Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Accentuate the Positive

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A few years ago, there was this really terrible movie called Drop Dead Gorgeous, about a teen-aged beauty pageant in a small town in Wisconsin.  It had Kirstie Alley in it, and Kirsten Dunst, and a number of other people you’d recognize on sight if not by name–including Amy Adams in what must have been one of her first major film roles; if you’d told me she was going on from that to a solid career, I’d have been astonished.

I don’t like this movie very much.  I like a lot of really bad movies–Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion comes to mind–and I  have nothing in principle against hatchett jobs.  I just want my hatchett jobs to be within screaming distance of accurate, and this was not.

What it was was a two hour (or somewhat less) venture into making fun of the Midwest, and in just the way you’d expect–look at all the stupid shallo religious people!

Okay, I did sort of like the Lutheran Ladies Gun Club.  But that’s an aside.

The thing is that, dislike this movie or not, I own a copy, and I watch it on ocasion, in spite of the muttering under my breath about how they got it wrong.  I own it because they got something absolutely right, and that’s what’s wrong with the entire Motiviational Aspirational  Think  Positive mantra of whole whacking segments of American society.

The movie is filmed as if it was raw interview footage for a documentary about thie small town pageant, and at one point–one of my favorite points–a thickset, masculine-looking farm girl on a tractor gives a vigorous speech about how, even though most people would think she couldn’t win a beauty contest, she’s going to do it, because, as  Tony Robbins says, the “only thing that make me a loser is me.”

And then the tractor blows up and kills her.

Later on, there’s a scene in the hospital room of last year’s pageant winner, who is close to killing herself with anorexia nervosa, graced by a perky blonde candy striper who talks as if she’s addressing mentally disabled two year olds (turn those frown lines upside down!), done so beautifully that you want to reach through the screen and ring her neck.

I do know, of course, that a lot of this is just reaction formation–the way people behave when they know they don’t have any control over their lives, and it scares them.

And I know that some of it is just sensible policy–if you go into something believing it’s impossible, you won’t do it.  If you go in convinced you’re going to win, you may give yourself a psychological edge that gets you where you want to go.

But a fair amount of it seems to be a kind of modern mental illness, born of the illusion of control that is so much a part of being a Western person in the twenty-first century.

After all, compared to the Middle Ages, or even the period of the American Civil War, we can control a lot of things.  Dying young, as I’ve noted before on this blog, is now anomaly.  My children had only ever heard of polio beecause we had reissued copies of Superman comics from the Thirties.

I think this may be where our very odd legal culture comes from–that legal culture where not only do people sue over things that would have been considered idiotic even in the Fifties, but juries award them huge packets of money when they do.

I think a lot of people, although they don’t understand how “xcience” can fix things, do think it fixes things, everything–that there is no material barrier to everything going right, so that when something goes wrong, it must be either malice or negligance.

But what really gets to me about all this is how much of it is now being channeled as a religious message. 

We preach Christ and Him Crucified, St. Paul said, but Joel Osteen preaches Christ as a sort of all-encompassing sugar daddy.  God–he actually rarely says Christ; it’s almost always just God–wants you to be happy and  prosperous. 

We’re coming to another of those places where I really have no idea how to solve the problem I’ve identified.   Fatalism doesn’t seem to me to be a very good idea, and there’s nothing I’d like less than to  adopt that sort of Western European/strangely adolescent attitude of “oh, yes, it’s all so terrible and boring.”

There’s got to be a middle ground  in here somewhere.

Written by janeh

September 6th, 2009 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Accentuate the Positive'

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  1. Draft them all. Or, make them learn history. Poker might do in a pinch.

    OK, I’m joking, but only about half. The cure for the beliefs that positive thinking will take a 36″ desk through a 32″ doorway and that failure equals fault is, in fact, failure. If you live long enough, you’ll reach that moment at which “giving it all you’ve got” only means a more devastating outcome.

    We’ve had, as a country, an unusually good run in recent years, and the result, as Niven and Pournelle put it, is that we think all problems have solutions. It’s a belief time will cure.

    But military service, which by its nature demands more than can be had, will cure it in the short term. You learn both the importance of maximum effort–and that sometimes maximum effort will just add to the butcher’s bill.
    The detailed study of history will also do this, as you watch “the terrible “if”s accumulate.” Bad thngs happen, and often it’s no one’s fault in particular. And, in its own way, so will poker. Eventually, the student of the game will find the limits of backing a bad hand. It’s a form of reality therapy–and can also be a wonderful “teaching moment” on substance abuse. (Dad didn’t drink. But he was always happy to play with those that did.)

    The liability cases I think are related but different, resulting in part from devastating economic ignorance. Money is paid out by insurance companies, you see, and that means no one is really hurt. THAT we could cure by education, but first we’d have to educate our teachers. And our lawmakers.


    6 Sep 09 at 9:45 am

  2. Oh, how I agree! People really believe that they have control over themselves and their destinies – more, that they have a *right* to such control, and if something terrible happens, or they don’t achieve something they are striving for, something is wrong, and either someone has to pay, or they themselves have to figure out where they went wrong and fix it.

    What makes the whole things so pervasive and insidious is the fact – as you point out – that it’s closed related to some perfectly reasonable human behaviours. Some of us, maybe all, have at some time or other told ourselves we couldn’t do something when in fact we didn’t want to try because the work and sacrifices demanded were so high, or the fear of failure so great. But a reasonable correction to that situation isn’t to be told cheerfully ‘There’s no such word as ‘cant’!’.

    I’ve stopped reading Maclean’s (Canadian version of Time or Newsweek)regularly because I got really fed up with their change in tone and the way their eye-catching headlines implied things quite different from the article below, that is, when you could figure out if the writer of the article actually had any facts. I still skim it periodically because my mother has a subscription. A recent issue had a article on the effect of the economic crisis on the youth. It seems they’re ‘funemployed’ rather than unemployed; spending their time and money improving their golf game and travelling while waiting for things to improve. The author quoted an academic as saying ‘If you grew up over the last 20 or 30 years, you’ve grown up in one of the biggest booms in modern economic history so if that’s your total frame of reference, you’re going to feel pretty optimistic’. I’d still like to know how they’re paying for all this golf and travel, but the basic positive thinking attitude goes back way further, to my youth at least, and I seem to recall there were some earlier and influential popular books.

    As for the prosperity doctrine, I think that’s a simplistic heresy. I couldn’t believe anyone really took it seriously when I first heard about it. But I’ve learned that no matter how improbably I think something is, someone somewhere believes in it whole-heartedly. And that doesn’t just apply to religion.


    6 Sep 09 at 12:03 pm

  3. Confessing to a guilty secret, my husband & I watch some of the less egregious reality shows, like the Top Chef competition. Oddly these things mirror the current catch-phrase of the moment pretty accurately. For several years it was, “give 110%” and “failure is not an option.” Nobody seemed to realize that if you could give 110%, it would become the new 100%. Or that failure is always an option (and it comes bundled with your Windows software), in fact, it’s generally the first option.

    Now it’s “bring my A game” which seems to be forgotten immediately after the next test begins, and upon failure, “well, I didn’t really get to show who I am.” No, honey, you *did* show who you are, and you aren’t good enough.

    In every case, these phrases never seem to lead to any change in behavior. People just go on doing what they’ve always done, and then covering it with words. There is no A game. Positive thinking gets nowhere without dedication, a modicum of skill, and a willingness to sweat. And even then, luck or fate or simple circumstance conspire to produce a certain level of failure.

    God as a great sugar-daddy in the sky isn’t all that new. There were preachers back in the 70s telling their congregations that God wanted them to be rich…as long as the preachers got rich first. (usually the method of getting rich was to donate generously to the chuch) The prosperity of the preacher was supposed to be a demonstration of the truth of the proposition, but somehow it always ended as proof of the gullibility of the listeners.

    As to solving these problems, I’ve come down to living my life with as much common sense as possible, teaching my children to identify the ridiculous when they stumble over it, and letting everyone else be mad in their own peculiar fashion. People, society and culture have always been going to hell in a handbasket…in 100 years people will still be moaning about it. I hope.


    6 Sep 09 at 1:00 pm

  4. My condolences on your loss, Jane.

    I think part of the problem with positive thinking is that people don’t distinguish between what is within their control and what is outside it. If you’re talking about learning or doing something which is mostly within your control, with only reasonable assistance from others, probably you can do it. If it is outside your control, you may be able to influence the outcome, but it will be far less certain that you can do what you want to do.

    Can I learn to dance? Certainly. Even if I’m rhythm-challenged and have 2 left feet, if I find a good teacher, pay attention, practice a lot, and keep at it, I will be able to dance eventually. Can I win So You Think You Can Dance? That’s a lot iffier. It depends on how good a dancer I can become, how good the other contestants are, what the judge’s preferences are, whether I’m having a good day, and on & on. It’s not absolutely impossible–nothing which doesn’t contradict physical laws is absolutely impossible–but a lot of the factors are way outside my control. I can try very hard, and maybe I’ll get lucky, but I can’t count on winning.

    If you can’t distinguish between the two situations, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

    Lee B

    6 Sep 09 at 1:11 pm

  5. TV game and reality shows are weird. I feel safe in saying that even though I could never bear ‘Survivor’ when it was new, I don’t have cable, and almost never watch ‘free’ TV since I discovered the public library’s DVD collection.

    Somehow, I ended up watching something I think was called ‘Make a Deal’. I started off trying to figure out how it worked, and then watched the rest of the show in mounting disbelief. In case there are others out there who knew as little as I do, it’s basically based on probability. Varying sums of money are on the backs of cards, one of which is with the contestant and the others are face down on the display. The contestant has to ‘open’ ie display a number of cards in succession, hoping to get all the low-value ones. Periodically, the contestant can leave the game with a cash prize, or keep on guessing, hoping that the final one will have one of the big prizes. Obviously, you can estimate the chances of picking the right cards, especially as the game nears the end and most of the cards have been picked.

    The last contestant on that game didn’t seem to get this. Neither did her father, who was encouraging her. They seemed to think that if she was really, really postive, she’d pick the right card. She didn’t. Right at the end of the game, with the high-value cards out of play, she still acted like she could win. Acting positive.


    6 Sep 09 at 4:22 pm

  6. Snerk. I don’t watch “Deal or No Deal” (also known as Deal or Lose) but I suspect they would never allow an actual statistician, mathematician, or poker player on that show. I prefer shows like the chef ones where actual skill plays a part in whether they win.

    But yes, the bounce around and squeal game shows are weird. I’ve never been sure what motivates people to go on them and act so stupid, other than the money. Of course, on Jeopardy, at least you get to tell Alex some miniscule, meaningless story about your life designed to make the entire home audience mock you because you’re so pathetic.

    And then NOT bet the amount you need to win final Jeopardy, but still expect to. Basic math goes missing again!


    6 Sep 09 at 5:10 pm

  7. I recently came across this “You can try it and maybe fail or you cannot try it and always fail.” True and rather neatly sums up the positive thinking problem.


    6 Sep 09 at 5:23 pm

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