonald,” but he is anything but. There is a method to his hokiness. At one point, he quotes Walt Whitman to underscore his larger purpose: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

He puts a big sign over his locker room office door: “Believe.” He lectures the team, perennial losers, in pet sayings that would turn the stomach of the Larry David’s of the world. “You beatin’ yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.” Or: “I believe in hope. I believe in believe.”

Yeah, Ted is as corny as Kansas in August. He is challenged by deeply sad real-world events like his wife leaving him, but he muddles through knowing, in his heart, that most of our sadness is self-induced. Like my grandmother, he preaches can-do-ism, the human truth that steps one in any endeavor is to believe in yourself and look forward, not backward.

“You know what the happiest animal in the world is?” he asks his crew of ruffians. “It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10-second memory.”

2020? Don’t remember much about it.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.