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Category Archives: Psychology

Surprise!

A French tarot card


I have a tendency to believe in chance over direct and linear divine intervention. Maybe they are different ways of talking about the same thing.

But just last night I was bemoaning to Bruce how we have ended up where we are socially and politically today, and how I can’t believe that we could arrive at this situation after the sixties, the seventies, and even the eighties and nineties. So much for progress (though I have to admit I was always suspicious of that idea). I wondered aloud if the 9/11 terrorists have, after all, succeeded in their goal in destroying any semblance of shared values in this country and of emboldening the devil of hate.

Bruce and I were talking about the letter sent by Governor Rick Scott to university officials all over the state of Florida requesting—no, demanding—certain “information” about various courses of study. On the surface, like so many things, it looks not unreasonable. But there are two things disturbing about it: first, most departments and other units at state universities have never had a budget or staff to collect this kind of extensive data, which Scott demanded in one month. More disturbing is the fact that Scott’s letter doesn’t just make it clear what he intends; rather, he has assumed that we will all fall in line with his intention, and the mission he intends to force is that of vocational training for our students. I have nothing against job-production, and higher education is key in that effort, but to define it as the main or only mission for universities is scary. And changing the game on faculty and administrators everywhere without even saying that’s what you are doing—just slipping it in—is downright imperialist.

Another one of my tendencies is to careen downhill like a snowball collecting snow. Last night, the horrors of being an educator in Florida these days picked up my more personal dissatisfactions with my work and employment situation. At one point I said to Bruce these exact words: “I never imagined my life would turn out like this.” (I know, big violin.)

In the wee hours of the morning, when my insomnia becomes the provider of quiet reading time, I was therefore extra delighted to find this passage in Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria, which I’m also delighted to still be reading. Unlike so many books about happiness that I read, and so many of the books published now in the U.S., it is actually taking me days and days to read instead of a few hours. It has substance and breadth. I thought I would wait to mention it again until I was finished, but this coincidence (or divine intervention—take your pick) was just too good to pass up.

And chance goes beyond the juxtaposition of last night’s conversation with this morning’s reading. I discovered this book by sheer chance, not by some plan of information-gathering related to the subject of this blog (though I have been doing that). No, I was working on another project, a proposed textbook, and was thinking about Paul Auster in relation to a discussion of memory and memoir. When I looked at my decades-old lesson plans about Auster, I found a quote from the introduction to The Invention of Solitude that I had copied out. It was by Pascal Bruckner, and I wondered who the heck he was since the name was unfamiliar and he’s definitely not one of the literary creative writing insiders in the U.S. So I looked him up, and as chance has it, his book on happiness was just translated and published in English earlier this year. That’s what we call serendipity.

Lost illusions: since the Romantic period, they have been frequently contrasted with the heroic dreams of youth. Life is supposed to follow an inevitable itinerary from hope to disenchantment, a perpetual entropy. However, it is possible to oppose to this commonplace of dashed hopes another model: that of the blessed surprise, illusions rediscovered. The world of dreams, contrary to what is usually said, is poor and mean, whereas reality, as soon as we begin to explore it, virtually suffocates us with its abundance and diversity. “I call spiritual intoxication,” said Ruysbroek, a Flemish mystic of the Renaissance, “the state in which pleasure transcends the possibilities desire had envisaged.” To the principle of anteriority, which judges life in relation to a program, we must oppose the principle of exteriority: the world infinitely surpasses my ideas and expectations, and we have to get beyond them to begin loving it. It is not the world that is disappointing, it is the chimeras that shackle our minds. Answered prayers are dreary: there is something very profound in the wisdom that warns us never to find what we are seeking. “Preserve me from what I want,” keep me from living in the Golden Age, the garden of wishes fulfilled.

There is nothing sadder than a future that resembles what we had imagined. We are disappointed when our wishes coincide with what we are experiencing, whereas it is especially moving to see our expectations diverted by particular incidents. (The literature of happiness is usually a disabused literature: hopes have either been betrayed or, more disturbingly, fulfilled, and desire satisfied, that is, killed.) Pleasure arises more from a project repeatedly thwarted and turned in a different direction than from a realized desire. While boredom is always associated with equilibrium, joyous overflow occurs when the imagination has to yield to the greater marvels of the real: “I had to choose between the hammer and the bell; what I remember now is mainly the sound they made” (Victor Segalen). Every inspiring life is both an achievement and a defeat, that is, a marvelous disappointment when what happens is not what one desired, and one becomes sensitive to everything that makes life opulent, fervent, and captious. The defeat of an illusion always opens the door to miracles.

Perpetual Euphoria

"Quite the happy dog" from Grashoofd on Dutch Wikipedia


“You can’t summon happiness like you summon a dog. We cannot master happiness, it cannot be the fruit of our decisions. We have to be more humble. Not because we should praise frailty or humility but because people are very unhappy when they try hard and fail. We have a lot of power in our lives but not the power to be happy. Happiness is more like a moment of grace.”

Today I bring you this quote from Pascal Bruckner, whose Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy has recently been translated from the French. I started reading it this week, and so far it’s offering a history of attitudes about happiness. He is definitely a like mind, and I love how straightforwardly he points out the irony in the misery caused by the obligation we feel these days to be “happy.” Truly, when that is the case it can’t be happiness people feel at all.

Here is the review in The Guardian and Observer from which the quote is taken. A fuller gloss on his argument can be found in his short article, “Condemned to Joy,” in City Journal.

A happy dog picture never hurts, but maybe happiness itself is more like a cat!

All Along the Watchtower

I’ve been keeping this blog for about six months now—at least two posts a week for six weeks. On Thursday I hope to reflect more generally on this journey, but today I want to mention the heat that’s involved in any kind of public discourse, no matter how modest.

Why is it worth trying to tell the truth as I see it? It certainly doesn’t make me universally popular. Fortunately, I get more in the way of agreement and support privately from those who say they don’t want to venture more publically (though they often do just that in a necessary context). I’ve been having all kinds of discussions off the blog with people about my willingness to deal with the more public criticism and about my willingness to speak my mind.

And let me note that I’m not perfect, and my blog is a personal rather than a journalistic one. I don’t say unfounded things with no reason, but what I write about is always open to interpretation. I don’t claim to be an economic expert or a psychology expert or a music expert or an expert on the formation of new departments at my university. I have a moderate level of knowledge about any subject I approach, though I remain open and correctable. It’s my hope that there is some shred left of a desire for discussion where people say, “Here are my reasons,” in response to my saying, “Here are my reasons.” That’s what I believe we are called upon to do as supposedly thinking people, especially those pursuing an academic life. Instead, I often find myself in a position where I have outraged someone by speaking (or writing) at all.

I have been fulfilling this position for much of my life. I don’t know how or why it became so important for me to speak my mind and to report what it is I see before me. I do know that it was a role I played in my own family of origin, and I remember reading a book about family dynamics years ago in which I recognized that I was the one who always said the things no one else would say even though they were all thinking the same thing. I was the one who expressed much of the dismay or frustration that everyone else felt.

Even this weekend, I had an exchange with my mother (sorry, Mom!) about an email she’d sent about trying to plan for the holidays. There are certain extended family members who resist communication and who make it all very complicated for my mother and her husband. In their branch of the family, the holidays have long been a power struggle. I told my mother that this year Bruce and I are going to plan for ourselves and extend a few invitations, but that I am not going to undergo eight weeks of hostile negotiations. Period. Eventually, my mother said that she was so sorry she had sent the email and upset me. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was the one who was most upset by this situation, not me. I was expressing her distress. I was naming the problem with the extended family, even though my mother knew full-well what it was.

I don’t know why I am this way. Maybe it has to do with the sub-conscious training in my family to fulfill a certain need others had. Maybe I was just struck in elementary school by The Emperor’s New Clothes, a brilliant children’s book if ever there was one. Maybe it has to do with developing an early chronic illness that the doctors always accused me of lying about (“I know you ate candy.” “I know you didn’t have a low blood sugar.” “I know you skipped your injection.”). Maybe it had to do with my unusual proximity to death and a desire not to waste my time with bullsh*t.

My friend H reminded me this weekend that Virginia Woolf always considered herself an outsider and that she evoked devotion in some and hatred in others. I’m not a “great thinker,” but I do hold up for myself a few fellow truth-tellers that I admire and who have always inspired me: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Claribel Alegría, Tillie Olsen, Susan Brownmiller. These are people who understand the dangers of silence, and I am in good company if I poke some people in the eye.

Today, I present to you Bob Dylan’s song as sung by Jimi Hendrix, and this lovely interpretation of its meaning, the importance of truth to artists, and the importance of outsiders to society. “Let us not talk falsely now, / The hour is getting late.”

Diving into the Wreck


I’ve done it again, by accident this time. I’ve dived into the wreck of our time. It’s cast me back to my first discovery of the disaster of embedded sexism (and by association racism), and of Adrienne Rich’s wonderful poem “Diving into the Wreck.” That poem and the collection of poems named after it, which I discovered so many years ago, is still more than relevant and is much needed today, when we are still so often submerged in “myths/in which/our names do not appear.” It always amazes me that these angry white men can go on and on about “entitlements” when what they’re so angry about is the loss of their “birthright” of male, white dominance. Thank goodness some men have grown up and gotten on with it. And thank goodness that women like Adrienne Rich showed that “We are, I am, you are/by cowardice or courage/the one who find our way/back to this scene.” We are the one.

Motivations

Last Thursday, I cross-posted my tenure-related musing on Daily Kos. It has since been picked up by the new blog of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Academe. There has been a lot of great discussion, here on joyouscrybaby and already on Daily Kos.

All writers want readers, right?

It is great to enter the realm of public debate, but I have to admit that I also find it a little terrifying. I recently said to my husband, “What was I thinking becoming a writer? The entire premise of being a writer is that you want to be famous. I am so not a fame-hound.” It is not that way with doctors and lawyers and graphic designers and so forth. Some gain notoriety, but it isn’t the point of their work. It really shouldn’t be the point of a writer’s work either, but often it seems that it becomes that way. I have been struggling with this issue as I pass mid-life not famous. I haven’t stopped writing, but how do I value my own work under these circumstances? My blog has been partly about exploring what I care about more than lines on my c.v.

In addition, one of those who commented on Thursday’s blog eventually accused me of greed because I make somewhat more than the median annual salary in the U.S. It’s a ludicrous accusation, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my motivations in the past week.

So it was with eagerness that I watched this 10-minute video called “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that a person posted in response to the blog post on Daily Kos. It’s an animation based on a speech by Daniel Pink, a bestselling author on the subject of work, and is part of a project of Britain’s RSA (the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Take the time to watch–it’s cool. Academia has operated (as least ideally) for a long time on the principles that Pink notes. It’s too bad that these ideas are catching on in the private sector at a time when they are under attack in university life.

Selfish Tears

I have a different pump, but this photo is in the public domain. Close enough.


One night a few weeks ago, I didn’t click through enough of the buttons on my insulin pump, and, unbeknownst to me for several hours, I had not gotten my dinnertime insulin. By the time I realized this at 11:00 p.m. my blood glucose was 339. Now, 80 is normal, and 100 is what I shoot for, but I was still a long way from diabetic ketoacidosis, coma, and death. Since I have all the tools at my fingertips and could zap myself with insulin right away, there was no immediate danger, just an emotional reaction.

I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for going on 40 years. Over the past couple of years, my blood glucose levels haven’t been all that great. I’ve been working very hard the past months to keep them stable–testing a lot, eating lower glycemic index foods, exercising, avoiding the more avoidable stresses of my workplace, and using my pump’s “bolus wizard.” This last is a term I despise–why not call it your Bolus Fairy Godmother? Or your Bolus Knight in Shining Armor? I hate the infantilizing of my condition with terms like that.

Anyway, name aside, it’s a handy little tool that calculates for you how much insulin you need for any given meal, and it records both doses and blood sugars so the doctor wants me to use it to help him monitor my highs and lows. The trouble is that you have to punch the buttons a million times to get through all the screens. Sometimes I think that, even as math impaired as I am, doing my own numbers in my head is less trouble.

So, looking at that 339 and realizing what had happened, I felt a surge of anger–at myself for screwing up, at the fact that I probably wouldn’t feel well enough in the morning for my spin class, at the stupid design of the stupid pump (which, of course, I generally appreciate and wouldn’t want to live without), at my husband for talking to me during dinner and distracting me from the buttons (which conversation, of course, I’d been looking forward to all afternoon), at the universe that saddled me with this disease.

When I got to the latter, I was flooded with tears of frustration and self-pity. My husband put his arm around me and said, “It doesn’t ruin everything. It’ll be back to normal by tomorrow.”

“I know,” I said, “but I’d just like one f*ing day off.” We acknowledged as how that’s not going to happen, no matter how much I hope for it. There is no one with a magic wand anywhere in sight, not even the Bolus Wizard.

These were embarrassing, selfish little tears, and I regretted them as soon as they had passed. But still, I want to say that it’s probably okay to cry for yourself a little every now and then. Especially if it helps you let go of the anger and blame.

In fact, one recent concept to emerge out of positive psychology that might actually be useful and helpful is that of “self-compassion,” the practice of accepting and examining negative feelings (such as failure, inadequacy, and other kinds of suffering) rather than denying or disapproving of them. Even Martin Seligman has questioned the emphasis on self-esteem in raising children, noting that it tends to make them unrealistic and narcissistic. In more recent years, researchers such as University of Texas professor Kristin Neff and Harvard professor Christopher K. Germer, have focused instead on self-compassion.

There are a couple of aspects of this approach that are important: one is that self-compassion also involves an awareness of others—you’re encouraged to understand that failure is a normal part of the human condition and that others feel afraid or inadequate too. Another important difference from much of the run of positive psychology is a lack of denial of negative aspects of life. New studies are showing that it may alleviate depression more to review negative events at the end of each day instead of trying to think positive thoughts, as long as one takes a forgiving attitude toward oneself in doing so.

Many of those researching self-compassion, including Germer and Neff, are influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism perhaps shares with positive psychology a belief that one’s surroundings are not the key to happiness, but what it seems to bring to the positive psychology endeavor that’s different is a focus on compassion rather than achievement and an understanding that some superficial pursuits of happiness may have negative consequences, that one’s relationship with the world really does matter for long-term happiness.

Self-compassion, of course, also helps one be more compassionate toward others, something I find missing in most positive psychology, and in much (though of course not all) of today’s prosperity-oriented Christianity. I know that for me, blame certainly snowballs. As soon as I was able to forgive myself for messing up my insulin dosage, my anger at Bruce and the insulin pump designers dissipated as well. Diabetes is one part of the normal imperfect human condition. I keep trying to let go of the usual blame.

TimeSlips

Several years ago, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar in medical humanities at the Hershey Medical Center. We resided at the medical center for a month, had daily lectures and discussions with experts in the field, and had the opportunity to do things like shadow physicians and nurses through the hospital and attend grand rounds. It was a fascinating experience in many ways. The thing that sticks with me the most, however, is TimeSlips, a program developed by Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin, as a way of engaging Alzheimer’s patients in storytelling.

Basting’s motto is “Forget memory; try imagination.” When she began working with Alzheimer’s patients and storytelling, the emphasis was all on trying to get them to tell their own life stories. But this was a disaster for everyone, as it only agitated those having trouble with memory. So Basting decided that she’d change the frame a bit and developed a technique whereby a group of patients tell stories in response to striking photographs like the famous one of an elephant trainer sitting with his hand on his elephant or the one of a bunch of nuns in a Volkwagen bug. The emphasis is on the here and now and the use of speculation and fantasy, much easier on those who not only can’t remember but fear their loss of memory.

The stories are not traditionally coherent by any means, but what happens is that many of the patients have fun. When I first saw the film Basting showed us at Hershey, I was stunned to hear Alzheimer’s patients break out in song and laugh at the variety of wild ideas that came out of the group. All fifty of us in the room watching that film wept at the evidence that people so often dismissed as “gone” could express joy and pleasure and participate in a creative group activity.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing available on the web now that’s anything as powerful as the film I first saw. I’m not sure why—perhaps it has to do with privacy issues or with the fact that TimeSlips offers paid, professional training in its techniques. But here is a tiny taste.

Trying to Be Accurate

I’m coming to you from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writing Conference, and I’m posting something that I think is a little bit of a corrective. A little bit back, I posted about sweets and my grandmothers. Perhaps that post was a little bit–ahem–saccharine. One of the themes that has emerged so far this week has been about the accuracy of one’s writing as an antidote to sentimentality and melodrama. So in that spirit, I’m posting a somewhat different view of my Grandmother Roney here.

Untitled

My grandmother starts pulling the peanuts out of her pocket and munching them before we even order our food at one of the most expensive restaurants in Boston. My brother, just graduated from college, looks around the room as though to see whether any of his fancy classmates might also be here.

“Mother, what are you doing?” my father asks her. It comes out like a hiss, like air escaping a blown tire.

“Nothing,” she says, and folds her hands in her lap. She looks down at them there in her crotch, utterly still.

My father shakes his head and goes back to the menu. My mother pats my grandmother’s hand. For once, I side with my dad. Grandmother kept me up all night snoring in the hotel room. Next she will be explaining to the waiter all the foods that would make her break out in hives. She will even bat her eyelashes at him, as though she could make up for my grandfather’s leaving her with my six-year-old father all those years ago. She will be sneaking those peanuts from her polyester pant suit pocket all through the meal, as though we can’t see her.

***

Two years later, Grandmother and I stand in line to the India pavilion, panting under the excoriating sun of July. Five-foot-one to my nearly five-eight (I never called it five-seven-and-a-half), she’s struggled to keep up with me as I escort her around the World’s Fair. She’s been talking about other World’s Fairs she attended in years past. Seattle. Montreal. Whatever.

“It sure is hot,” my grandmother says to the couple standing in front of us.

“You can say that again,” the man says. He says it doesn’t get this humid in Dubuque.

“I could sure use another of those lemonades,” she says, still looking at the man.

The line isn’t moving, so I run to get another lemonade for her. When I get back, they might be done small-talking. But, no.

“You should meet my grandson,” she is saying. “He’s such a good-looking young fella, and he went to Harvard.”

The man has started to mop his forehead with a handkerchief and look away, but she goes on about my brother’s bright future—never mentioning that I have even more recently graduated from a fine school myself. I hold her lemonade.

***

At last, twenty-seven years later, I will forgive all the men—every last one of them—for being so perfect in her long-dead eyes, and get married. I will tell all my single women friends that I will love them as much as always. I will raise a toast to my grandmother, the woman I couldn’t see and who couldn’t see me.

My Head! My Head?

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Ancient Egyptian reserve heads are theorized to have been made to replace a person's damaged head. I like that idea. See http://educators.mfa.org/galleries/slide_create/744?page=11.

We’ve all heard of anniversary syndrome—that creeping feeling you get when a date on the calendar approaches that used to be important or on which some terrible event took place. We may not even realize that the date on which someone died is looming—we don’t keep track of those on our calendars the way we do birthdays—but our bodies remember. We feel sick, we get headaches, we may just be in a bad mood, jumpy or weepy.

I am always amazed at what the body remembers and how it is so likely to respond to the past right in the present.

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce and I were rushing around getting ready to go somewhere. I’d been standing at our bathroom vanity valiantly attempting to style and blow-dry my hair, something I’m terrible at and that takes me an absurd amount of concentration. Unbeknownst to me, Bruce had opened the top door of the cabinet next to me, and when I turned with some haste to go back in the bedroom and finish getting dressed, I hit my head on the cabinet door.

It hurt, true, and I was annoyed at him for leaving the door open, but neither of those things should have led to the shriek I let out. I grasped my head and staggered to the bed, where I leaned forward, moaning and screaming. When Bruce tried to comfort me and apologize, I would have none of it, but continued rocking forward and back, holding my head. Tears poured from my eyes, streamed down my cheeks, and dripped off my chin. I couldn’t catch my breath I was keening so hard. I reminded myself of the widow Emilie loudly grieving her husband’s death in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I went on and on.

The whole thing was ridiculous. But then I realized that this was the first sudden pain I’d had in my head since the brain hemorrhage. I was re-experiencing the terror of that event without the seriousness that had made me stay in control during the real thing. After a few more gulps of air, I calmed down and stood upright and went looking for Bruce, who had fled to the garage. When I explained my reaction, he hugged me. We agreed the short episode had been a little like being lost in a really scary funhouse—that was me in the mirror, but it was hard to recognize her.

Afterward, I felt the same kind of relief I’d had when I’d learned that my brain hemorrhage would probably not kill me—as if my body were lighter and warmer than before, almost floating. In a few short minutes, I flashed through a month’s worth of emotional phases. And I came again to my resolutions to focus on what’s really important to me. Maybe that’s one thing anniversary syndrome is good for.

Not Sexy, Just Crazy

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Probably every single person who reads this will have made use of at least some of positive psychology’s tenets and recommendations at some point or another: visualize success, believe in yourself, take charge of your life, think good thoughts and good things will come. All fine to a point.

When it comes to discussions of health and illness, though, this makes me crazy. Not sexy, just plain crazy. Yes, there is much we can do to positively affect our health. No, we cannot cure illnesses with positive attitudes and wheat grass, not unless they are psychosomatic.

One of the purveyors of the idea that we can cure ourselves and defy illness is a woman named Kris Carr of Crazy, Sexy Cancer fame. This woman is a charlatan, and yet she has been trotted out by all kinds of experts as an example of a cancer patient who cured herself with her positive attitude and alternative therapies including a vegan diet. She started off with a documentary film about herself and followed that with three Crazy, Sexy Cancer books. She has become a New York Times bestseller, lectured at universities and medical schools, and, I presume, made a killing. She has a huge following as a cancer lifestyle guru.

On Carr’s website she calls her illness merely “a rare and incurable stage 4 cancer.” This sounds dire indeed and is the one and only credential that has given her the right to tell millions how to live. Yet, after the original film, we find in her work very little discussion of the cancer she has: epithelioid hemangio-endothelioma. Her focus is all on nutrition, yoga, support groups, and can-do attitude. However, H.E.A.R.D., a support group for this and other vascular cancers, notes on its webpage that, due to the variable rate of tumor growth in this cancer, “Some cases are totally asymptomatic (no adverse symptoms) for more than 15 or 20 years,” and “some cases … have been known to go into spontaneous remission.”

I don’t mean to say that receiving such a diagnosis would not be daunting and that it wasn’t a meaningful moment in Kris Carr’s life. I don’t object to her writing or making films about her experience. I have done so about my own illness experience, and I have read many truly wonderful and insightful memoirs about people’s illness and disability experiences. It is quite true that illness can be a wake-up call and can affect the life choices we make.

But for her to claim that she cured her own cancer, and for her to note that, “I created the ultimate blueprint for a healthy and happy life, and I want to share my secrets with fabulous you!” is a grotesque trickery. Her blueprint for life dumbs down illness experience and panders to the desperate masses over any kind of integrity and truth-telling. In the film, her own father tells her that he caused her cancer by putting stress on her during high school. Who can take this seriously? It is magical thinking, no matter that there are even physicians, supposed men and women of science, who participate in it.

The variable progression of Kris Carr’s disease has little if anything to do with whether or not someone takes up a macrobiotic diet and takes to meditating. It is simply a variation in the disease. If I can find this out with a few Google searches, why don’t the journalists and physicians who promote this woman bother? How can they not know that this woman is a sham? Or do they know and simply decide that her “positive” message is more important than what ails her or doesn’t? Why would that sort of misrepresentation seem worthwhile to them?

We have a strong social impetus these days to believe stories like this. It’s all part of a highly scripted “reality” TV that has nothing to do with real life and that casts us into a highly social Darwinian universe. Maybe it’s one thing when it has to do with the supposedly democratic selection of the next American Idol. Even when it’s the loonies in Landmark Forum convincing people to pay to be told that they create their own destiny, I can laugh and roll my eyes. The ideas that we live in a meritocracy and that talent rises magically to the top over the advantages of power and wealth seem to be part of the American fabric. I’m used to that.

But when they start talking about health that way, I get angry. Barbara Ehrenreich has noted about her own experience with breast cancer how she became disturbed by the constant celebration of survivors, as though they were somehow better people than the ones who died. David Rackoff, after a second type of cancer before age 50, published Half Empty with an anti-positive psychology twist, and noted, “It is the duty of society to take care of its individuals, plain and simple. We will never be healthier than our sickest member.” Years ago, in a wonderful book called Teratologies, Jackie Stacey noted how the discourse around cancer was designed to make people feel responsible for their own illnesses. As far back as 1978, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor noted how the discourses around cancer often harm patients further. So, I am not alone, but we are shouted down by the people who want us to believe that it’s all a matter of will power and positive thinking.

I have to keep repeating this to believe that it’s true: in the U.S., people believe that if you are sick it is your own damn fault. If you can’t cure your own cancer with yoga and spinach, then there’s something wrong with your character as a human being, not just your body. If you can’t cure your diabetes (my illness) with herbs and exercise, then you are weak. If you have cancer, you must have brought it on yourself. If you are obese, it is because you are lazy and worthless.

Part of this has to do with our desire to understand causation. Think of the biopic Erin Brokovich and how the title character set out to uncover the poisoning of a California community by Pacific Gas & Electric. The Chromium 6 they had allowed to leak into the ground water had caused rampant cancer. Think of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge that outlines the increased risks of cancer to those living in Utah when the A-bombs were tested. Even in terms of responsibility that has a personal (as opposed to corporate and governmental) element, think about cigarette smoking: the National Cancer Institute attributes 440,000 premature deaths a year to lung cancer and other diseases caused by smoking. There are indeed cases where blame can be cast legitimately, though in the case of individuals that may not be a helpful strategy.

One U.K. study I read, for instance, conducted on cardiac patients, showed that many of them blamed themselves for their illness, said they got what they deserved based on their bad smoking and eating habits. They even avoided medical care because of fear that doctors would be disgusted by or dismissive of them and would blame them further. Perhaps most telling, the study found that these attitudes were more common among the economically disadvantaged.

When Kris Carr suggests that you interview your doctor as you would someone you were hiring at your corporation, she breezes over the fact that many health care plans don’t allow such options. I’m all for patients being active participants in their own care, but those who don’t have top-of-the-line insurance and a ton of money in the bank can’t turn their cancer into a full-time “self-transformation” project.

Nor does her story point out that what has turned many cancers into survivable illnesses is not mainly the lifestyle stuff she promotes, but actual new or newly refined detection techniques, medical treatments, and drugs. In the hands of positivity health gurus, causation becomes a twisted story of personal overcoming.

Part of the reason we are so drawn to the overcomers among us may also be that illness has become more complicated, more long and drawn out, more chronic, the causes more complicated. With the advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the 1940s, and the development of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 60s, many long-term lethal scourges—TB, polio, mumps, measles, smallpox, chickenpox—were knocked so far back as to become almost irrelevant in most people’s lives. Nowadays the raging (yet identifiable) germ that comes out of nowhere is a rarity, and contemporary illnesses stem from vague and multiple sources. And they have more variable outcomes. The doctor has no simple cure, so the cure is put on the shoulders of the ill.

Chronically ill people also can be a long-term burden. I myself have been living with Type 1 diabetes for nearly 40 years. It’s understandable that people around me get tired of taking care of me. I get tired of taking care of myself. My illness won’t end until I’m dead, and that could be another 40 years down the road. Recently, in my different kind of medical experience—a brain hemorrhage that fortunately turned out to be benign—I had cause to think about the different kind of care I was getting. The attitude toward this acute illness was heroic and sympathetic—I got round the clock care, myriad expensive tests, a plethora of support from friends and family. But the chronic illness gets boring.

The cost of treating a major illness, whether acute or chronic, is enormous in our current medical system. (My own recent brain event cost well past $100,000, and I and my insurance providers have spent thousands on my diabetes, too.) People who are ill sometimes can’t work or otherwise contribute economically. Sometimes they can’t support themselves. As far back as 1951 (in The Social System), Talcott Parsons pointed out that because of the “privileges” of the sick role, ill people also have the “obligation” to try to get well as quickly as possible, even though Parsons notes they are not held responsible for their condition.

Also because of these privileges, there are many scam artists of an even greater severity than Kris Carr. Every now and then someone without any diagnosis whatsoever is discovered claiming (usually) cancer and putting on a show to borrow money from family and friends and collect donations in public places, including on the web. In an ironic twist, many of these, including Ashley Anne Kirilow, Ann Crall, and Dina Leone, have now been labeled as having mental illnesses rather than physical ones and are still considered in need of help.

And since the ill take so much from the healthy in the way of financial support, emotional succor, and attention, we want them to get better in miraculous ways. If we believe that people can visualize themselves healthy, then there’s a theoretical way for everyone to improve their lives. There is no limit on health—not based on wealth, not based on health insurance availability, not based on health insurers paying for needed treatments, not based on chance.

There are even many so-called political progressives who believe that we are individually in control of our health (and by association to blame if it goes bad), and I wonder how they can fail to see the radical-right implications of that. Oprah Winfrey, one of the biggest promulgators of positive psychology (and one of Kris Carr’s promoters) has also conceived of herself as a crusader for social justice. For Oprah, it seems to be all about “empowerment”—giving people tools for improving their lives. Yet, she doesn’t seem to see that taken to an extreme the implication is that if an individual can’t triumph over illness it’s a personal failure. In other words, it’s a blame-the-victim stance that doesn’t take into account the myriad circumstances that can contribute to failure. I have a great deal of respect for Oprah—anyone who could keep the country reading books for so long has my admiration—but this aspect of her storyline is a huge disappointment to me.

The crux of the fundamentally conservative layer of assumptions in positive psychology is the delusional belief that we humans can control our own fates, not just to some extent, but virtually completely. Perhaps in a world where more and more seems beyond our control, it’s understandable that some people need to feel as though we can determine at least our own bodily fates. And no doubt it’s good to do what we can do for ourselves—I exercise regularly and eat fresh foods, too. But to be a true “liberal,” even just to be a person who is not living in a dream world, we need to remember that, do what we can, illness will come. The body does not last forever. People do not always get what they deserve. It would behoove us not to condemn the truly ill and not to celebrate those who turn their triumph over illness into a claim of personal achievement.

I wish that instead, we could offer support and encouragement to ill people without offering snake oil. I wish that tales of overcoming could be tempered with honoring those who don’t overcome. I wish that the media in our culture would practice some responsibility and not promote shallow, pretty people who have turned illness not so much into insight, but into a business opportunity.

I would rather stand with the people who have died of cancer instead of remaining in spontaneous remission for seven years with no sign of a symptom anywhere. I stand with those vomiting into the basin from their chemo, who don’t look so great with their hair falling out in clumps from the brutal treatments that will extend their lives. I stand with the ones who make meaning out of their experiences and appreciate the good days they have even though they know that cancer is not a gift, that even if a person with cancer sometimes can be sexy, the disease itself never is.