The Audacity of Positivity

In recent weeks I’ve run across at least two essays — one from a writer whom I respect greatly — that call into question those of us that try to maintain and share a positive outlook during these turbulent times.

The message seems to boil down to this: if you have the option of expressing some amount of positivity then you’re clearly not paying attention to what’s going on around you.

I beg to differ,

We all have a natural empathy saturation point; a threshold we reach where the bad news is too much to absorb, and with so much to be burdened by these days, the desire to escape some of it is natural and understandable—but it’s also a sure sign of our privilege that we think we can.

John Pavlovitz1, writing in The Privilege of Positivity

Expressing positivity in a world gone mad is characterized as a sign of lack of empathy, and a sign of privilege.

I recently characterized this position — also expressed, albeit at least with a qualification in the title, by Matthew Johnson in Excessive Positivity Is Unchecked Privilege — as akin to “positivity shaming”. How dare you express positivity when there are people who cannot?

While both essays are nominally about “excessive positivity” (though Pavlovitz’s actually has no such qualification), they don’t read that way. They seem aimed at those who, for any reason, choose to be more positive about our world than not.

You know, people like me.

Don’t get me wrong — I fully acknowledge that it’s a shit show out there. Start with politics move on to the ramifications of assorted groups of individuals actively seeking to oppress or deny the very existence of others, pull in climate change, mental health, and a raft of additional topics, and there’s no denying that there’s an excess of downright evil activity in the world today.

I also fully acknowledge that I come from a position of privilege. I’m an old straight white guy with money — probably the least oppressed demographic on the planet.2

The word “privilege” seems to be getting thrown around as a weapon more and more. Much like “OK, Boomer”, it implies a lack of awareness, a lack of empathy, and even a lack of concern for the important issues of the day. While I’m certain that there are those who fit that description, it’s an unwarranted, and generally incorrect generalization.

What matters more, perhaps, is how those with privilege use it. The unthinking do not. But that’s true for any demographic. There are always those who are so wrapped up in their own world that they can spare no energy for others, especially those less fortunate.

As for the rest of us — while we may never have walked in your shoes, we can see that your soles are worn out. We can get you new shoes. We can improve the pavement for those who follow you. We can use our resources, whatever they may be, to try and make the path a little better for everyone.

And this, at least, is a point that Pavlovitz seems to get right:

Yes, please give people funny videos and heartwarming images and stuff to make them laugh and breathe and rest. The world needs these things.

(Emphasis mine.)

The world needs these things indeed. The world desperately needs these things.

Those of us who are privileged enough to be in a position to be able to see positivity in the world not only can, but in my opinion have an obligation to share these things. Not to the exclusion of what else is happening in the world, but to compliment it. To bring some balance. To shine some light in what for many is only a dark place.

It’s one of many ways we can use our privilege for good.

A diet full of only bad and horrific experiences leads only to despair and hopelessness. And the world desperately needs hope. Just like everyone needs to be aware of the atrocities in our world, they also need to be reminded that not all people are evil, that there is good in the world, and that there can be hope for a better tomorrow.

Be it silly cat videos or Corgi pictures to bring a smile to someone — anyone — or highlighting some of the good things that happen every single day, people need balance. Even people in the worst of situations need a break.

We can all use our resources — call it privilege or anything else — to make the world a better place in our own way.

One of my ways is to remain positive, in spite of it all.


1: Full disclosure, albeit in a backwards kind of way: while I disagree with his position on this particular topic, I’m an avid reader and follower of Pavolvitz, to the point of even supporting him financially. He is currently they only even semi-religious entity for which I do this.

2: Full disclosure: lest you think I have zero experience in the matter, I do consider myself a member of one extremely oppressed demographic. The specifics aren’t relevant here, other than to say that even within this classification I do see signs of hope.

4 thoughts on “The Audacity of Positivity”

  1. I’m sorry that there are so many people that do not, don’t let themselves, see the positive things that are in fact a part of this world. Perhaps some people feel so inundated with bad news that they can no longer accept that any good at all can exist.

  2. Hi Leo. Last summer my husband and I were in Vienna, where we visited an art museum showing work done by a young Jewish man before, during, and after WWII. The contrast of the political situation (which was shown along with the art) was heart-wrenching, and the artist had a statement saying something like, “We must laugh and sing while times are bad; we cannot wait for good times.” I’m badly paraphrasing, but I was moved by his philosophy and his art-making during a time when it was not valued.

    Please, moneyed, old, straight, white guy, carry on!

    • “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist palette which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”
      ― Marc Chagall

  3. Sometimes I miss the days when the phrase “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” was the rule. It had it’s drawbacks as well, in that if you were miserable that day, who would you share it with. But this telling people to be miserable, because everybody else is, is downright wrong. How about, “Don’t rain on my parade!”

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