I used to have a poster in my classroom that said “Good Vibes Only.” It was one of the free posters from the book fair-teachers will know what I’m talking about. (For the rest of you, they send display posters with the book fair that you get to keep. The veteran teachers will call dibs as soon as the book fair is set up. Pro-tip: When you volunteer to help set up the book fair you get first dibs on all the posters). But I don’t display that poster anymore. Now I will fully admit I am one of those “Pinterest” teachers who redecorates their classroom every year and that was one of the reasons the poster was taken down. But more importantly, I no longer agree with the sentiment.
Good vibes only implies that only your happy self is welcome here. Not your sad self, or your frustrated self, or your anxious self. Now this is a very fine line in a middle school classroom-I did keep the poster that says, “lose the ‘tude.” I want my students to have healthy coping strategies, to behave in ways that are appropriate for the school context, but I also want them to know there is space for them to be frustrated, sad, or anxious. They don’t need to be fake happy whenever they’re in my classroom.
Fake happy. That’s why society now has the phrase ‘toxic positivity.’ It’s the idea that as humans we are obligated to put a positive spin on everything. You are pressured to find the bright side instead of being allowed to acknowledge the things that are sad or hard or lonely. It’s like in the movie Inside Out where Joy always wants to be leading over Sadness, Anger, Fear, or Disgust. I won’t spoil the movie, but I’m sure you can guess that it simply isn’t possible for Joy to always lead. Maybe it’s even good to let the other emotions take a turn.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean we become stuck in our negative emotions. What it is is recognizing that it is ok to feel sad when things are actually sad. Anxiety is not something that needs to be banished at all costs. There is no shame in being triggered after experiencing a real trauma. Of course, we are going to work towards returning to a place of contentment and stability, but toxic positivity expects that you get there pretty much immediately. It’s why people feel pressured to say things like, “I’m learning just how strong I am” instead of “I’m still devastated and I don’t know when it will get better.”
Toxic positivity isn’t just something we see in children’s movies or middle school posters. We also see it sneaking into Christianity. It’s why I didn’t share my own story at church until I felt more stable. Why I didn’t start this blog until I felt like I had gotten to a pretty good place. Why people didn’t share their struggles with me until after they had heard my story. It’s easy to feel like you have to have the solution before you are able to talk about the problem.
I first noticed it in song lyrics. Here is the chorus from Scars by I am They.
So I’m thankful for the scars
‘Cause without them I wouldn’t know your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who you are
So forever I am thankful for the scars
When I first heard it I thought, “absolutely not. ” No, I am not thankful for my scars. If anything I am thankful that they are now scars and not gaping wounds. My scars are a reminder of the absolute worst moments of my life-when I came home to find a suicide note on the kitchen table. No part of me will ever be thankful for that. Not even a little bit.
But I also don’t love the line, “cause without them I wouldn’t know your heart.” This is nitpicky, I know, but to me this is implying that God needed this person to experience deep suffering before that person could have a hope of connecting with God. That is not the God I serve, nor is it a God I am particularly interested in getting to know. I am not thankful for my scars, and I don’t think God expects me to be.
God doesn’t expect us to be fake happy, to shove all of our negative emotions away and frantically try to find some mythical bright side. So I much prefer Rend Collective’s Weep With Me.
What’s true in the light
Is still true in the dark
You’re good and You’re kind
And You care for this heart
Lord I believe
That You weep with me
Yeah, You weep with me.
This shows a God who is there to weep with us when we are hurting. A God who doesn’t expect us to come when things are better but a God suffers alongside us. And that’s a relief. Like the hymn says, “If you tarry ’til you’re better, you will never come at all.” This is the great comfort we have with Christ, that no matter what the suffering we are never alone. Later on in Weep With Me it repeats a line that was my constant prayer during early grief, ‘You know I believe. Help my unbelief.” There was no pressure to have it all figured out, to have already learned some great lesson borne out of suffering. I could be in the mess with God right beside me.
The most dangerous part of toxic positivity is that it makes it more difficult for people to share their true feelings. K. J. Ramsey summed it up best in her recent Instagram post, so I’ll let her have the last word.
“I wonder how much less anguish we would experience in suffering if the church treated suffering like a story to tell rather than a secret to keep until it passes”