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The Privilege of Positivity

Yesterday a friend on social media challenged me to “only post positive messages for one whole day.”

It felt like part social media campaign, part enthusiastic dare, and part gentle personal scolding.

I hear a similar sentiment by many people in a myriad of ways expressing the same concern to people around them: you’re producing too much negativity here.

Most people mean well, and believe me I do understand the sentiment—but honestly I don’t know what “positive” means to some people anymore. It seems like something is being lost in translation

To many people, positive seems to mean: to only speak happy words, to only focus on pleasant things, to never be combative or angry or grieving, to say nothing critical or confrontational about anyone.

It means pictures of babies and puppies and happy people on vacation—not of families in cages or deplorable detention centers or dying wildlife.

It means videos of cats in funny clothes—not of young unarmed black men being beaten by police in traffic stops.

It means beaming-smile selfies and feel good platitudes and perfectly framed food porn.

The request to “be positive,” seems to mean to avoid giving someone any information (or providing that information in a way) that derails the path and plans and emotional state of their day. If it causes another person to become angry or to grieve or if it rubs up against a set of assumptions they have—then it’s negative. 

We all have a natural empathy saturation point; a threshold we reach where the bad news is too much to absorb, and with so much to be burdened by these days, the desire to escape some of it is natural and understandable—but it’s also a sure sign of our privilege that we think we can.

The very idea that we can have the option of escaping terrible news or sidestepping difficult conversations or limiting disturbing information, is itself confirmation that we are buffered from a good deal of struggle. That we can tire of a story or an issue—likely means we have no real personal stake in it.

Many people don’t have the option of avoiding negativity today.
They don’t have the privilege of not coming off as combative.
They don’t have the luxury of not fighting.
They can’t decide not to live with urgency in this day, because there is no other way to live in order to survive it.

There aren’t a lot of migrants or Muslims or people without healthcare or survivors of sexual assault or parents of transgender or teens saying, “Can you give me more puppy videos and less truthful news about our how broken our nation is?”

To me, activism is pure positivity.
It is passionately affirming humanity by taking note of the places it is most endangered and assailed.
It’s being for someone enough to advocate for them when they are vulnerable and marginalized and invisible.
Being positive means being fully engaged in real life.

I’m all for looking for the good in people, for leaning into the hope, for staying optimistic about the future, for boosting encouragement, for cultivating joy, for taking time to enjoy meaningful moments with people you love, and even sharing puppy photos—but that has nothing to do with editing what I share so that it feels more pleasant or palatable to people who are shielded from danger enough to be annoyed by its news.

Yes, please give people funny videos and heartwarming images and stuff to make them laugh and breathe and rest. The world needs these things.

But as often as we share beautifully crafted Instagram images, we need to make sure we’re showing people reality completely unfiltered as well. The world needs this too.

If being positive, means to not call out abject racism,
if it means, not to advocate for migrant families in cages,
if it means, to silently ignore human rights atrocities,
if it means, allowing my LGBTQ friends to have their rights eroded,
if it means, to make peace with bigotry in the highest levels of our Government,
if it means, abiding Muslims being vilified,
if it means, to allow legislative violence to go unopposed,
if it means, standing by while fellow Christians pervert the message of Jesus,
if it means, to avoid unpleasant conversations about the things that burden my heart because they make other people uncomfortable—then I guess I won’t be positive today.

Actually, I’m positive about that.


Get John’s book, ‘Hope and Other Superpowers’ HERE!


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