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Smile if you're insecure

November 16, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Six years ago, during a trip to the Middle East, I asked an Israeli playwright what his country's cinematic equivalent was to the American happy ending. He immediately understood what I meant. No matter a plot's twists and turns, Hollywood won't end things on a sorrowful note.

The playwright told me that he thought both Israeli theater and cinema were marked by underdeveloped romantic story lines: A people on a constant war footing lose their innocence, and romance requires innocence.

That got me thinking about the sources and effects of American optimism, our much-vaunted ability to look on the bright side. I mean, why do we produce books of daily affirmations, vote in droves for a "Yes we can" candidate and fly on airlines whose ebullient flight attendants wear short pants and tell canned jokes before takeoff? Most answers to the question of American optimism refer to the United States as the land of immigrants, opportunity and new beginnings. Others point to this nation's rich resources and its vast frontier, ready-made for bootstraps entrepreneurialism. But in her new book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America," liberal essayist Barbara Ehrenreich has identified another source of our relentless optimism: anxiety.

"Positive thinking," she writes, "may be a quintessential American activity, associated ... with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity."

She's right, of course, but her explanation of the phenomenon doesn't go back far enough in time. Ehrenreich traces the emergence of "positive thinking" to the New Thought Movement of the 1860s, and a clash between the brooding Calvinism of the Puritans and the nation's rapidly expanding fortunes: "In this tumultuous new age of possibility, people of all sorts began to re-imagine the human condition and reject the punitive religion of their forebears."

But our insecurity and our positive thinking weren't born in the mid-19th century. Paradoxically, they are a product of gloomy Puritan Calvinism all by itself. The millenarian high expectations of Massachusetts colonist John Winthrop -- build a "city upon a hill" and be an example to the world or be kicked out of the land -- set up a wicked fear of failure that has cursed and blessed us from the beginning. As historian George McKenna wrote, the legacy of New England Puritan rhetoric is two-sided: "On the one hand, a confident sense of 'chosenness'; on the other hand ... the dread that God might at any time 'cast us off in displeasure, and scatter us in this wilderness.' "

The founders secularized the Puritans' sense of biblical errand (our "exceptionalism") and worked it into our ideology. Add to the resultant striving (and fear of failure) the fundamental rootlessness of American society, and you have a perfect recipe for individual anxiety. As a 19th century Briton observed, American society is "all sail and no anchor."

How did we deal with it all? Historian Lawrence M. Friedman found that early patriots masked private apprehensions with public boasting. As their self-doubts heightened, so did their outward confidence in the future of the U.S. From even before the birth of the republic, Americans employed positive thinking to compensate for their inner anxiety.

As Friedman wrote, early patriots "needed to proclaim the supremacies of the new nation all the louder to quiet the feeling that the United States was no better than the corrupt mother country from which it had broken." They began to spin a national narrative of patriotic values and heroism that, like a magic charm, still protects and embodies American greatness.

Ehrenreich's message is that we need to wake up and smell the coffee. She advocates "vigilant realism" -- neither too much optimism nor too much cynicism, and a firm grasp of the facts in all their complexity.

It sounds good, but as a society, I'm not sure that America has ever shown much talent for stark reality. Even when our hopes get dashed -- in, say, the worst recession in 50 years, with unemployment sky-high and the chance of a happy ending diminishing -- a lot of us still seem to think that better days are just a positive thought away. Consider the message I saw on a billboard near Palm Springs: "Recession 101: Interesting fact about recessions ... they end." Well, yes, but not always happily.

For centuries we've soothed our anxieties with wishful thinking. Our greatness, such as it is, may in fact depend on our illusions -- after all, the American dream sometimes does come true, doesn't it?

In any case, amid the great insecurity of American life, a warm feeling of optimism and hope will make it all seem worthwhile.

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