I wonder if those folk who say “maybe you should be more positive” ever realize how close they are to getting punched in the face? As a piece of advice, it ranks right up there with ‘calm down’ as among the most useless words ever spoken. I suspect that unsolicited advice is more aimed at benefiting the advice giver than the advice receiver anyway; so apart from getting their rocks off on feeling right about something, the perpetrator of this particular emotional intelligence crime is also ignorant of what’s going on in the brain of someone who is suffering.
Our brain is made up of many components. When one part of your brain is heavily engaged, resources can be taken away from others. For example, if we are attempting a complex physical skill – it’s the motor cortexes. Or if we are writing – the language centres, and so on. This is one of the reasons most governments are trying to ban mobile phones in cars, because when we have the language centers heavily engaged, our spatial awareness, distance perception and coordination tend to suffer, making us about 25% as effective as drivers. When we are under stress, the part of our brain that governs our survival instincts takes over; and it can drain fuel and oxygen from other parts of our brain. I call the amygdala ‘the great binary processor’. It governs survival thinking.
What is survival thinking? It’s not smelling the roses and pondering the meaning of life, that’s for sure. When survival mode has been tripped, we are mostly just scanning our environment and classifying everything as ‘threat’ or ‘no threat’. Our perception of our lives becomes very binary indeed (threat/no-threat, up/down, black/white, good/bad, yes/no) as resources are directed towards survival thinking and away from memory and higher order cognitive tasks. We don’t recognize colors as well, our memory functions poorly and our sense of taste and smell is inhibited. We learn more slowly and our brain becomes less adaptable (or plastic).
I can remember some conversations with clients who were in chronic pain that went a bit like this:
‘So if you just move it a little bit that way, but with a smooth graduated effort.”
“so you mean do it hard or soft?”
“Well not too hard, if you feel anything that’s stopping you do the movement easily then back off a bit.”
“So do it soft then.”
“Well no you still need to challenge the limits a bit. To stimulate growth”
“So do it hard then? What is it? Soft or hard? Make up your bloody mind!”
It’s why so many of us catastrophize when the shit hits the fan in our lives. We aren’t capable of much more than two extreme modes of thought – life is either great or it’s terrible; and it’s not great so it must be terrible.
So helpfully suggesting that someone who is mired in catastrophe just ‘be more positive’ is not only asking the impossible in that moment but, congratulations, you’ve just managed to make them feel bad for feeling bad. ‘Positive’ vs ‘negative’ is another binary thought process. Just more duality.
The self help industry has schooled many of us in this toxic positivity. I sometimes see it in the gritted teeth of people who are really suffering but have been told that they need to stay positive at all costs. Fighting to be the opposite of ‘negative’ and locking themselves into more binary thinking as they go. I’m not sure it’s the way out of our suffering, I saw this in myself recently, when life delivered one of its occasional hard knocks.
I think cameras might have a soul. After years of shooting around water I’ve always been confident of my ‘never spills his beer’ instincts. I’ve had my feet knocked out from under me by a wave and still managed to hold my camera aloft and dry. I still can’t explain how the incident last Saturday afternoon happened, even though I replayed it in living color every time I closed my eyes for the next three days. I can still see the slow-motion tumble forward and feel the jarring pain in my knee and left elbow as I hit sharp rocks. It was the pain, I think, that made me put both hands out to cushion the blow. One of these hands was holding roughly $3,000 of non-waterproof camera. It fizzled and died and every single camera repair wizard I lay it before in the days afterwards just shook their heads sadly and said ‘is it insured? Of course it wasn’t. I reckon I grieved less when my dog died (in the short term anyway).
In years past I’d have probably just thought ‘bugger, oh well time to buy a new one’. But in my current starving artist phase – the downsized, minimalized, pursuing the creative life, phase – that D750 was the most precious and beautiful thing I owned. It was also the camera that I did all my work with – the travel and storytelling photography. That machine and I had been on some tremendous adventures together and made some beautiful art. It felt like a hit that I couldn’t absorb. I just can’t afford a new one right now and so, at this moment, I can’t do some of the work I get occasionally asked to do. On the drive home I was ruminating on what felt like the slow-motion crash of my life. What combination of irresponsibility, dream-chasing and bad planning had led me to a point where the loss of one bit of gear could stop me dead.
Luckily (for them), none of my friends suggested that I think more positively about what just happened. ‘Look at the positives. Your camera bag will be lighter now. That’s got to be a good thing right?’
Instead, at the start, they just listened: they let me tell the story, again and again. Each time I was able to look at the situation from more of a distance, to see it with a bit more perspective. I started to see the little steps I could take and the moves I could make that wouldn’t have been visible in survival mode. It was through their generosity with their time that I started to see a way out. I’ll manage without the full frame for a while. I’ve got another one that is almost as good (that I was generously given) and the little crop sensor that I’ve had for years doesn’t do a bad job – the picture at the heading of this story was taken with it after all.
Then, I was gradually introduced to the community of me. One friend said ‘let me start a kick-starter’; another said ‘what’s your bank details? I can send some money for the new camera fund’; another said ‘how much for a completely new setup? I can send you that money tomorrow, don’t care when you pay it back.’ I haven’t taken up any of those offers yet and I most probably won’t. But the reassurance I feel from knowing they are there is huge.
Three days after I copped some misfortune I didn’t think I could absorb, I understood this accident was something my community could absorb without breaking stride. These things don’t happen to us, they happen to the community of us; and a community can handle almost anything.