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Real joy or toxic positivity?


I’ve been reading about Julian of Norwich, a woman who lived over 650 years ago during a time of seemingly endless and terrifying pandemic. During her lifetime, beginning when she was seven, the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) swept through Europe in waves, reportedly killing up to one in two people in the united Kingdom.

Possibly half the people Julian cared about may have died. I can’t imagine the sorrow or horror of that – or the constant fear people would have felt. There was no understanding of what caused this, no scientific research and no vaccination program. There was simply fear and death.

Yet Julian, who lived most of her life in permanent seclusion in a tiny room attached to a church, continually wrote about joy and goodness. How could she, amid such unimaginable suffering, think about, let alone be so responsive to joy? How could she experience joy in a meaningful way when so many around her were suffering, dying or blaming anything and everything they could?

Staying genuinely positive

We see all sorts of responses to what we face today: denial, avoidance, blame, anger, putting our heads in the sand, believing ‘things will soon get back to normal’. What we don’t see a lot of is pure, genuine joy. Or, to put it another way, a real ability to maintain a positive outlook.

Now, I’m not talking about extreme positivity or fake or ‘toxic positivity’. That’s another way of describing the ‘head-in-the-sand syndrome’. Such positivity is not truly about a positive outlook – it’s more about denying what is happening, ignoring negative experiences, and being excessively optimistic to the detriment of reality and well-being.

We experience toxic positivity in two ways. When we cannot deal with negative emotions or experiences healthily, we push them down and pretend that everything is okay. We may have been brought up believing we ‘should not’ feel angry or sad and may feel intense guilt when acknowledging such feelings. The feelings, however, are still there; they are real and valid, and if we don’t find a way to deal well with them, they may end up making us sick emotionally and/or physically.

We may also experience toxic positivity from others who feel entirely unable to deal with our feelings of anger, sorrow or shame. People might say to us, “Cheer up!”, when what we really need is to honestly grieve and acknowledge our pain. When people say, “It could be worse”, or “Everything happens for a reason”, they minimise our experiences and emotions and belittle our response. It is far easier to offer such ‘positive’ responses than to deeply and authentically share in another person’s suffering.

Toxic positivity wants everything to be okay, even if only on the surface. Yet, the reality is things are often not okay. Only when painful emotions and experiences are honestly acknowledged and named can they be dealt with in a healthy and healing way. And this is true for all of us. Whether we are a ‘glass-half-full’ person or a ‘glass-half-empty’ person, the truth remains: life can be difficult, complicated and traumatic, and only by being real can we find a way through such experiences.

Life is bittersweet

And so, we return to Julian, who lived so long ago during a very dark period of history. What can we learn today from her wisdom and experience?

Julian recognised that life is both tragic and joyful, good and not-so-good – and all that’s in between. She had an innate belief that no matter how overpowering the negative and distressing experiences were, there was still deep goodness held within humanity and in the created world.

Real joy is experienced when we recognise and hold on to this awareness of goodness when we encounter genuinely kind and compassionate people who can walk the difficult road with us. In distressing times, glimpses of light might be few and far between, but when we slow down and look beyond the now, we might just see a glimmer of that light. Having others share that journey can help us discover goodness and joy.

True joy is a choice, just as toxic positivity is, although toxic positivity may have become so ingrained in society that we don’t even notice it. We need to become aware of such patterns in us to choose differently.

Joy looks beyond pain and sorrow without denying their existence or trying to dismiss them. Joy seeks to discover the inner goodness and love contained within humanity and chooses to celebrate that while holding and recognising sadness and suffering. Joy can walk with someone during difficult times because a positive outlook also realises there is more than just struggle or hardship.

Julian suggests we can tap into joy by choosing to be grateful for the good we do see, loving ourselves, and learning to be non-violent toward ourselves and others.

Another, more contemporary, author echoes these thoughts by saying that the antidote to toxic positivity is true love, or unconditional acceptance, of ourselves and others. As hard as it is, we don’t need to cover up real feelings of pain and suffering. We can acknowledge those feelings and choose goodness and love, tapping into the source of joy.


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