One of my favorite quotes is from Tina Fey as the fabulously disgruntled Liz Lemon. It’s the simple decree that “Everything is the worst.” As an oft-grumpy pessimist, this is a phrase that rings in my ears all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh a lot, and I’m happy on a regular basis, but I am almost never outright positive. If you ask me how things are going, I’ll tell you that my neck has been bothering me and I think that I might have spinal meningitis before I tell how great my new boyfriend is. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart once said about his wife and children, “She was raised Catholic, I was raised Jewish. We’re raising them to be sad.” My dad is Jewish and my mom is Catholic. Let me just say, Stewart nailed that joke.
Sometimes I get frustrated with my darkly dreaming brain. It’s great when I’m able to push the worries aside and live fully in the moment. However, I’m also proud to be a pessimist. To me, it’s just another word for realist. It’s well documented in psychological literature that depressed people more accurately predict how much control we have over our lives*, how others view us, how attractive we are to strangers, and how competent we are at a given task. We gloomies aren’t unrealistically negative like most people think. Rather, we are mentally incapable of participating in the mass delusion that we are better, more powerful, more attractive, and more important than we really are. Unlike those happy positivists, I’m prepared for the fact that things might go wrong, I might fail, and that disappointment is possible. Unfortunately, this means I’m depressed. Fortunately, it means I’m right. For better or worse, I’m entrenched in this world view, and–although I have plenty of friends and loved ones who are plain old optimists–I really can’t stand those born again new age-y, positivity pushing, “The Secret” loving proselytizers.
I work as a children’s librarian in a small town in Massachusetts. This is a good job for me, because although I lack patience for adults, I have infinite patience for children. On Friday afternoons, though, I work the circulation desk for two hours, checking out books for the adults. Honestly, most of them are awesome. It’s a nice break from the energy of the kids. There is one particular patron though, a middle-aged black woman named Candy, who embodies my fears about positive thinkers. Everybody loves Candy—everybody except me. I judge her. Hard. She’s undiscriminating in her reading taste. She checks out the Twilight books, James Patterson’s dreck, and those foul, wannabe BDSM 50 Shades of Grey books. She tries to cultivate a bohemian style, but it comes off looking shabby and odd. Most incriminating, she’s obsessed with positive thinking. I even heard her tell my co-worker that she’s a “dream coach(!)” whatever the hell that is. I try to avoid getting in conversations with her, because she makes me uncomfortable, but a couple weeks ago she got me alone at the circ desk. She asked how I was, so I gave her a non-committal “fine.”
“Yes, just fine.”
“Not great?” My hackles went up. I hate the implication that I should be great at any particular moment. In fact, I avoid admitting I’m doing great even when I am.
“No, not great. I have a headache and I’m tired and I’d like to go home,” I told her. Candy set her mouth in a straight line and said,
“I’d like you to try something. For the next week, I want you to be “positively paranoid.””
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Instead of being paranoid that everyone is out to get you, be paranoid that everyone is out to do you good!” She smiled toothily at me. I wondered how that would cure my headache. I wondered if she seriously expected me to do this. I wondered if I could keep my mouth shut. Turns out, the answer to this last question was no.
“Candy,” I said, “I’m not paranoid the world is out to get me. That would be absurd. I don’t think anyone is out to get me. People are too busy dealing with their own lives to devote a lot of time to sabotaging mine. But I don’t need to pretend that everyone is out to do me good either. I think people will act in whatever way is best for them. People who care about me will try a little harder to do well by me, but honestly? I believe that we’re mostly out there for ourselves.” Candy shook her head, disappointed in me. She handed me her card, and invited me to her next “dream workshop”. I told her I couldn’t make it.
“Well, maybe the next one,” she said.
Last Friday I saw Candy again, and she asked me if I’d tried to experiment. I said no.
“You’re a tough one,” she said, “but I’ll get you.” Right then, I vowed to myself that she would not—I wouldn’t give an inch. I wouldn’t even pretend to be interested in her dream coaching. I couldn’t give her the satisfaction. While I realize that being spiteful to people who believe in the power of positive thinking is sort of a dick move, I really don’t care. If they can’t let me live in fear, I can’t let them live in hope. So get paranoid, positivists! I’m totally out to get you!** Mwah ha ha ha ha! I know the truth; everything is the worst. And you know what? I’m comfortable with that.
*The seminal study was Taylor & Brown, 1988, but this article on Depressive Realism offers a digestible summary, plus links to some more in depth material.
**Unless you are a child or an old person or mentally disabled. You guys totally get a pass.