Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good Grief, Ginger

Life is sadder than it has any right to be. Case in point, in the midst of a crisis I took the dog to High Park. The cherry trees were in blossom but not leaf so all you could see along the avenue was clouds of pink, so dense that their reflection tinged the surface of the bordering stream. It is hard to understand how life can contain so much pain and so many petals all within the compass of an hour’s walk.

I do not subscribe to the pseudo-philosophy that when life hands you lemons you should make lemonade. Along with Susanna Moodie, I believe it is always best to be about and doing, so at 6:30 in the morning I made a cake with powdered and finely chopped crystallized ginger. (Important tip, avoid flexible tube pans. They do not cook evenly, often resulting in overcooked outer edges and under done centres.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m no good at icing things over, so I favor cakes that don’t require it. Instead of icing, while the cake baked, I made crème fraiche ice cream. Let me pause here to recommend Liberté crème fraiche. It is sublime, great with pound cakes and buttermilk pancakes with berries. Here endeth the digression.

The tang of the ginger balanced the understated sweetness of the ice cream to create a combination that encapsulates my beliefs about sorrow better than any puckering lemonade ever could.

There are no sweet sorrows
I am not against hope. I don’t have a beef with optimism. But in the church of Positive-Thinking-in-Spite-of-the-Facts, I am a heretic. So it was with immense relief that I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, an examination of the cult of positive thinking and its unintended but toxic consequences.

Toxic Consequence #1: Blame the victim. Ehrenreich, who has had breast cancer, cites examples of support groups that expel members whose cancer recurs because they will bring the other members down. (Also, a qualified endocrinologist, she examines the mind-body connection in regards to health and finds it non-existant.)

Toxic Consequence #2: Reality is a buzz kill, dude. If the emperor has no clothes (and it ain’t pretty) and you say so, you can be fired for it. In the church of positive thinking criticism, no matter how constructive, is “bad attitude”.

Toxic Consequence #3: If the problem isn’t the problem, but our attitude towards it, the problem goes unaddressed. Remember the end of A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Present with the two waifs hiding under his robe, Ignorance and Want? Beware this consequence the most.

Ehrenreich is excellent on the twisted neo-science of mass-marketed positive thinking, but perhaps more importantly its morally corrosive effects.

My Antidote: Start with Keats’ Ode on Melancholy, then straight on to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Oh, and do some weeding and bake a cake or two. . . There is no attitudinal alchemy to make failure, loss, or betrayal palatable or lemons sweet. If there is a trick to truly making progress, to living a full life, it is not pretending otherwise.


  1. "Be not solitary; be not idle" - Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

    I loved Ehrenreich's book. It backs up a brilliant paper done in the 1980s by two psychologists (Brown and Taylor, if memory serves) showing that happy people are simply positively self-deluded. It's the clinically depressed that have a more realistic outlook on things. William James made a similar point in Varieties of Religious Experience.

    Not to say, of course, that there's nothing one should do to break out of a funk. Thus, the quote from Burton.

  2. Incidentally, it's not surprising that Burton's "Melancholy" was Keats' favourite book.