Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Smile Police

It's common knowledge that our attitudes shape our reality. There is no such thing as a crisis, if we choose to view it as an opportunity. If, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves poor, or ill, or depressed, it must have been because we didn't wish hard enough, didn't smile enough, didn't send enough good vibes into the universe. No one likes a complainer. If we all stopped whining, the world would be a better place.

Not so, according to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which traces the history of so-called positive thinking from its Calvinist roots. Rather than being liberating, the practice of positive thinking is in reality relentless self-criticism and blame. It's not that the system is broken, or that the world is full of injustice. The problem is you and your bad attitude. People who believe this are subject to all sorts of abuses, and are expected to keep a fake smile plastered across their faces as they bend over and take it.

I've been hearing this message for most of my life. I was often labeled a "complainer" or called "negative" when I opened up to people about my life and circumstances. No one wanted to hear how hungry I was, or how none of my clothes fit properly, or angry and violent my dad was when my mom wasn't around. No one was even willing to contemplate what it was like to be me, a scrawny trailer park kid scapegoated by her own family, weird and angry and alone. They rolled their eyes when I talked, told me to "get over it", "quit bitching" and once, memorably, "shut the fuck up." And this was from my friends.

So I learned to keep my mouth shut. I came to Austin at age 17 determined to recreate myself. Gone was the complainer, the weirdo, the angry misfit. A brighter, more fun girl arrived in Texas, determined to have a great time. But it grew increasingly difficult to maintain my good cheer as college became more stressful, I worked myself to the point of exhaustion, and the debt kept piling up. I struck a nice balance though, or so I felt. I had friends I could be myself around and everyone else got my polite smile and diplomatic conversation.

Working as a nanny for the conspiracy theorist's wife changed all that. Mabel* (who, unfortunately, worked from home) didn't just expect a positive attitude, she enforced it. No one in her presence was allowed to display negative emotion of any kind. There was zero tolerance for complaints, or even diplomatic disagreements. The word hate was forbidden. Use of the word crud was deemed "awful". Crying was anathema; if the children were upset, I was expected to do everything in my power to soothe and comfort them, regardless of why they were upset. Even facial expressions were carefully monitored, to the point where Thomas the Tank Engine, two-year-old Johnny's* favorite show in the world, was forbidden because "the trains frown." In Mabel's world, children were naturally pure, angelic creatures who should be frolicking happily all day, tended to by perpetually smiling adults. This attitude explains her constant disappointment; her own kids, exhausted from the dysfunctional "family bed" and hungry from only eating "healthy" food (too low in protein and fat, devoid of any sugar or salt to make it more palatable), acted up, shrieking, sobbing inconsolably, sometimes smearing shit on the walls. Sometimes Johnny would masturbate furiously while sitting on the potty, screaming at me when I tried to make him stop. She made them miserable, and I dealt with the fallout.

I tried to please that woman. I really did. I worked from 8:00 to 4:00 with no break, taking care of the kids, doing laundry and dishes, vacuuming, running errands. I learned not to ask for a break as my request would be met with angry sighs and complaints about how now she would be behind on her work. She hated to see me enjoying myself, even for a moment, so she enforced a no-reading policy, actually removing a book from a room if she suspected my eyes may have been straying from her children to the page. I grew despondent. I woke up every morning with dread in my heart. My fake smile crumbled more and more, until one day Mabel pulled me aside and warned me that if I wasn't happy there, she could replace me with someone who would be. I needed the money so I lied and said I was happy, but inside I was unraveling.

A few weeks later I finally put in my notice, proud of myself for having made it to six months. The frantic search for a replacement immediately began (revealing just how hollow Mabel's threat to replace me actually was). She applied with a nanny placement service and, foolishly, left her application out where I could read it. Under special requests she had written, "No sad sacks." Why, that's me, I thought. I'm the sad sack. Something in me changed in that moment, as I saw myself characterized in such a way. I realized that this woman had no idea who I was, how my mind worked, or what I was feeling. I had let an irrational, paranoid, spoiled, sheltered woman have complete control over my life, and she had brought out the very worst in me. But now I was free. No more false smiles or suppressed rage, no more feeling trapped in that brick fortress while the world passed by on the other side of the window. I left the house that day smiling for real.

I no longer make an effort to mask my emotions. If I'm happy, sad, mad, whatever, I let it show on my face. I express it in words. When Harrison gets swept away by an emotion, I acknowledge and name that feeling. As he gets older, I'll encourage him to name his own feelings, to understand and cope with, rather than deny, his essential humanity. I'll teach him that those who would try to control his thoughts and feelings are not to be trusted. And I'll know that every smile, every laugh, every "I love you" is genuine and sincere.

*totally made-up name

No comments: