On either side of the contemporary debate about the alleged “epidemic of depression,”[i] for instance, there are positivistic responses which try to return to what was, improving things by offering true/false analyses of opposed studies without seeing through to the mythic figures speaking through scientific sounding words like “normal” and “disorder.” A subtext throughout suggests that either there is or isn’t an epidemic of the blues which should be repaired promptly with drugs and therapy.
Alternately, sympathetic doctors and bathetic patients should stop over-reporting and making such a fuss. Both cheer up and shut up are progressive responses, however. There seems to be hesitation before suggesting that people around the world[ii] might be angry and grieving the death of their familiar ways of living and dreams for the future, and that they will likely continue to do so until they are done or dead, self-help books and compelling entertainments notwithstanding. Bluevolution involves pointing out that rictus grins do not excise cultural tumors. Feminist democratic socialist writer Barbara Ehrenreich observed something similar in her experience with cancer and the modern myth of Positivity:
Whether repressed feelings are themselves harmful, as many psychologists claim, I'm not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking “fails” and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place.
I, at least, was saved from this additional burden by my persistent anger—which would have been even stronger if I had suspected, as I do now, that my cancer was iatrogenic, that is, caused by the medical profession. When I was diagnosed, I had been taking hormone replacement therapy for almost eight years, prescribed by doctors who avowed it would prevent heart disease, dementia, and bone loss. Further studies revealed in 2002 that HRT increases the risk of breast cancer, and, as the number of women taking it dropped sharply in the wake of this news, so did the incidence of breast cancer. So bad science may have produced the cancer in the first place, just as the bad science of positive thinking plagued me throughout my illness.
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.[iii]
When one may depend on the inevitability of scientific advance, industrial efficiencies and pharmaceuticals, among other bootstrap rescues, what need is there of tolerating the embarrassment and discomfort of deeper inquiry? Within industrialism’s legacy and the progress of climate change, mass-produced violence, the pervasive depths of depression, anxiety, failure, and accompanying denial, a species-survival necessity seems to be coming to consciousness. Bluevolution is the story of this emerging necessity. To be clear, the way of Grief is not the New Positivity, a new-and-improved cure (better than ever before) which conveys a more efficient and clinically verifiable power to triumph over suffering. Such an approach would be more of the poison that is killing us—the progressive fantasy that All Will Be Well.
What does the body politic do, for instance, when it is suddenly, viscerally, reminded of mortality via images of the limbs and lives of a generation of young soldiers blown from their bodies in order to pursue a war based on very public, as yet unpunished fraud? What happens when, as a direct consequence, the financial future of nations is ripped off as well? The Center for Positive Psychology FAQ offers this:
As long as there is suffering in the world, how can we justify devoting time and resources to positive psychology? Isn’t human suffering more important than well being?
Research has shown that one way to help suffering people is to focus on the building of strengths. Major strides in prevention have come largely by building strengths. Prevention researchers have discovered that there are strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future mindedness, optimism, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for flow and insight, to name several.[iv]
From the point of view of the positivist, the question might be no more nuanced than: Isn’t human suffering more important than well-being? To the person suffering the loss of species, of beloved people and places to war and poverty, of innocence, the singular focus on affirmation, the “building [of] strengths,” and the making of “major strides” are an obvious part of the problem. “Future mindedness” may not fit for parents grieving their children, wounded warriors, evicted homeowners, and other persons living through the unforgiving depredations of histories and ghosts ignored. Colleague, Jason Sugg,[v] provided an essential reminder that positive psychology is inherently a psychology of the privileged. Putting out of one’s mind the world’s travails implies having the privilege of being able to distance oneself from those travails.
[i] “Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters, asked Allan Horwitz, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, and Jerome Wakefield, professor of social work at New York University, a few questions about their recent book, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Illness.” Jonah Lehrer, Allan Horwitz, and Jerome Wakefield, “Is There Really an Epidemic of Depression? Scientific American”, December 4, 2008, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=really-an-epidemic-of-depression&print=true.
[ii] “According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the world, while ischemic heart disease trails in sixth place. Fatalities occur most dramatically through suicide, but even the mild form of depression - called dysthemia and characterised by an inability to experience pleasure - can kill by increasing a person's vulnerability to serious somatic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Far from being an affliction of the famous and successful, we now know that the disease strikes the poor more often than the rich, and women more commonly than men.” Barbara Ehrenreich, “How We Learned to Stop Having Fun,” The Guardian, April 2, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/apr/02/healthandwellbeing.books.
[iii] Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Smile! You’ve Got Cancer.” The Guardian, January 2, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/02/cancer-positive-thinking-barbara-ehrenreich. Also see the video RSA Animate - Smile or Die, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5um8QWWRvo&feature=youtube_gdata_player.