Read on how to enrich your life by purpose, i.e. to find depth and, a reason to get out of bed each morning, your own Ikigai.
Is being positive the same as ‘looking at the brighter side of things’? No, says the author, proving by example that there is so much more to living as an Indian woman today.
“Be positive! At least we are better off today than half a century ago!” That is the classic expectation from being positive – chin up, take the blow and move on.
Basically, over the years it has come to mean acceptance of all that is going wrong and the quest for the silver lining. It has also come to mean turning a blind eye to the patriarchy and the naked hatred that runs through the very fabric of society, to the discrimination that we face collectively, to all the four-line news articles that talk of a woman being wronged, people being killed in cold blood. It has come to mean a bubble – a happy bubble that we construct around ourselves which shows us what we want to see.
So first, we need shatter this expectiation and definition of positivity to truly understand what being positive means. Positivity or a positive mindset does not imply cheerfulness, the tendency to be delusional about the glass being half full when actually it barely carries a drop, or a smile plastered at all times.
According to Kendra Cherry at Very Well Mind (2017B):
“Positive thinking actually means approaching life’s challenges with a positive outlook. It does not necessarily mean avoiding or ignoring the bad things; instead, it involves making the most of the potentially bad situations, trying to see the best in other people, and viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.”
To explain this in the Indian context, closer home, let me tell you about my student named Geeta.
Two years back, she entered the admission hall with an application in hand to apply for the BA course. It was a hot afternoon, we had been working nonstop and were a little low on patience. This girl had a gap of two years and her eagerness put the patience back where it was supposed to be.
At the time, there was a bizarre direction from the head of the institution about gap year students – avoid taking them! Geeta was the first case that had come to us after a gap in education. So we fought for her. Right to education after all is not bound by age. The head relented and sounded us off, ‘You just watch. She will not come to college and will spoil your result.’
Two years later, this girl has been anything but irregular. And she actually pulled the average result of the class up. But this is not the remarkable part of her story.
She had been married off when she was in grade 11. And for two years, she did nothing to further her education apart from completing her schooling. In these two years, life had changed for her. From living in the city, she had shifted to a village where stark discrimination on various grounds was slapped on her face.
From being brought up in a family that valued education, she suddenly found herself in a place where women were to stay indoors, cover their face and do everything that a woman was supposed to do – cook, clean and reproduce.
In this situation, there would be two logical choices that come to mind – submission or outright revolt. The girl chose neither. From the day she got married, she decided to be self-sufficient. She took tuitions for children in whatever time she could spare and slowly built herself a reputation in the region of being the person whose students never failed.
She related her story about how her jewellery was taken by the in-laws to pay off debt and how they were opposed to her working. The narration itself was not bitter. With a smile firmly in place, she says , ‘These were minor hurdles. I could not have let them stop me.’
Her story of positivity does not end there. Not only did she become self-sufficient, she also started giving back to the society.
Teaching other girls
She has students who can not afford to pay her. So she teaches them for free. This girl lives in a tiny village house with 8 other people, barely manages to make the ends meet and yet she chose to teach for free. That’s her first streak of positivity.
Refusing to discriminate on caste
The area that she lives in has caste-based discrimination firmly woven in the fabric of the social life. So when her first set of students came in and she let them sit on the charpai owing to the lack of space, her mother in law instructed her to ‘purify’ everything and thoroughly wash the bedsheets. The girl refused. ‘Do you want me to return their money too? How come the payment is fine but them sitting on your bed and drinking from your utensils is not?’
The mother-in-law refused to eat anything that the girl cooked. The girl happily obliged. A few days later an unspoken truce was arrived at. The mother-in-law decided to turn a blind eye while the girl carried on. Her words to me, ‘Ma’am how are they different from me when they are trying to educate themselves just as I am ?’ This was her second streak of positivity.
Getting others to stop discriminating based on caste
The girl did not stop there. She noticed that the upper class students in her class avoided sitting with the lower ones. The only common thing between them was their fear and respect for her. So she delibrately started mixing them up and making them sit next to each other. Two years later, the students sit together, talk and discuss stuff.
Today the girl is my student so to speak. In the true sense she is my teacher.
Geeta accepted the greys in her situation and chose to do something about it. She chose to look at the brighter side knowing fully well the murky side of it. She stood up for herself and then she extended her strenght to the society. She seeks out the best in people, helps them as if it were a natural thing to do and refuses to give up. This despite living in a region where questioning the social order can leave her buried in a field somewhere. Despite the fact that she is having trouble concieving a child. Despite the fact that each day she faces taunts about infertility and her lifestyle. She chooses to go on. She chooses to fight for what is right.
Geeta embodies Kendra Cherry’s definition of positivity – She keeps her outlook positive. She is fully aware of all the bad things. She makes the most of the potentially bad situations, tries to see the best in other people, and views herself and her abilities in a positive light.
Geeta recognises that being positive is the only option for her. She also mostly dons the green cape. The idea of people donning two kinds of capes was first put forth by James. O. Pawelski. (James O. Pawelski (2016) Defining the ‘positive’ in positive psychology: Part II. A normative analysis, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11:4, 357-365, DOI: 1080/17439760.2015.1137628)
According to Pawelski, “Red-cape superheroes live very different lives from green-cape superheroes. Without trying to make any claims about which life would be better, I would like to use this distinction to state what I believe is the fundamental principle of positive psychology: no one can flourish without a green cape. In less colorful terms, the positive is not the same thing as the absence of the negative; well-being is not the same as the absence of ill-being.”
If Geeta had been donning a red cape she would choose to look at the problems of the world starting with looking at what she faces in her own life, and fight them. A red cape wearer believes that by eradication of problems, like violence, poverty and injustice, the world would be a better place. However, if she had chosen the green cape, she would have consciously decided to harness the power to grow desirable things in the world – peace, justice, love, tolerance, and so on.
Interestingly, given the condition that our world is in today and specifically the condition that most women are in, we reflexively reach for the red cape. What we often overlook is that an absence of bad things does not conversely imply a presence of good things.
So let’s say a red-cape-wielding Geeta has done away with the unfairness of it all and managed to eradicate discrimination that she and her students face, it does not automatically lead to flourishing of the discriminated party. That would require additional work – perhaps much more than what red cape accomplished.
Even though, so far red cape seems less effective, there is no right or wrong in the choice. The only difference lies in the ease of choice and visibility of results. It is easier to spot a problem than to unearth and pursue opportunities. Take the case of violence : stringent rules, swift action go a long way in detering violence. But does this statistical shift ensure respect and harmony too? However, if one was to work towards inculcating the value of respect and harmony in the social fabric, the chances of violence erupting are expected to be significantly lower.
Now that we are fairly clear about positivity and green cape-red cape, let’s try and see how this concepts fits with, say for instance, being a woman in the current times. The image that comes to our mind the moment we use that marker is the urban woman, either struggling to stand or trying to break the glass ceiling. However, a major chunk of women are the Geetas who do not come to the forefront, who have no cape at all. They resign to their fate, accept it as the norm and mostly adopt the popular definition of positivity – ‘look at the brighter side.’
Now, if we were to work towards learning about the wide variety of choices we have, the capes that we could choose from, the story could shift, as it did for Geeta. She exemplifies the fact that one does not need economic, social or educational power to make a difference. These are just tools to make the journey easier. What one does need is positivity, a conscious decision to mostly wear the green cape, to be aware of all the dark forces pulling one back, and to push forth with that knowledge.
Let’s say all medical reports indicate absence of illness. Does that say that one is healthy? The point is, that we have to stop looking at things as being the inverse of each other.
Can Geeta truly progress if she completely ignores the ills in her life? She recently bought a small patch of land because she recognises that living in a small house with eight other people jostling for space is difficult. She also consciously questions people when they voice their prejudices. So while she mostly dons green cape, she also at times reverses it to let the red show.
According to Pawelski, “Flourishing requires that we have a third choice available to us: a reversible cape, with one side red and one side green. There are clearly times in which we need to focus on avoiding what is undesirable. Indeed, because of the way our brains are hard-wired, it is probably easier for us to focus on the dangers, threats, and problems in our environment. It may be more difficult for us to focus on moving toward what is desirable, because this often seems like a set of more subtle skills. The vision of positive psychology is to use the robust methods of empirical psychology to understand better how we can use the green sides of our capes more effectively.”
So saying that green cape is the only way forward towards flourishing is a mistake that most positive psychologists are at a risk of committing. If we say being positive is the only way forward, we are doing exactly what Psychology has been doing so far – promoting denial and focussing on just one aspect of life. For a wholistic approach towards flourishing, it is essential to don a reversible cape with the choice tipping in favour of green.
Coming back to the woman today, being positive is the only option for her mostly because focussing on the ills, will mostly result in frustration and small term benefits, if any. However, if she, if I were to don a reversible cape with the red lurking underneath the green, the chances of me flourishing to the fullest of my capabilities are very high.
The benefits do not stop there, it becomes like a chain reaction – when one dons a green cape, the colour does rub off to others. So when Geeta makes sure that her students sit together, she is also getting them to think about diversity in terms different from superior-inferior. When the girls of her mohalla see her, they find inspiration. Women living around her want to send their daughters to school, want them to be as strong as her, and as cheerful. Her green cape is infecting others. And when she needs it, she reverses it too.
We know that the world today is screaming red, but then there are these tiny patches of green here and there as well. So as a woman, and more importantly as a human, I choose to be positive and harness the green as I weed out the red. As a woman, I choose to be truly positive. For in my positivity, lies a future where red cape would gather dust.
Image source: a still from the movie Tumhari Sulu
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Dr. Tanu Shree Singh is a parent to two preteen boys, a lecturer in Psychology,
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