Saturday, November 16, 2013

Positive Thinking: A Socialist Value

Previously Published in The Socialist online
Lately there have been a lot of people in the social justice community putting down “positive psychology.” For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Many are accusing positive thinking of being “pop” and even “pseudo” psychology.
The claim is that positivity is not factual or scientific, is very individualistic, and is used to eschew collective responsibility for why people are suffering and/or are unhappy (such as systematic oppression and exploitation).
However, there is rigorous scientific research that validates positive psychology as being widely effective. Not in a self-help book sort of way, but more on measurable level through evidence-based practice psychotherapy. Some of these therapeutic techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness based therapy (which is actually based on Buddhist principles and practices). These techniques have helped many suffering with depression and anxiety to recover and feel significant improvement. This disproves the notion that positive psychology is a myth or is unscientific, as it has measurable positive outcomes.
The problem with the naysayers, as I see it, is they tend to swing in the opposite direction of positivity. Many are cynical, and attack positivity in order to make an argument for apathy. The “the world sucks and we’re all going to die anyway so why even try” types are the people I am referring to. Those who think this way create a self-fulfilling prophecy. They believe they cannot change anything so they give up. I argue that it’s self-defeating.
Inherent individual temperament aside, I believe most people can benefit from some degree of optimism; and it has been shown that most can learn techniques to become more optimistic. But in the end no one can force anyone to think differently. My point is not necessarily to convince anyone to utilize positivity if it’s not their cup of tea, but rather to say if it works for people why put it down? We choose to utilize positive thinking, or reframe our perception to either more positive, accurate, or non-judgmental thoughts because it works for us. So let’s call a truce on this one and allow each other to live our lives the in the best way we see fit without judgment.
Yes, deep structural, institutional, and systematic change is needed so that we can alleviate suffering and exploitation on a mass and fundamental level. And there is legitimate reasons for why people are suffering, are depressed, and/or anxious. However, I maintain there can be a synthesis of critical thinking, critical awareness, and positive thinking which will lead to better lives for both individuals and groups. But if we could choose to lessen suffering in the moment, even for an individual, why wouldn’t we do so? Last time I checked individuals make up society. They are members of a family and a community; they are your co-workers, your neighbors, etc. Improving the emotional lives of people will have a wider impact on the world.

Moreover, one argument on the other side seems to be saying there isn’t a way to make things better until “after the revolution.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I can wait! I am here to say there are plenty of ways to make things better now! Will they completely alleviate and ameliorate the problems? No. But can they make us feel better? Yes! The opposition seems to think that happiness will cover up the pain and make us less likely to take social action. But I believe when we feel better we have the capacity to do more. Depression and anxiety are demotivating and debilitating. If positivity can help us to have the energy to put into educating and organizing, not to mention increase the quality of our lives and our mental and physical health, then that in and of itself makes it worth a try!

To me being positive is not being unrealistic or “living in the clouds” so to speak. It is strength-based, rooted in self growth, and about reaching ones fullest potential. Being positive is encouragement and believing in yourself and others. Being positive is knowing your own self-worth, value, and dignity. Being positive is keeping hope alive by choosing to continue in a struggle and having the resiliency to bounce back from setbacks. Being positive helps us to fight on and work together for better days for all people. In fact, being positive is a socialist value!

Being a socialist is rooted in love for oneself and one’s community. Without this positivity we couldn’t possibly continue to sustain the movements that breathe life into our collective futures, which require a lot of hard work. Just believing we have a future and it will be better than today because of our struggle, is being positive. Without optimism, we will accept our fate, instead of resisting and agitating until we make something better of our lives. Positivity means being willing to demand better because we know we deserve better!

It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenging emotions or tough times. It doesn’t mean avoiding challenging things or deny the truth about life’s struggles. It means we choose to face them with a positive mental attitude and know we have what it takes to problem solve our way through it. It’s not like we pretend nothing inhumane or unjust ever happens in the world or that positive thoughts alone can make hardships go away and make us happy. We just believe in the power of positivity to help us make things better. In hard times, it means we can lean on a friend, family member, or comrade for support.

We have each other and that in and of itself is positive. Being positive teaches us to embrace our vulnerabilities in order to make connections with others. Instead of listening to the fear-based narratives of the dominant culture, which makes us shut down in shame, we choose to embrace a life which, although sometimes is uncomfortable, is worth living. It is due in large part to the positive social connections we make with others that improves the quality of our lives, renews our spirits, and keeps us going.

As a socialist we realize that through all the pain and suffering, oppression, dehumanization, and exploitation the world has in store for us, we have so much joy, peace, egalitarianism, and mutual aid to share. In the process of our lives we practice in action what we believe in in theory, breathing life into praxis. It’s through positivity that socialists exist. Because we work together towards our collective liberation every day steadfast in the belief that we make a difference and our lives matter.

So instead of rejecting positivity, let’s embrace what it can do for us! Sure, it can’t do everything, but where it has its usefulness let’s use it. Let positivity not be a reason to become complacent or be content in our own little bubble, but let it be a reason for us to become more pro-active, engaged, and inspired to keep moving forward together in our quest for collective human liberation on both individual and societal levels.

Let's Reject Hard Work

Previously Published in The Socialist online

In America there is a strong undercurrent of protestant work ethic. Americans value hard work. I would even argue there is an obsession with it. People are told that if they don’t work hard that they are worthless. From the image of the “slacker” and “loser” to the stereotype of the “welfare queen,” Americans view people who don’t work hard as undeserving “leaches” and “moochers.” The stigma is thick for those who refuse or reject the idea of hard work, or for reasons out of their own control, are not able to obtain work.
There is also an American myth that hard work equals success and will earn anyone a ticket to the “American Dream.” I call it a myth because most of us know in our hearts that hard work does always not pay off. People work their asses off and what do they have to show for it? The vast majority of our labor value, which we produce through our hard work, gets taken away from us and exploited by our bosses (who, let’s face it, do not work nearly as hard as we do, yet gain nearly all the benefits of our hard work).

The owners, as I call them, pay us a pittance and then reap most of the profits we produce. They own the means of production, which they often purchased with money they accumulated from inheritance, tax shelters/breaks/havens, owning property, or exploiting other people. Essentially they get the money through unethical means.

Since they own the means of production and most property, they own us. And if we don’t work hard for them, they will find someone else who will (we are replaceable and expendable). They have tricked us into believing that hard work is good only so they can keep us working hard for them in the hopes that we make headway someday. But that someday never comes. The lower your wages and benefits the more they can extract from you, and the richer they become.

In fact, Americans are working harder than ever. Productivity today is through the roof. This is occurring as wages are mostly stagnant and remain flat while the cost of living rises exponentially. I would argue that hard work does not pay off and that we actually are being harmed by working so damn hard. Working long hours at a job does not bring about happiness as human beings. Spending our lives at work does not increase our sense of wellbeing. It actually increases our stress and leaves us little time to take care of ourselves or each other. What it actually does is make someone else rich at our expense.

I advocate that we have a right to be lazy! We have the human need to rest our minds, bodies, and spirits. We have the right to play, laugh, sleep, eat, read, write, create, share, dream etc. and be in nature and with each other. Of all human needs, something we spend most of our lives killing ourselves over, money, does not bring us more satisfaction in the end.

In addition, I, for one, am sick of seeing those memes going around on the internet that say something to the effect of, “hold tight, the weekend is almost here.” It has become apparent that people hate work and we really need to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our lives given that we have other choices. Furthermore, there are plenty of low social, health, and economic indicators that prove Americans’ happiness and overall wellbeing are suffering due to our backward economic, social, and political structures.
Look no further than this recent study of Denmark for a good example of what is making others happy, and for what we desperately need here in America:

Recently, the government in Switzerland decided to hold a vote on whether to give each citizen $2,800 a month as a guaranteed income per month. Just imagine if Americans had that! We could be a lot freer to be human beings, and not human doings.

A socialist transformation could bring us this sort of life. It’s totally doable, too, if we shift our priorities and defund things like war and prisons; tax the rich and corporations fairly; and socialize healthcare and other industries to make them more cost-effective by removing the profit motive. Collectively, we have the resources to support everyone to live the best lives they can possibly live, despite the lies being perpetuated that we are broke as a country.
We deserve a liberated life truly of our own where hard work is not forced on us just to survive. One where we would own our own means of production, form co-ops, and self-manage our workplaces collectively with fellow workers, if we choose to work. Where life doesn’t come as hard but is actually more purposeful and enjoyable and we can all reach our fullest potential together. We could stop working so hard and start working smart so that we can use our precious time more wisely. Now that’s a future worth working hard for!

I Am Done With Competiton and Force, Sign me up for Socialism!

Previously Published in The Socialist online

You know what sucks? Competing for jobs.

I am looking for a job right now and I was already passed up for one because someone else was “more experienced.” In this tight job market where there are a lot of qualified job applicants and not a lot of jobs, it means that employers get the pick of the litter, but it also means many people will go without jobs.

Without jobs we can’t afford to pay for things. And that means fewer people to buy products, services, etc. It doesn’t help the economy when a lot of people are unemployed. And it sure doesn’t help people, who are struggling. More and more these days, people are slipping below the poverty line as income inequality grows exponentially.

Why do we have to compete for jobs? Well, because capitalism says so. Capitalism says that we should compete for jobs, for housing, and for just about everything in life. Capitalism dictates that competition is good. But last time I checked, it’s not.

In fact, I wish we were a cooperation-based society. That way everyone would get a job doing meaningful work. We’re all hired! And those with more experience would mentor those with less. And everyone would collaborate on a team and would have an equal say in our work and share equally what our labor produced.
You know what else sucks? That capitalism forces us to take jobs we don’t like or don’t want to do. Capitalism says “take whatever job is offered to you and be grateful you have a job!” Even if it’s a job that overworks you and is soul-crushing, physically painful, mind-numbing and unfulfilling.

Capitalism doesn’t care what you are passionate about, what makes you happy, or ignites your inner spirit. Capitalism says if you don’t do this job then you can starve. That’s the bitter taste of force.

Of course capitalism will try to trick you into thinking you have a choice. A choice to work for corporation A or B. A choice to work a job that exploits you in this town or the one next to it. But what kind of choice is that?

Capitalism doesn’t care about your feelings, your talents, skills, or contributions. Capitalism only cares about making money off of you. And if you can’t make someone else money, well capitalism sees you as worthless.

I don’t want to compete for jobs I don’t want. I want to get hired to do a job that I want to do and be paid what I am worth— a living wage. I want to be treated like a human being, not a commodity. If anyone should gain from my labor it should be the people I serve in my community, not a master called a boss.

Forget this! I am ready to trade in this crappy system for one that makes me come alive. And competition and force just ain’t getting it for me. Sign me up for socialism!

People with Mental Ilness are Human Beings, Not a Threat

Previously Published in The Socialist online

Recently a young African-American mother named Miriam Carey (34) was driving erratically close to the Washington DC capitol and police were trying to stop her. Imagining the worst case scenario — that she possibly had a bomb inside her car — they feared she may be a threat. However, the real threat was the police, who shot Miriam dead (even after she exited her car without a weapon), with her one-year-old daughter in the back seat.

It turns out Miriam had a mental illness and had active delusions about President Obama. Many people lack a fundamental understanding of mental illness and how it can operate. As someone who has a major mental illness (bipolar I disorder), and is a social worker, I understand it first-hand.

When someone is psychotic and/or delusional, they often do not have much or any control over their thoughts and actions. It is hard to imagine a person losing touch with reality to that degree, but our brains are very powerful. When a person is in that state of mind, they are very vulnerable. In fact, contrary to popular belief, people with severe mental illness are more likely to harm themselves or be harmed by others, than to be dangerous to other people.

The danger from others is often because of the lack of understanding people about mental illness. Lack of information coupled with the stigma of mental illness keeps people from knowing accurate and important information that could save lives.
It’s important that people know that mental illness is very common. It is estimated that half of all people will develop a mental illness in their lifetime. Currently, 50 million people (1 in 5) have a diagnosed mental illness in America (not to mention all those who are undiagnosed).

So for something seen as so taboo and “weird,” mental illness is actually fairly normal and part of many people’s everyday lives. People tend to not talk about it due to shame, but it’s time we started talking about it. As fellow social worker and shame and resiliency researcher, Brene’ Brown, says, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

People with mental illnesses do not deserve mistreatment.
The Miriam Carey’s of the world are deserving of respect and should be viewed as having worth and value. I often imagine if I were in the middle of a manic episode and out on the street if any one of these people could be me, and, if so, how I would want people to interact with me. Would I want someone to draw a gun on me and start screaming at me? Would I want someone to threaten me or try to subdue me with force? I imagine those things being very scary and threatening. I imagine, with great dread, being killed, through no fault of my own, simply because I have a mental illness.
I think the police’s approach to people with mental illness needs a lot of work. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” policy leads to excessive force. I understand in emergency situations that police sometimes become panicked due to stress, but that is why proper and extensive training is needed, as well as clear and structured protocols to intervene and diffuse situations properly. Police should protect those with mental illnesses, not view them as suspect and dangerous.

Although mental illness is biological, genetic, environmental, and social-cultural, we know capitalism creates social alienation and enormous amounts of interpersonal, relational, and social stress on individuals and families.

Under socialism we would have a universal single-payer socialized healthcare system, where everyone could get proper mental health care. Under socialism, we would structure society differently so people would no longer work a 40+ hour week, and would have more time to devote to self-care. Under socialism we would provide for each other so no one would live in poverty, violence, be homeless or hungry, and would be less likely to experience trauma or stress, which contribute greatly to mental illness.

I believe if we lived in a democratic socialist society we could see a drastic reduction in mental illness and could even prevent a lot of it. Socialism would treat people with mental illness as human beings, not as a threat to be managed.

The Capitalist Food System is Hurting Us

Previously published in The Socialist online.

I remember a college Republican advisory of mine once said that he didn’t believe there were starving kids in America because, at a school where he worked, he saw children throwing away food. Our individual experiences don’t always paint the complete reality. There may not be children “starving” in America like they are starving in third-world countries. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t go hungry.

Many are getting less food than they need — often being forced to skip meals. And even more often, most people are eating “food” that is processed (filled with added sugar, salt and fat and/or stripped of nutrients); laced with pesticides; genetically modified; filled with hormones and chemicals; and/or factory farmed. Most Americans have little clue how unhealthy their food is.

Poor people often struggle to find healthy food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, as they live in food deserts —where it’s more common to find a corner liquor store than a grocery store. Most poor people can’t afford organic food, even if they can find it. In addition, many food pantries offer boxed and canned food, which is highly processed. This leads to many disproportionate health consequences for poor people.

Meanwhile, every day in America grocery stores throw away food, simply because it perishes from people not buying it. What kind of society lets people go hungry and throws away food simply because people can’t afford to pay for it?

Some people who struggle to afford food are on food stamps. However, recently the American congress has cut the food stamps program. This makes little sense. Look at this video to see just how important food stamps are:

A socialist America would ensure that all people were fed with healthy organic foods regardless of their income. A socialist America would ensure access to healthy food for everyone. A socialist America would do away with factory farms, harmful pesticides, injecting hormones and chemicals into our food, stripping our food of nutrients, and pumping them with added ingredients that threaten our health. A socialist America would help every American grow locally sourced food.

We must ask ourselves why do we continue to invest in capitalist America’s failing food system, when we can savor a sustainable socialist food system instead? Food shouldn’t be about making money for the few, at the expense of the whole.