A Horoscope that Went to the Wrong Address
You can relax as 2021 begins.
January 1, 2021
The year 2020 is over. The year 2021 has barely begun.
How on earth are we supposed to deal with that?
The onset of a new year has always presented the temptation to imagine that we have received the miracle of a fresh start. This is a very positive thought that can double as a trick and a trap.
And—fair warning—my casual use of the word “positive” in the title and the preceding sentence is itself a trick and a trap.
We may be free of the year 2020, but that does not mean we are free of the disturbances, disruptions, and distortions that 2020 brought to our lives. The arbitrary arrangements of the calendar do not license us to declare our relief. The time is still distant for the worldwide chorus of relief: “Whew! That’s over!”
We start 2021 with vaccines for Covid-19, but we also start 2021 with big logistical obstacles to getting those vaccines distributed and injected. We start 2021 with clear results in that prolonged exercise in uncertainty that we called “a presidential election.” But telling ourselves that our bitter political divisions are now put to rest would be a ridiculous exercise in self-soothing.
Are we capable of heading into 2021 with a positive attitude?
Before we can get anywhere in answering that question, we have to save the word “positive” from itself.
If a test for Covid-19 comes with a “positive” result, this is not a “positive” experience for the person receiving that news. On the larger scale of the last century, in the writings of historians, the self-help genre called “positive” thinking has been condemned for its shallow and superficial picture of human nature and unmasked as a crass how-to guide for business success. Moreover, the term “toxic positivity” is a recent entry into the pop psychology world.
And yet off on the sidelines, ostracized and marginalized by the far more au courant incarnations of the term, the old fashioned, old-timey, almost outmoded idea of a “positive” attitude is still hanging around: a cheerful, optimistic belief that progress has kicked into action and solutions will soon put our problems to rest.
If the word “positive” were a human being, we would quickly diagnose that benighted soul with multiple-personality syndrome.
An And/But/Therefore Statement, Designed for 2021*
Even though a new year is starting, our pre-existing problems remain undiminished, AND we must take every opportunity to encourage our fellow citizens to resist fatalism, despair, and a sense of inevitability, AND to cultivate a “positive” attitude as the year 2021 begins;
BUT Americans are in deep disagreement over how we should assess our current condition in a way that will make it possible to transcend fatalism, despair, and a sense of inevitability;
THEREFORE, we must face up to the fact that we will get nowhere in the quest for a “positive” attitude to the year ahead of us until we unleash the power of humor in assessing our current circumstances, an unleashing that includes licensing a commentator with a very fortunate surname to keep writing limericks and conjuring up ridiculous scenarios as a steady reminder that humor is essential to resilience and even to survival.
*I am endlessly grateful to my friend, the accomplished expert in scientific communication Randy Olson, for converting me to the And/But/Therefore (ABT) strategy for presenting an idea.
A Public Health Warning:
If you have tested positive for an allergy to humor, do not risk even a glance at the rest of this posting.
Welcome to The First-Ever Rodeo Of
Familiar Sayings, Platitudes, And Predictable Figures of Speech
Trying to Anticipate The Future
This series of postings is called “Not My First Rodeo.” I am 99% sure that everyone knows the reason I chose that title. When it comes to dealing with contemporary conflicts, tensions, and dilemmas, I have “been there and done that.”
But the surprise was on me.
l have never lived in—nor have I tried to bring historical perspective to bear on—conditions that came anywhere near the disordered, chaotic, mystifying, and tragic state of affairs in the year 2020. But by the time I figured that out, it was too late to change the blog title to “Actually, This Is My First Rodeo!”
Every now and then, since this blog began on May Day 2020, I have returned to the rodeo frame of reference with the hope of giving an illusion of continuity and wholeness to these postings. But references to rodeos have been sporadic and brief.
Since 1906, the Rural West and the Urban West have gotten together in Denver in January. Given what seems to be an ever-widening divide between the rural and the urban sectors of the state and of the nation, it would have been nice if the 115th National Western Stock Show, that ceremony of convergence, could have taken place in January of 2021.
For years, we knew that a new year had started because the National Western Stock Show was drawing in crowds, and bronc-and bull-riders were heading out of the chute. But now, with the Stock Show postponed to 2022, the Center of the American West is offering a very pale substitute to that very famous Denver extravaganza. The Center will now host the first-ever rodeo event in which Familiar Sayings compete to characterize the nation’s circumstances as we end the year 2020 and enter the year 2021. Compared to bronc-riding, this newly invented rodeo event is pretty darned dull as a spectator sport. But our hope is that it is still better than nothing.
In this Rodeo of Familiar Sayings, Platitudes, and Predictable Figures of Speech, contestants will compete to provide an effective and persuasive way to adjust our minds to anticipate the year we are entering. Borrowing the format from regular rodeo, the competitors will hurtle out of the chute and into the arena, where they will try to remain mounted for eight seconds. Their performances will be judged by rigorous criteria to determine which of the competitors most effectively sets us up for coping with 2021.
And now the rodeo announcer is letting us know that the rodeo is off and running.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the first-ever rodeo competition where the winner will be the best Figure of Speech to guide us in very trying times. We organized this rodeo because we know that a Figure of Speech, adopted by people to characterize their situation, actually plays a very significant role in shaping the choices and decisions they make. (And yes, as you are no doubt recognizing at this moment, a professor played a part in planning this rodeo, but we—mostly—kept her under control.) But now it’s time to get this competition under way: here comes ‘The Seventh Inning Stretch,’ the first Familiar Phrase to come out of the chute to give us a way of thinking about what we are facing in 2021!”
Since “The Seventh Inning Stretch” is actually the crowd’s favorite, there is no need to tell them to clap or cheer. They already know they want it to win! They want to have a break! They want to stand up, visit with their neighbors, get something to eat, and sing a couple of songs!
But things are going very poorly for “the Seventh Inning Stretch.” It is so rattled that it is committing the unthinkable and, at the very start of the ride, it is holding on with both hands!
What’s going wrong?
The year 2021, the “Seventh Inning Stretch” knows in its heart, is not going to deliver a pause or a break or an interlude of relaxation. The American people are not going to stand up and sing a couple of songs together. The surges and flare-ups of Covid-19 do not arrange themselves in anything like innings, with clearly identified beginnings and endings. And, given the difficult logistics of getting the vaccines injected into millions of arms, the contest with Covid-19 is almost certain to go into extra innings.
The “Seventh Inning Stretch” is barely out of the chute when it gets bucked and lands in the dirt. Breaking from their custom of respectful chivalry, the pick-up men simply let this poorly matched competitor get up and trudge out of the arena while the disappointed crowd boos.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, that was kind of a sad beginning,” the rodeo announcer admits. “But we’ve got some great riders coming up. Look here, ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel,’ is coming out of the chute at this very minute!”
But the “Light at the End of the Tunnel” just isn’t ready for the job of characterizing the year 2021. It’s a fine figure of speech, but it goes nowhere when it tries to sum up 2020 and to anticipate 2021. Here’s the problem: Even if we think we can see a light flickering in the distance, we actually have no idea how long the 2021 tunnel is. The light—code for “a well-coordinated enterprise in distributing the vaccines and achieving a promising level of society-wide immunity (often referred to, in an indirect tribute to the occupations and enterprises convened at the Stock Show, as ‘herd immunity’)”—could be very distant indeed.
And there is something that is just not working with this figure of speech. Tunnels are human creations, and they end when they come out of the mountain or ascend to the surface from their course beneath a river. But our 2021 version of a tunnel keeps getting longer, which is not easy for a manmade tunnel to do, with the light retreating from us even as we think we are moving towards it.
Every now and then, geology kicks up its heels and creates an actual tunnel that comes with an entrance and an exit. But mostly geology seems to prefer caves, configured with an entrance but with no exit. So, if we modified this Figure of Speech so that we were drawn to “the light at the back wall of a cave,” and we then wanted to depart from the cave, we would still have to retrace our steps back to the entrance so that we could, paradoxically, then exit. This Figure of Speech would then suggest that we are going to have to retrace the steps by which we entered the calamities of 2020 in order to escape those calamities in 2021.
I will now confess that I am not 100% certain what this last statement could possibly mean. But I still think it is worth considering.
Time for the Rodeo Announcer to come to my rescue.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, as you can see, the ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ has become disoriented, and it is hanging upside down. So we’re going to have the pick-up men help the ‘Light’ dismount completely and then give it a ride out of the arena, where they’ll keep a close eye on it until it regains its ability to tell up from down. But here comes our third competitor, ‘An Ounce of Prevention’!”
But the crowd is becoming unruly, and as the next contestant enters the arena, muttering and shouting ripple through the stands in waves of vexation: “’’An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure?’ Don’t make us laugh. Back in February of 2020, that might have been worth paying attention to. But in early 2021, that platitude doesn’t make an ounce (so to speak) of sense. To seize on a rodeo-related figure of speech, that horse has left the barn.”
The Rodeo Announcer, true to his profession, is on top of the situation.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, ‘An Ounce of Prevention’ has disqualified itself. It swears that it has been useful in other dire situations. But now it asks you to forgive its presumption in thinking it had anything worth saying about 2021. But here, coming out of the chute, looking confident and at ease, is our fourth and final competitor. You should know that our fourth competitor has asked for and received a variance that allow it to ride side-saddle as a full sentence. So, let’s give a hand to ‘Don’t Count Your Chickens before They Hatch.’”
“Don’t Count Your Chickens before They Hatch” stays in the saddle with dignity and decorum. The more it is bucked, the more comfortable it becomes. When the traditional eight-second ride is complete, “Don’t Count Your Chickens” does something that no bronc-rider has ever imagined doing: fully at ease, it stays mounted, and takes a tranquil victory lap.
Initially speechless, the Rodeo Announcer rises to the occasion, though he doesn’t conceal the fact that he is deeply moved.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Cowboys and Cowgirls, Buckaroos and Buckarettes, we have our winner. ‘Don’t Count Your Chickens before They Hatch’ is giving us an invaluable reminder that we should not set ourselves up for bitter disappointment by embracing an overwrought optimism. But better than that, this winner is telling us that, at some point in the future, vaccines will turn the tide of misfortune; the nation’s elected leaders will steady out; democracy will persist and even prevail. Yes, we will still have to practice patience like a fine art or a demanding sport. But our chickens will hatch! And at our rodeo a year from now, we’ll inaugurate a spirit-lifting new event, in which experienced and charismatic Poultry Enumerators will run an accurate count of hatching baby chicks as those darling little creatures emerge from their shells.
“Thank you for attending today’s utterly ridiculous ‘Rodeo of Familiar Sayings, Platitudes, and Predictable Figures of Speech.’ I will close with my personal hope that another Rodeo Announcer will have replaced me by the time you return for the Counting of the Chickens. But I have two more announcements to make. The single word ‘Closure’ wanted to be a contestant, but no one could imagine taking ‘Closure’ seriously in such rattled times. The judges also decided to prohibit two Exclamations from competing in this rodeo. Since they were heard everywhere at the end of the year 2020, it was clear that ‘Phew” and ‘Whew’ would enter the arena with an unfair advantage. But both ‘Phew’ and ‘Whew’ have earned ‘Honorable Mention.’”
OK, now back to me, the perpetrator of this totally batty scenario. In case you are wondering, yes, I stacked the deck so the fourth competitor would win.
Most important, if you have nominations for contestants that should have been invited to participate in this Rodeo, please send those nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Positive” Attitudes Fall into Very Bad Company:
How I Live with A Chronic Condition for Which I Do Not Want A Cure
The habit of positive thinking
Should be growing in strength, but it’s sinking.
Does it make people sick?
Is it a habit to kick?
Its power to help us is shrinking!
Near the end of 2020, listening to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” I was surprised to hear a psychologist who seemed to be very cavalier in violating the constraints of patient confidentiality. To the best of my knowledge, I have never met her, but she seemed certain that she knew me. Speaking without restraint to a national audience, she offered her diagnosis of an incurable psychiatric condition that I exhibit nearly every day of my life.
I go through life with a positive attitude that I cannot get rid of.
It is important to admit that I do experience spells of relief from this condition, when a capacity for despair and dismay surges. I have had a number of those spells in 2020. But the pattern is unbreakable: the spells lift, and I am back to coping with a chronic positive attitude.
This onset of these relapses usually begins in one of two ways: a) something that is quite serious suddenly strikes me as funny, or b) what I had started to see as my troubles or grievances are suddenly revealed in a comparative perspective, forcing me to realize that I don’t actually have it that bad.
So it was a wild moment when a psychologist named Dr. Thelma Bryant-Davis used the platform of National Public Radio to “out” me. She followed professional protocol to the extent of not mentioning me by name. But anyone who has spent even a short time in my company knows who she was talking about. Since she has let this cat out of the bag, I am now going for full disclosure.
Yes, I do suffer from what Dr. Bryant-Davis calls “toxic positivity,” and, yes, I would flee from anyone who tried to cure me.
Dr. Bryant-Davis, the NPR reporter said, believes “toxic positivity is the impulse to compare yourself or others to those in less fortunate circumstances.” This is a terrible thing to do, the psychologist explains, because it “is really silencing, and it doesn’t really help.”
Before I respond with indignation to this condemnation of a core feature of my temperament, I will concede (with characteristically positive good nature and cheer) a little ground to this expert.
If a friend tells you that she has broken her leg, and you respond by saying that you have a friend who has things much worse because she broke her back, then you are a perpetrator of genuinely “toxic positivity.” Your friend with the broken leg would then be perfectly justified in wielding her crutches to convey the message that you should go elsewhere until you can conduct yourself like a civilized person.
So this brings us to an important recognition that I learned early in life.
If you are so fortunate as to come down with “toxic positivity,” keep it to—and for—yourself. Unless you receive a very explicit invitation, you should not apply this positivity—usually encoded as “Things could be worse!”—to another person.
Why? Because, standing outside, you simply cannot know what swarms of dragons and demons may be running riot in that person’s interior.
Am I myself spared these invasions by dragons and demons? No.
But my own entourage of dragons and demons are all old acquaintances. They know that they have exhausted their supply of unexpected tricks and torments, and so they have learned to throw in the towel and retreat to their caves the moment that they see me start to reach for the positivity-injector.
On thousands of occasions, the practice that Dr. Bryant-Davis condemns as “toxic positivity”— “comparing myself to those in less fortunate circumstances”— has been my redemption. It has restored me to perspective and proportion. It has pulled me back from the cliff edge of self-indulgent despair. It has been working overtime for the last ten months, and it is going to be working long hours well into the new year.
Still, I will restate the basic rule: only use it on yourself, but feel free to dream of a time when human beings can use it together in a trusting community.
The Unbearable and Inescapable Burden Imposed
By The Pandemic on A Positive Attitude
Are we capable of heading into 2021 with a positive attitude?
Here is the impossible pairing of contexts raised by that question.
Context #1 The pandemic has created an extraordinary opportunity for people to re-examine their assumptions and customs. Nearly every thought or activity that we once took for granted now invites—even demands— our reappraisal. This is an unparalleled opportunity to make considered and thoughtful choices about how we live as individuals and as a society.
Context #2 This opportunity comes to us at an unbearable price. Unemployment and the collapse of many small businesses have been a scourge in the lives of millions. Serious illness, sometimes with dreadful lingering symptoms, as well as premature death and grief, make it utterly impossible to welcome the opportunity, spelled out in Context #1, with a positive attitude.
But if we were to refuse to take the Context #1 opportunity, we would do a terrible disservice to the people who have paid the unbearable price, imposed by the pandemic, for this opportunity.
This is where a positive attitude can betray me: I find myself stymied and stunned when I try to find any compatibility between Context #1 and Context #2.
Compatible or not, they coexist as a contradiction and as a paradox.
A positive attitude cannot erase or dissolve the misery, affliction, and grief that have disrupted the lives of so many in the year 2020, with no clear end in sight in 2021.
Genuinely toxic positivity would dismiss or deny that misery, affliction, and grief. But a positive attitude, tempered and moderated by realism and perspective, would never falter in paying attention and respect to the suffering inflicted on so many. Thus, taking ownership of a positive attitude requires a constant awareness that the very word “positive” comes with a sharp and dangerous edge, and thereby demands very careful handling.
Two Very Serious Limericks
This post opened with an endorsement of the unleashing of humor even in very serious times.
I do not expect anything close to universal agreement with that endorsement, but I am going to end with an experiment in mobilizing comic verse to support a serious cause.
Here’s the improbable analogy I now present for your consideration.
In the year 2021, the vaccines invented for Covid-19 are sure to provide a significant benefit for humanity. But the challenges we face in 2021 also call for a parallel set of humanities-based “vaccines” to immunize us against the contagions of nostalgia and complacency. This form of inoculation and immunization could prove to be just as important as the vaccines that the bio-scientists have discovered.
So here are two vaccines—or rather, limericks—that deploy a humor-based solution to limit the spread of habits of thought that will otherwise stand in the way of the nation’s multiple tracks of recovery—in public health, in politics and government, in social cohesion, and in the economy. And, scrambling modes of communication, I have embedded the poetry in prose in order to declare why I have selected these two habits of thought for vaccine-development.
First, I fear the possibility that, in 2021, disputes over the idea of “the normal” will add fuel to the fire of polarization and division. Contests to define what was “normal” before March of 2020, and to decide which elements of those “normal” conditions we should restore, stand a good chance of pitting Americans against each other with a heightened level of intolerance and ferocity.
Second, in a hoped-for future when the danger of the coronavirus loses its urgency, I fear a return of complacency. When I try (with only partial success) to adopt a stance of “historian’s detachment” and work to identify the major sources of the calamities that befell us in 2020, complacency lands at the top my list of causes. Complacency, we now know, takes well-being for granted, ignoring the precariousness, the exclusiveness, and the vulnerability lying just below the surface of that well-being.
A Vaccine against the Dream of Returning to the “Normal”
My authority is not at all formal,
And my powers are not supranormal.
But I see trouble ahead,
With hope falling dead,
If we cling to that useless word, “normal.”
A Vaccine against Complacency
As an idea both brittle and sterile,
Complacency brought us to peril.
If it regains its power,
We’ll have reason to cower,
As we head off to hell in a barrel.
At the beginning of the year 2021, the experiment of vaccination by limerick has been launched.
And here is what I am sure of: very serious limericks may or may not help, but at least they can’t hurt.
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