When tragedy of humongous proportions strikes, like the one mankind is passing through now, positivity as a byproduct of empathy and hope is called for in such moments
An obese gentleman walked into a restaurant and ordered 12 vadas, a South Indian snack. Looking at his overweight body, a companion asked him if it was right to have so many vadas. The gentleman replied that he was a ‘positive thinker’ and when he eats the vadas, he only looks at the holes in them. As a positive thinker, he believed he was only eating 12 empty holes.
Positivism has many shades. Nonchalance and escape from responsibility is one such shade. Fatalism is another. Some Hindus had a distorted understanding of Karma. If you want to hide your inadequacies, attribute it to Karma—fate, they believed. In ancient Western societies, fate played an important role in certain philosophical schools. For example, the Stoics believed that both good and bad were created by God and one should simply accept everything as divinely ordained fate. The bed bugs were there to ‘awaken us out of our sleep’; the mice were there to ‘encourage humans to be tidy’, the Stoics argued. Chrysippus of Soli, a Greek Stoic philosopher, argued that it would have been impossible for good to exist without evil. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, presented the fate theory for human suffering by arguing, “God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.” The philosopher Zeno of Citium from Hellenistic Greece was considered the father of Stoicism. He was once flogging a slave who had stolen some goods. “But I was fated to steal,” the slave protested. “Yes, and to be beaten too,” Zeno responded. Acceptance of pain and pleasure as one’s fate was seen as the path to tranquility by the Stoics. Therein lies the fatalist shade of positivity.
But human suffering calls for not a fatalist, nonchalant version of positivity but empathy and remorse. It is difficult for someone who has lost his near and dear ones to a pandemic or some other disaster to have positivity. For him, empathy and hope are the desiderium. Franklin Roosevelt became the President of America in 1933, when the country was reeling under severe depression. Roosevelt started ‘fireside talks’ to address his countrymen. The first two words of his initial fireside chat were ‘My friends’. Before him, no President ever deviated from formal address. But Roosevelt’s empathy-filled two words had instantly connected him with the suffering masses of his country. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. Let us unite in banishing fear,” the 32nd US President told his countrymen. Confidence, courage, plan and banishing fear are the magic words that enthralled his audience. His closing words were “Together, we cannot fail.” This was another significant shade of positivity.
“If you cannot cry, you are weak” is one of the lessons of psychology. Empathy, a quality associated with the heart, is essential at the time of suffering. When human tragedy of humongous proportions strikes, like the one mankind is passing through at the moment, positivity as a smug quality of the mind that demands that you always say ‘yes’ and ‘everything is hunky dory’ is not what people need. Positivity as a byproduct of empathy and hope is called for in such moments. Not the mind, but the heart should be at work. “In small matters trust the mind, in large ones the heart,” said Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology.
Listening to the lectures by eminent saints and scholars on ‘positivity’ recently, I was struck by these thoughts. The speakers focused on hope and empathy more than the fashionable advocacy of positive thinking. A brief three-minute address by Azim Premji, the founder of Wipro, and a detailed address of Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, stood out distinctively in this regard. Premji emphasised on truth and science as the basis of mitigating human suffering at the hour of the pandemic, while Bhagwat underscored the need for remorse, empathy and confidence. All speakers stressed on the need for unity as well.
“It is difficult,” said Bhagwat about positivity at the very beginning of his speech, admitting that what those victims of the pandemic need more than positivity was empathy and support. Bhagwat and other speakers spoke about keeping the mind strong. Bhagwat depended on Winston Churchill to drive home the point of strong mind. He referred to a quote on Churchill’s desk that read: “There is no pessimism in this office. We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They don’t exist.” Talking about the need for courage and steely resolve, Bhagwat ended his speech by again turning to Churchill: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Incidentally, the new discourse on positivity focuses more on these qualities of courage and standing up. Four years ago, when the Buckingham University in England declared itself as “Europe’s first Positive University”, a new debate exploded on the issue of positivity. The whole spectrum of positive psychology, which had become a big industry for business leaders and politicians since its beginning in the late 1990s, came under serious scrutiny. What about pessimist thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud? Will they be banished from the curriculum? Can happiness be made compulsory through positivity?
Danish philosopher and psychologist Svend Brinkmann authored the book ‘Stand Firm’ as an antidote to compulsory happiness theories of positivity and self-help. The secret to a happier life doesn’t lie in forced positivity and suppression of emotions, but in standing up firm and getting a foothold in turbulent life, Brinkmann argues in his book.
That was largely the mantra given by the speakers at the ‘Positivity Unlimited’ series of lectures—be firm, take control of your life and move on with hope and confidence.
(The article was originally published in The New Indian Express on May 21, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)