Rethinking Magical Thinking

Relentless “Gratitude”?
Maybe the glass really is half-empty, & maybe that’s okay

by Hank Trout

It seems that every time I log on to Facebook and check the activity on the various pages of interest to us Long-Term HIV/AIDS Survivors, or just my own timeline, one or another of my friends has posted some cheery meme or another. These are generally vague, feel-good slogans about subjects like “gratitude,” featuring a message such as,

No Matter How Bad Things Get,
There’s Always Something to Be Grateful For.

I wish I could believe that.

No. Let me rephrase that.

I almost wish that I could comfort myself with New Age bromides like that—but I just cannot do it.

These memes, and the different responses to the recent death of Louise Hay (a savior or a charlatan? a prophet or just another unscrupulous silver-tongued money machine, peddling snake oil to the gullible?), have got me remembering the desperation with which so many of us clung to every imaginable shred of hope during the worst of the Plague Years. No matter how counterintuitive or even downright irrational and illogical the proffered hope, we were so desperate to believe that something, anything could stop the suffering and dying that we eagerly, willfully blinded ourselves and went along. I recall how hungrily we placed our faith sometimes in actual snake oil (e.g., “Chinese cucumber extract”), sometimes in “natural” treatments and cures, sometimes in the supernatural (including religion), and oftentimes in high-minded lingo-heavy psycho-babble intended somehow to enlighten and/or sustain us.

I also remember how brutally, how routinely those brittle hopes, all of them, were smashed into useless shards at our feet, making fools of us and of our desperation.

I have often wondered whether we survivors, even more than other folks, do ourselves harm by creating false hopes, anaesthetizing ourselves with semantic gobbledygook, willfully deluding ourselves with feel-good placebos that inhibit our ability to deal with right-now-here-it-is Reality. For myself and most of the survivors I know, daily life resembles nothing else so much as a never-ending game of life-or-death Whack-A-Mole. We deal with one mind-numbing problem after another as their pesky little heads relentlessly pop up anew—fighting off new health threats, new infections, new organ failures; struggling to stay abreast of frequently changing rules and confusing procedures for receiving ADAP, SSDI, and other benefits; worrying about our healthcare under an administration hell-bent on cutting funding for HIV; navigating life at or below the poverty level and the attendant worries about housing, nutrition, and medical bills; the continuing grief and PTSD from the losses we’ve endured and, as we age, the renewed grief when one of our remaining friends dies. Smack one mole down, another instantly shoots up and spits bile in your face.

I simply do not understand how people can (or would even want to) maintain an upbeat sense of “gratitude” and “positivity” while facing all of those moles. I do not think it can be done without seriously deluding and possibly damaging oneself with nonsense. In her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich posits that relentless positive thinking, a uniquely American avocation, it seems, might actually be harmful to us, might “dim our ability to fend off real threats” by, among other things, magnifying our “reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news” in favor of “magical thinking.” Even in the midst of debilitating illness and catastrophic disasters, both natural and man-made, we are inundated with admonitions that we remain “grateful” and “positive,” as though a constantly positive outlook, no matter the circumstances, were not only natural but normative, proscriptive—the way we should live. Maybe it’s just me, but telling a cancer patient who is enduring her fourth session of debilitating chemo therapy to “remember to be grateful” seems to be just downright cruel—like admonishing the poor to be “thrifty,” the weak to “man up.”

Personally, I prefer reality-based thinking. I function better seeing things as they are, for what they are, without the filter of some gauzy “philosophy.” I lived through enough pointless, destructive, even deadly magical thinking during the Plague Years. I’ve no tolerance for any of it now.

Many of my friends—intelligent, rational, compassionate people whom I genuinely love, including my fiancé Rick!—have culled from Louise Hay, Rhonda Byrne, Marianne Williamson, and other writers various bits and pieces of thinking that bring them comfort and with which they have built a framework within which to understand the world. That is, I surmise, the purpose of New Agey bromides, to comfort and console, to make sense of a world that inflicts so much pain on us. And my purpose here is not to deny that sense of comfort to anyone—even though I will never understand it and even if I might from time to time struggle to refrain from poking holes in it. Instead, I ask that they (and you) consider:

Maybe the glass really is half-empty, not half-full, and maybe it’s okay to acknowledge that. Maybe we don’t have to “look on the bright side” all the time. Instead of placating ourselves, always consoling ourselves and pretending to be grateful that the glass is half full, maybe recognizing and accepting that the glass really is half empty can be the first step in correcting the problem: Refill the glass.

Now, there’s a meme I can get behind: Refill. The. Glass.

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.