On what feels like the 1998th day of March, this pandemic doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Even with the vaccine rollout beginning, experts are estimating it won’t be available in a widespread way until at least April, and there’s a good chance they’ll recommend we keep up on public health measures like masking beyond that. And a vaccine won’t change what we’ve witnessed in the last nine-or-so months. Over 300,000 people are confirmed to have died from COVID-19 in the United States, with that number continuing to climb. We’ve seen friends and family lose their jobs and their livelihoods. The economy is in trouble. Flaws in our health care system are more glaring than ever and everyone is trying to prepare for what is next in the course of this life-altering virus.
But despite the heartbreaking reality that still surrounds us, a lot of people are…carrying on like everything is fine. The weekend leading up to Thanksgiving saw a record high number of travelers since mid-March. Many people will probably travel for the upcoming holidays as well. Some people are Instagramming party pics from some alternate universe where the pandemic doesn’t exist. These decisions seem to be underscored with messages of optimism and hope: We’re being as safe as possible, what are the chances we actually get sick, anyway? I stuck to CDC recommendations for months, don’t I deserve a break? Isn’t time with loved ones more precious than ever? Things will be just fine, right?
This kind of messaging—the insistence that everything will be okay, that we should look on the bright side no matter what, that we’ll definitely make it through this—has been present in one form or another since March. It goes beyond a garden-variety attempt to find hope when everything feels hopeless and has entered territory known as toxic positivity. And it’s long past time we retire it.
To be honest? I was not only a consumer but a purveyor of a different form of toxic positivity. At the beginning of the pandemic, the bright side du jour was that we should be grateful for the slowed-down nature of The Times and take advantage of lockdown to pursue new hobbies or get shit done. I even posted my own crappy little think piece on my Instagram about how much more we’ll all appreciate one another when things go back to normal. As a chronically depressed person, I remember feeling so proud that I was able to reach such a noble state of positivity for such a dark period of history. I saw the silver lining and was basking in its carefree glow, thank you very much! This would be over soon! We’d all be okay with minimal damage! I pushed aside any thoughts or news that crept in my direction that suggested otherwise. I wasn’t ready to come to terms with it.
As it turns out, I didn’t have a choice in that matter, as all of this changed on April 24th. I received an afternoon phone call from my dad. My granny had contracted COVID-19.
I don’t remember much of the conversation that followed. I know he mentioned low blood oxygen levels. That she was comfortable at a nearby hospital but to prepare myself as it didn’t look good. And, no, we weren’t going to be able to see her.
Days later, at around 4 AM on April 27th, my sweet granny left us. All at once, the bright side I had basked in abruptly eclipsed, leaving nothing behind but a shadow of hope rendered totally useless. Suddenly, looking at all the “positives” seemed empty and utterly tactless. After all, how was I supposed to make the most of a pandemic when it took one of my favorite people away? What possible bright side could exist in a world where I couldn’t properly say goodbye to my granny?
Most importantly, though, I was finally facing the grim truth: Despite the hope I’d been clutching to, some of us would not make it through this. After I lost granny, people told me everything I should be grateful for: at least she was out of pain, at least we were able to have a rushed viewing despite the times, at least her bout of COVID was quick.
And sure, some of those things could be true I suppose. But I didn’t want to hear it; I still don’t. These “silver lining” platitudes usually only benefit the person reciting them, not the receiving party. When you say, “We’ll make it through this,” you’ll eventually say it to someone who loves someone who didn’t make it through this. When you say, “Everything will be okay,” you downplay all the barriers currently in our way—including colossal systemic ones. When you say, “At least…” you’re asking someone to be grateful that their immeasurable pain isn’t worse. Even with good intentions, these phrases invalidate very real pain, fear, and other uncomfortable and “bad” feelings. They ignore how important it is to let people feel sad and lost and scared and uncertain. These sayings create further distance in times when connection is needed most.
I wish my family and I didn’t have to experience this for me to fully get it, which is part of why I’m sharing my story now. I don’t want others to have to go through what I did to also realize how gravely serious this crisis is and continues to be. But sadly, that’s often what it takes. And nine months and 300,000 deaths into the pandemic, I thought this relentless positivity would fade away as more people learned that hard lesson with me, as more people who didn’t directly lose a loved one still watched death tolls mount. But seeing how many people continue to bank on optimism that the pandemic won’t end in tragedy for them personally—and who let that certainty translate into harmful behavior—I fear this bright-side concept is more insidious than ever.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold on to whatever actual bright sides we can find. That we can’t look forward to life after COVID, whenever that may be, or that we can’t hold onto hope that everything will be okay. By all means, we can and should do those things. These are absolutely vital to our well-being right now. There are so many people leaning on positivity to help themselves feel better during these wildly hard times. Not only is that completely understandable and human, but it can also be crucial as part of the healing process for everyone involved. There’s even space to offer respectful words of encouragement to others. It’s just about knowing your audience well and reading the room. If you’re close enough to someone to know they appreciate help looking on the bright side, of course you can offer that. And when in doubt, you can always ask, “What would be most helpful right now?”
But at some point, optimism that’s meant to comfort ourselves and others can turn into denial that informs behavior and attitudes that hurt others—or even put them in danger.
Because toxic positivity turns too easily into permission. Sure, “Everything will be okay!” might be a harmless platitude to some, but to others, it’s a dangerous justification to, say, go to their friend’s holiday bash and hope for the best. After all, if you say that everything will be fine enough times, eventually you might start acting like everything will be fine no matter what risks you take. And that’s a surefire way to raise the odds that it won’t be.
There’s room for self-compassion when we slip up, of course; constant isolation is by no means sustainable, both practically and for our collective mental health. The real issue rests in routine recklessness followed by a shrug of, Oh well! Gotta stay positive. We can’t forget that doing and saying what we need to get through this tough time should never come at the expense of other people’s emotions or safety. That is toxic positivity.
So I guess you could say this is a call to action: As we continue into the holiday season and beyond, let’s change that narrative around how we can utilize positivity, optimism, and hope to get through. Instead of relying on empty platitudes of positivity, let’s back hopefulness up with doing the right thing for one another. Let’s remember that safety measures like social distancing and wearing a mask can be altruistic, caring, and tough. Yes, these things are lonely. Yes, they’re hard. Uncomfortable and boring even. But by trying to keep us all safe so that we actually make it to the end of this pandemic together, aren’t they also realistic acts of hope and positivity?