Six years later, Bowler is the author of a remarkable and earth-shattering new book, filled with the wisdom she gained during this heartbreaking journey. In “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear)”, she reflects on the epidemic of denial that causes so many of us to graciously refuse to accept finitude – our own and that of those who hold us back. surround. Self-help historian Bowler is fed up with “toxic positivity”, which she defines as “too much emphasis on the idea that our state of mind determines our reality.”
I doubt she’s alone: raise your hand if that kind of pernicious positivity bothers you too.
It is almost impossible to live in America and avoid the trite warnings of “think positive!” When you lose your job or “everything happens for a reason” when you go bankrupt because of medical bills, even if you have health insurance. Chances are, you’ve delivered these empty platitudes in an effort to be useful as well.
Bowler told me, “Our minds are powerful, but forcing our minds to conjure optimism is not always healthy. American culture has become addicted to the idea that anything is possible for those who believe. But the victim is honesty. We exaggerate our own abilities and end up afflicting ourselves with unnecessary shame and frustration. Life is hard enough without imagining that we are not simply suffering, but failing. “Bowler is an expert in” l ‘prosperity gospel’, a witchy mix of toxic positivity and spiritual circumvention (in which spiritual ideas and practices are used to avoid facing reality head-on) that is popular in many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches .
In this paradigm, God rewards you with health, wealth, and happiness if only you have the right kind of faith. As the pandemic has demonstrated, scientific facts and common sense collapse as people say they will “trust God” to protect them from a deadly virus that befalls people around them whom God apparently does not care about. (Strangely enough, many of these same people own weapons rather than trusting God to protect them.)
But spiritual bypassing is not just for Christians. It infects much of the wellness and self-help industry that commodifies magical thinking about our power to overcome dire health diagnoses, financial hardship, deadly infectious disease, and systemic issues such as racism, misogyny and income inequality with positive thinking and spiritual belief.
Even Americans who are not particularly spiritual or religious can fall prey to this kind of mindset, so ingrained in American ethics. “This movement that started out as a very Pentecostal and overtly Christian theology has become so widespread that I can’t go to Target without having a whole line of household items explaining to me that the Universe is conspiring to bring me happiness, ”Bowler commented wryly. to me in an interview recently.
During a period many years ago, while attending an evangelical church, I was urged to pray and fast so that I could be healed of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and debilitating clinical anxiety. A trendy pastor from the New York church I attended hosted a meeting for those struggling with depression and anxiety and informed the group that they shouldn’t be on drugs, but rather trust to God, as he did. God “put us in the furnace” – a biblical reference – to shape us and make us grow.
So, I faithfully went through crippling anxiety for years until I couldn’t take it anymore and started taking an antidepressant. Within two weeks, my anxiety had eased considerably and I was able to function normally. It was, dare I say, miraculous.
As for my physical pain and fatigue: it turns out that they were due to trauma, and after intense therapy, my health recovered. Hearing that my lack of belief was the cause of my health problems not only made my suffering even more unbearable – it was factually incorrect and dangerous advice.
Bowler recognizes that seeking to find meaning at the lowest points in our lives can have positive consequences, such as building resilience in the face of change. But when people insist that your pain and suffering is meant to teach you something, it can cause shame and fear, Bowler notes. “If I thought that by telling myself that I have stage four cancer and that I’m probably not going to last until the end of the year, then leave behind a two year old because God or the universe was trying to teach me to be a better person, I would really have a hard time understanding what it would mean to have a loving God in this scenario. “
Bowler is not advocating that we give up hope for a better world, give up optimism or faith that there is a higher power. Instead, it directs us to a better understanding of what spirituality and faith really is.
In the Christian tradition, the promise that God makes is not to protect us from ever encountering a storm; it’s for be with us in this storm. “Too often our lives are turned upside down by the things we can’t choose,” Bowler said. “If we could all have a little more love and reality about not being able to live our best lives now, I think the world would be a smoother place for people in pain.”