If you’ve been on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or any other social media outlet in the last 10 years, you have probably noticed the inordinate number of inspirational quotes and memes that are posted on any given day. The intention seems to be to keep us all going, and hoping, and having faith, and staying positive.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed that my response to these "positivity" memes has been a growing sense of annoyance. The more I read them, the more frustrated I feel at their tendency toward collapsing the complexity of the human experience into a meaningless pleasantry; the aim of which is to tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel at any given moment. To add to this, most inspirational quotes come from a deeply privileged perspective, and seem to really be about desperately trying to avoid discomfort. And, based on my last entry, we all know how I feel about that.
If you really read into the inspirational memes and quotes that are mindlessly circulated, you start to see how they feel less like ways that one might look at their own experience in the world, and more like directives.
To that end, I have to question how it impacts our mental and emotional well-being to have these messages flashing across our eyeballs and into our psyches on a such a regular basis. In considering the meme above, for instance, I wonder: are there people who are able to just “BE HAPPY?” And if so, is it true for all people? And if you are a person for whom just being happy has been a struggle for any of an unlimited number of reasons - from depression to experiences of loss, and so on - how do you internalize such a message? Does it make you feel like a failure because you aren’t able to just “BE HAPPY?” Do you assume that most people have access to this thing called happiness so easily, while, for whatever reason, you do not?
It’s not my intention to completely disregard the impacts of positive affirmation. Often, reminders of our resilience, strength, and perseverance (especially when encountering difficulties) can feel supportive and uplifting. It is, however, my intention to have us all thinking more critically about how these messages impact us, and the people around us. How, without even knowing it, buying into these ideas as if they are universally true is buying into the idea that all people have equal access to the myriad resources needed in order to experience physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
Because I like to try to think a bit more critically about how any kind of messaging impacts me and others, when I see an inspirational meme or quote circulating, I ask myself if there is any way that this message could apply to all people, across the board. And if the answer is “no” (hint: it usually is), then I try to think of a single person or group of people for whom this message would NOT ring true. And how they might be impacted if they were confronted by the message. What harm could it be doing? And, because I’d like to have you thinking more critically right along side me, I’ve selected the meme below so that we can look at it together. Ready? Here we go…
When I read this message, I feel angered and frustrated by the way it completely negates the fact that many of the walls that people confront every day are socially constructed, or bureaucratic. These walls can block access to any or many of the resources necessary to live a fulfilling life. Because of these walls, people with lower incomes are blocked from access to good health-care, affordable healthy food, and quality education. Transgender people are blocked from access to safe public restrooms, and discrimination-free housing and employment. People of color are blocked from safety, from respect, and from the ability to move through the world freely, and without fear of surveillance or targeted acts of violence. I’m really only naming a few of the communities in our country who experience marginalization. I have not spoken to the impacts of this message on people who are subject to marginalization due to ablism, ageism, and sexism, to name just a few. And of the communities I have mentioned, I have only listed a few of ways that those people can be blocked - or walled off - from a sense of fulfillment or happiness.
The walls that confine them - that confine us all - are not just in our heads. They are socially constructed and maintained. And if you are a person who doesn’t really have a deep awareness of those social constructs, or how they block you, you may read this message and think, “what is wrong with me? Why am I always getting in my own way? Why can’t a break down these walls?” A very painful message to be internalizing on top of every other message that has you questioning your self-worth.
I want to say here that I am not against sharing the things that inspire us or keep us going through the difficult times. But I am also a huge fan of social responsibility. Of thinking about how our behavior, or the things we say or share in the real world as well as the virtual one, might impact the people who come into contact with us. And one of the most painful things we do to each other is collapse the complexity of our experiences and contexts in a way that pathologizes anyone who struggles, or experiences unhappiness, or expresses a need for support.
If I could only make one small change to any of these memes, it would be to change the word "you" to "I." Often, what we are sharing are thoughts and ideas that resonate with us personally. And we assume that what resonates with us must certainly resonate with others, or heck, with everyone! But this is rarely the case. similarly, I hope that when we are engaging in this type of media, we are asking ourselves how it impacts us personally. Just because it SEEMS positive doesn't mean it's actually supportive. Don't buy everything you read!