A Polish woman living in Canada for over 7 years now, I still find myself a stranger to North America. Truthfully, Québec is a very special pocket of NA, its independentist tendencies and provincial nationalism making it feel very much like Europe, in some ways. Nevertheless, this is North America, a culture built on white man’s optimistic belief that anything is possible if he only works hard enough and completely denies such trivial limitations as, say, mortality.
While my heart made me embrace Buddhism, and while Buddhism helps me deal with existential issues, it is not of much help in the business of staying financially afloat. The sweet and quiet resignation, tempting as it might be, can be deadly in the hunger games of capitalism, even as tempered as they might seem in Quebec.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helped me stand on my own two feet once before, beconed again, and so I picked up the apparently legendary Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman, just to see if I could stop moping around and become more, I don’t know, American, in my approach to everyday life. Enough philosophising, I thought, time for action. Symptomatically, action meant picking up a book that pretended to be more upbeat than the usual stuff I seek out.
What did I learn from dr Seligman, then? I learned that being optimistic is GOOD FOR YOU. It makes you happier, more productive, healthier even. You die later, on average, if you are an optimist. Dammit. Apparently I can learn optimism by disputing my own thoughts; I believe it, and do it, I really do. Dr David Burns’ Feel-Good Handbook told me how to do it the last time I needed it. It is very effective indeed. Nothing is as serious as you think.
One thing that bothers me though is that those ways of changing how we talk to ourselves, by swapping negative delusions for positive ones, is just that – swapping delusions.
But I promised myself not to be so Buddhist, because I do want to get shit done.
Mind you, I know people who are Buddhist and get shit done, and beautifully so.
To be honest, getting shit done has nothing to do with your spiritual orientation.
I like reflecting on things.
I hate Seligman’s focus on productivity.
I really wish everybody could just stop producing and start reflecting a little, and stop, just effing stop for a moment, and just be, and not DO so much, because a lot of what we are doing fills our days and pockets and gives us purpose but this purpose is so detrimental to life on earth, in the end… and yet it is crazy to be saying so.
I think maybe I do not want to talk myself into optimism.
One thing that I really retained from Learned Optimism was the fact that children do not commit suicide. They might be depressed, yes, and as severely as adults are, but they never choose suicide. Seligman explains it by evolutionary psychology, to me, it’s about divinity, I guess. I can’t stop thinking about it.
I also laughed at his experiment with life insurance agents that ended up with the guy he helped make succesful selling him a super duper expensive policy. Nice touch.
Also the part where he advises parents not to divorce because it fucks up the children. Do not provoke your partner, says he, do not chase your own happiness. Then he writes of his own divorce. I’m guessing some serious guilt there. Also, he never even mentions the existence of domestic violence. Screw that.
I did the optimism/pessimism tests dr Seligman created, coming off as an extremely pessimistic person. It wasn’t that bad overall on a variety of indices; where I really scored low was in not attributing good things happening in my life to my own merits. I can often see how other people fucked up in case something bad happens, but good things, whew. I just never seem to be able to congratulate myself on good stuff. Makes me feel phony. Probably this is the reason I don’t write more.
Because I know it’s just luck.
Being stoic cannot go along with being optimistic though, and to believe dr Seligman, only optimism can get you anywhere.
Man, what a struggle of my sceptical, Eastern European self with this obnoxiously positive American mentality. But if I don’t embrace it, can I even survive here?
The next post will be about Rigoberta Menchu, and then Ishi, and how living with their stories makes it kind of impossible to embrace dr Seligman’s theories.
Why do I live with their stories? Why do they resonate with me so much?
To be continued.