There have been many wonderful articles written about toxic positivity, especially for people who are disabled or chronically ill. I will provide some links to ones you might want to read rather then writing my own version. But today I want to share a little bit about toxic positivity, how it has affected me and other people living with ill health and disability, and…. how it relates to today's bible reading.
Let's start with a simple definition.
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation someone is living through is, you should maintain a positive mindset. It is usually a belief shared with those who are suffering or struggling as a way of minimising their reality and making it easier for those who don't know how to help.
I am a positive person.
I live with coming and going depression, but mostly I am very positive.
I look for hope, I search for the good in people and I celebrate every little win.
I'm also a problem solver, which means I will work hard to overcome barriers for myself and other people. I enjoy the challenge.
But, all that said.....
I live with complex health issues and physical disabilities which makes quite a lot of places and activities pretty impossible - even those things most people take for granted can be a mission for me. It also means that I never know what state my body will be like when I wake up in the morning or how it will behave during the day.
There's no amount of positive thinking which can reduce acute pain, banish a migraine, stop joints dislocating or give energy in times of complete fatigue. I know, because I've tried thinking myself better and it only gets me so far and it's not far enough. Don't get me wrong, I have learned all sorts of distraction and mindfulness techniques which help me day to day, but they can not cure me.
I find it frustrating (at best) and insulting (at worst) when people say "anything is possible if you put your mind to it" or "a positive mindset is going to improve your day" or "don't limit yourself" or some other overly positive comment which literally makes no sense to my life.
Here's a simple example....
Let's go for a walk - OK, where? Step free? Steep? Muddy? Near public transport? Wheelchair accessible toilet? Weather OK? These are just the first few checks. Hardly any walks can fulfil these basic requirement. Does your favourite walk allow me to accompany you? Will a positive mindset change the situation?
If you focus on what you can do rather than what you can then you'll find you can do so much more than you think.
Or, it's so sad that you are using a wheelchair, perhaps if you exercised more or had more physio or….. Then you wouldn't be so reliant on it.
These are actual things which medical professionals have said to me; people who should know better and who when I tell them to read my medical records realise that their advice and “positivity” is toxic.
This is what I mean by toxic positivity. The phrases and comments which might be true for some people but aren't true for everyone and are actually excluding for many. I'm tough enough to ignore them or to stand up and say no when I hear them, but many people aren't and it can really bring them down.
There are so many simple examples which those of us who are sick or disabled receive as part of our day to day experience. Trying to go out for a meal or away for a weekend requires lists and lists and phone calls and emails and checks and research..... It's exhausting and annoying but worth it, but it takes so much energy and positivity that it can be hard to have any spare to "make my best life" or "seize the day" or "try something new" or just pop out with a friend.
There are so many times when I have to cancel because my body won't cooperate. So many things which I have to plan for, for days, or even a week, to make sure I can attend Eg I will do anything to ensure I get to a concert Rachel is playing in. Or this Wednesday I am talking at a conference and this means I must rest entirely for the next 3 days or I won't be able to deal with the noise, energy, concentration and related exhaustion which zoom causes.
I know the most about my life and my body; I am well read, well informed, determined and stubborn. If I could be more active or feel better then I would move heaven and earth to make it happen.
Which leads me nicely to today's gospel passage: Mark 5.21-end. Here is a short section of it.
“There was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I touch his clothes, I will be made well.’
Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. …. Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”
Churches all over the world will hear sermons on this today. Many of these will tell their congregations that all we have to do is have faith, pray for healing, trust God, follow Jesus, be more faithful (etc) to be healed from illness, pain, disability or other negative aspects of their lives.
I know I've heard sermons like this, luckily not many, but until I became sick and disabled I never realised just how much it hurts when this message is spoken by anyone, let alone by a trusted church leader. Similar messages are often said to me on the street but I ignore them, or engage them in theological debate depending on my energy and mood; but hearing this in a church is painful.
I have faith, I am prayerful, I believe in the healing power of God and yet I remain chronically ill and disabled. I have written and preached before about how God has healed me, but not in the way you can see; I have been healed of the grief I felt when my life was changed beyond recognition and I have been healed with strength to adapt and cope day to day.
It is wonderful that today people hear that we believe in a healing God, but let's not drop into toxic positivity that this results in spontaneous physical healing, or that if you're not healed it's because you don't believe enough. Healing comes through so many different forms, primarily through medical care and treatment; but also through acceptance, support, community, inclusion, participation and love.
Acceptance, support, community, inclusion, participation and love
Those are the things which the Church should be preaching, teaching and living out. Those are the things which Jesus is showing in his healing ministry.
Those are the things which we are called to share.
Not platitudes, or promises without action, or exclusion and disrespect.
Not toxic positivity.
We need to learn how to be with people in their suffering, hear their truths, pain and fears and accept that not everything or every situation is fixable, but God is in them with Hope and Love for all.