Tragic Optimism vs Toxic Positivity

Posted on Sep 2, 2021 in Wellness Committee | 0 comments

Tragic Optimism vs Toxic Positivity – it is important to find meaning in hardship rather than try to gloss over life’s realities, especially when times are tough!

Ms. S is a 75 yo who recently lost a child to a violent crime and another to Covid and kidney complications. Now she lives alone and has just found out about a lung mass.  During one of our conversations she said, “God helps us find a way when there is no way.”  I got goosebumps, my body’s signal to me that I was in the presence of something awesome.

My younger defiantly atheistic self would have questioned the merits of that answer, but now I see the wisdom of it – even for those of us who don’t believe in a guiding deity.  We can find transcendence in suffering.

 I am a big fan of gratitude and looking for the positive in life, but to be human is to suffer loss.  A meaningful life is derived in large part by how well we grow during these inevitable times of hardship. Covid, climate change, political and economic uncertainty, we are all suffering now or have our heads in the sand.

How does gratitude fit into this idea of “post-traumatic growth”?  Gratitude should not be “I’m lucky for all I have”, but “I am grateful for what others have given me and for the opportunities life has presented for making a meaningful life.” With that comes a desire to give back, strengthen relationships, build culture and grow spiritually.  Gratitude researchers call this existential gratitude: being grateful for all that life brings, both the good and the bad.

Gratitude can help us appreciate the little good things at the fringes of our suffering and also help us face the suffering with a growth mindset.

Loss is a defining part of the human experience.  Fully feeling our losses can tie us to others who have suffered and those who have worked to lighten our burden.  As health care providers, we should all feel grateful for the opportunity we have to lessen the burden of those we care for.  We might not do it through a cure, it might just happen with an open-ended question and a quiet presence that invites sharing of hard-won wisdom.  We can learn from our patients about grace and gratitude – a gratitude with depth.

The day Ms. S went home I took her hand and thanked her. “Your grace amidst suffering is a thing of beauty.” I said.

“Your loving presence might be the best medicine I have on God’s journey.” She said

No Pollyannaish “lucky me’s” or blithely blind positivity.  Just some old fashion thanks for sharing ourselves with each other.

Leif Hass, MD
Summit Wellness, Chair