The Joy Menu #12: Positivity
Your intrepid author speaks directly to the Evil Eye and asks: is ‘positively’ the best way to navigate a creative life?
As a child, I heard a lot about the Evil Eye, and became convinced that access to this force existed at the meeting point of the walls in my bathroom: where the corner met the ceiling, across from the showerhead—a spot visible when I sat on the toilet.
From there, and only there, I could speak directly to the divine.
Most days (sometimes twice), I sat there and reasoned with the Big One. There, I asked for help when I needed it on a test at school, or when I wanted reassurance that my father would be well, that my mother would be safe. There, I asked for good news before I opened the thin white envelope from the Irvine Public Schools Foundation to learn whether or not my cello playing had earned me a coveted place in the Honors Orchestra. (It had.)
Superstition has a negative association. But I grew up feeling its reality as an intuitive and religious force. Both powerful and frightening. Both obscure and...accessible in my literal bathroom.
I remember kids at school wearing T-shirts that said “Jesus is my best friend.”
The Old Testament God I was raised with was not a great candidate for best friend—unless your idea of a best friend is the school bully who’s already 6’-tall in third grade, has breath that wreaks of goat blood, and is so insecure that he demands you pour your orange juice box at his feet every day during break just to prove your fealty.
Yet it never hurt to ask.
I’ve long struggled to navigate the way I was raised—to avoid articulated positivity for fear it would bring about its opposite (vis-a-vis the Evil Eye)—and the pressures our culture places on expressions of gratitude, appreciation, and good cheer. The tension between the two has felt especially potent, and confusing, in the last ten months.
I’ve been thinking about what it means for a Jewish kid (white-passing, privileged, neurotic) to be “positive,” and how the superstitions with which I was raised clash and complicate my participation our shared culture (or is it “religion”?) of positivity.
Since I can’t go back to my childhood bathroom to pray on it, I thought I’d write about it here.
My earliest experience with the Law of Attraction (that most intense brand of positive thinking) was in fifth grade. Our teachers, for reasons I don’t remember, were out of the classroom for a few weeks, and we had a substitute; a young, charming man.
Besides continuing with our projects and our lessons (which I remember being, in this stretch—nerd alert—incredibly fun), he told us stories, and good ones at that. One day, he filled the entire front table with photographs from his life and, after letting us crowd around the table to check them out (here he is camping at Yosemite; here is dancing the Tango in Argentina; here he is hugging a woman on a boat in the Aegean Sea), he regaled us with tales from his adventurous and expansive life.
He also let us in on a little secret: anything we wanted, we could have. We only had to focus on it intensely and consistently, and our desire for it—absolutely and without hesitation—would be fulfilled.
“Go home tonight and draw a picture of what you want—or better yet, draw as many as you can—and place them around your room where you’ll see them every day: when you wake up, before you go to sleep, while you’re doing your homework. Once what you want is inescapably in your mind always, it’ll happen. It’ll come true.”
Most kids immediately started drawing dollar signs, or piles of gold. I drew pictures of myself with improved posture—something I had been working on with my grandmother. I put these rudimentary drawings all over my bedroom.
And then I waited.
Needless to say, the exercise in positive thinking did not cure my poor posture. I was convinced it had failed not because thinking alone did not offer the miracle as promised (though my grandmother’s voice saying “stand up straight” and her hard index knuckle pressing into my spine didn’t either), but because I had not thought about it enough.
Thus, my relationship with positive thinking began on shaky footing: with the lesson that it was my own failure to be sufficiently positivity that kept the magic of positivity from working for me. Not a lack of exercise, or genetics, or a faulty ideology—but my own insufficient mind.
A week later, the substitute was removed from our classroom for trying to convert us to Scientology. But I never forgot the lesson.
I recently had a conversation with my brother about positivity.
When our father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer a few years ago, my brother reconnected to music. Since that time, he has written, recorded, and produced ten EPs of original music. But after releasing the fourth of those ten, he paused—uncertain if, and how, to continue.
He has always been a naturally positive person—not in the way of the instagram guru (he doesn’t espouse positivity as a mindset, or encourage the reframing of challenge as a chance for insight, and I’ve never seen him use the hashtag #blessed)—but in an unthinking and easy way: he proceeds with a bedrock belief in being able to work through things, in the stubborn assumption that he’ll figure it out, and in the general disposition that the work is worth it. And while, by and large, things have worked out for him, when they haven’t, he hasn’t lost sleep looking up to the heavens (or bathroom corners) and asking “why?!”
Yet with his music, I saw a different kind of doubt. A doubt which sounded...a lot like my own: hope undercut by fear; optimism challenged by fatigue; an internal voice which, when presented with encouragement, responded “Sure, but…”
A voice which—if we subscribe to the contemporary doctrines of positive thinking—was enough on its own to derail his success.
I began to wonder: what was different about his art, and his relationship to its dissemination, that called forth a self-doubt which I’d never seen before—not in his entrepreneurship, his love life, his health, or even his social maneuvers?
Was it something about art-making, or about creativity itself, which brought out such heretical negativity?
And what advice was I supposed to give him: “buck up”? If you want it enough, it’ll happen? Hang a picture above your bed, and I promise, you’ll get there?
Often, when I find myself floating down the rivers of negativity, frustration, or self-doubt, I tell myself what I’m navigating is “ancestral trauma.” That 5,000 years of Jewish codependency on a fickle and cruel god—not to mention a lot of fickle and cruel humans—means my instincts toward worry, self-protection, and emotional defensiveness is understandable, normal, and (in some contexts) even healthy.
I am envious of those who can stare with uncompromising positivity at the world around them, who believe in the marrow of their bones that such positivity is the lever with which they’ve manifested or are manifesting the exact life they want.
But I also have to understand and accept that for me, such a pose will always be a composite.
I can be hopeful, I can be optimistic, I can believe in “the work,” in myself, in my talents, and even in my privileges and luck; I can believe in and rely on these things to help me create the life I want for myself and for those I love.
But I cannot do so without acknowledging the traumas of the past (both personal and collective), without feeling through the darkness, without hitting my head against the unseen banisters of life. And when I do, I will curse, stomp my feet, complain, feel sorry for myself. And then I rub my forehead, and move on.
Positivity does serve me. Only, I don’t find it automatic, and I don’t find it ameliorative. But nor is it always elusive.
If I set myself a goal, and I follow through—I feel good. And that good carries me toward more good. And that more good, compounded, can become momentum—which itself feels great, and can breed excellent results.
I just can’t fake it. I can’t repress a lifetime of modeled worry and generations of mitigated expectations because of a belief that not feeling bad will, ipso facto, bring good into my life. I don’t believe it’s honest. And to be honest, I don’t believe it’s healthy. I refuse to ascribe my failures to a failure to refuse to feel bad.
I do find positivity aspirational; when I really feel it, it’s a gift. A positive mood can be a buoy; it can get us through. When my father was dying, I took substantial energy from appreciating the time I had with him, and refused to let it be hampered by the looming knowledge that that time would soon run out.
But it didn’t make it fun. And it didn’t mean I avoided running into the sharp edges of grief—often also with my head and in the dark—both before and after he died.
When I feel the need to grieve, or worry, or vent, I refuse to add another layer of hurt on top by fearing that the absence of positivity will rob me of manifesting the good things I want out of life. Life can be hard; why make it harder by punishing ourselves for letting it get to us.
As Jung put it: “The word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
Perhaps that’s why creativity—both the making and sharing of one's art with the world—can bring out such virulent states of fear, and bitterness, and self-doubt. Even for my otherwise buoyant brother.
Perhaps any creative act which cuts deep, which leaves us vulnerable, which asks us to navigate discomfort rather than bask in the easy satisfaction of what we want to hear (it’s gonna be ok; it’s gonna happen for you; just draw a picture and wait) will force us to look at our darkness, to feel our fragility, to stare into our shadow and come up with something that very well may be less than positive.
You can believe in the best and still do the work to face the hard stuff in life.
Pretending otherwise seems naive. And ‘naively’ is no way to live a fulfilling creative life.
Friends, I love you. If you made it this far, let me know what you think.
Onward to creative joy,