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Carol Smaldino Headshot

"Just Breathe Into the Terror" -- Toward an Alternative Brand of Positve

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Something felt quite positive for me today. I walked into the oncology office to find a woman who seemed to be in her 70s with her bald head exposed. It wasn't just that, but her face looked naturally lively and as such pretty, vibrant, and I noticed her face much more than her lack of hair. I've made it no secret to friends, families and readers that I have veered away from a wig or multiple ones, because to me (and I do have a noticeable hypersensitivity to certain smells, foods or looks) a wig has been seeming like a raccoon head, like an animal head on a mannequin. It has been something not for me, even though I know for many women it is a great alternative to hats or going bald "out loud."

I have already pondered the trouble with a great deal of "positive thinking" and "positive psychology". Thinking on the bright side, making lemons out of lemonade, "making it a wonderful day" can actually be so negative and even cruel to someone who is suffering on any level. And while it can be great to interrupt an endless self-absorption, particularly when it comes out of caring and intimate regard for the dignity of all emotions, it can also demean and negate the right to our emotions. It can negate the right also for us to evolve with them in fullness rather than denial.

I've sworn off singing odes to the cancer experience, although I have found whenever I am in a rough situation or one that I feel no other has entered into, I tend to find some similarities, some commonalties and ways to connect with people diverse than me, certainly on the surface. So in the infusion center at PVH, a lovely not un-cheerful mecca of chemotherapy (the loveliness really a gift of the staff who are kind without fake cheer), I happened to be seated before the television where The View was showing. It had Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray. The Mayor, after telling some about his own background with Ms. McCray -- who is black -- speaking openly about the racism that marked a good part of her earlier life, announced that May 16 is Barbara Walters Day in the city of New York, another thing that seemed positive to me, since she has made a living out of getting to the truth. He talked up some of his points that won him the election in a liberal bastion of a city with very very rich people who want him to fail because he refuses to ignore the inequalities that have haunted New York City and so many other places in our country and in our world. He has the chutzpah to refuse to be positive about what is negative.

This is not a negative person; he is realistic about what is wrong, some of what is wrong, and he feels that kids deserve a chance for pre-K whether or not their families have the money. He has the audacity to think that those who are very rich should -- through tax money -- help the poor, and perhaps that they should even want to do so. Very Christian, if you ask me, human as well. And very positive in that he sees solutions, wants make real opportunities to make equality of opportunity a real goal. The few conservatives I know feel he is a walking disaster, with no plans -- someone who will ruin the glorious facade of New York since Giuliani and Bloomberg where I can admit feeling safer in the city when I know too well that around each corner of a chi chi neighborhood lies some aspect of a ghetto where people get resigned to poverty, disrespect, violence and crowded conditions that also mark their experience of health care.

To look at the economic and social injustices in our own country, has been manipulated to be seen as negative, in some cases unpatriotic. For me, it is positive instead -- the real positive -- especially if it doesn't only end in hate mongering or indulging in self-righteous disgust, since we also need to look at our part in the hate. This would be attending to the human climate of divisiveness so we might fear less facing the prospect of uniting to deal with the physical realities facing our more global climate difficulties. Positive, no? To face the truth.

I've come to find as positive, in my own circumstances, aspects of my anger and my sense of needing to feel allowed to complain about my plight. A good friend, Betty, in her own groups with women who've lost a pregnancy, tells her clients that the "worst thing that could happen" is often "the worst thing that could happen to them." In other words, comparison is a kind of death and we tend to move on by processing our own emotional realities. We also move on to real empathy when we don't either judge ourselves so harshly that we have no room to care about another, when we can admit our own flaws without fighting to the death about how we either love or suffer or pray or give the most.

What if this positive thinking stuff is being used on us by media outlets and politicians (think Dick Cheney for a second) as a way to seduce and shame us to settle for the state of cancer research, of poverty, of wars that go on "uncivilly" at home, and exploitatively and dishonestly abroad. What if too many of us are buying into sleeping through trauma, taking sides prematurely and using the mantra that to give into what is, is the only real goal. Not only giving in but being happy about it.

By the way, April 22 is Earth Day. The new positive would surely be to embrace the facts, process them and start not to breathe them in and not assume this has to be the new lemonade -- at all.