In between the click bait of things “you won’t believe,” recipes for the “best brownies ever,” articles speculating on how Donald Trump isn’t even human (hmm, perhaps not just conjecture), and the usual shots of friend’s children and vacations, my Facebook feed (and Instagram) seems to offer a lot of advice on how I should live my life. I mean, a lot.
On any given day, I can scroll through 20 different memes of motivation that, quite frankly, don’t do much beyond exercise my eyeballs. I mean, I wish they would do more. I wish it was that easy. I also wish it was easy to ignore most of them. I know some people say they can, but I call bullshit. Unless you ignore social media altogether (and yes, there are people who can and do), you will be inundated with motivational memes. And some will catch your eye. But so what, right? They’re harmless, right? Well, yes and no. I think we know words can hurt, no matter the intention.
Take this one I recently spied on Instagram:
“If you want to be happy, you have to be happy on purpose. When you wake up, you can’t just wait to see what kind of day you’ll have. You have to be the one to decide what kind of day you’ll have.”
“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”
“Just do it. No more excuses. Just do.”
Fair enough. I’d like to have a great day, thank you. In fact, I’m a naturally happy person, I’ll just come out and assume I will have a great day. And if I’m sent challenges to my happiness, I’ll just put on my impenetrable cloak of joy, and I will repel the sad-making stuff. There. Done.
Not So Fair Enough
Get hit by a car on the way to work? Choose positivity! Loved one diagnosed with brain cancer? Think on the bright side! Lose your job? Your home? Your hope? Just go out and change your life! If this take sounds harsh to you, it’s because it is meant to be critical. I am skeptical about most inspirational memes. I want to question their premise. I want some critical thinking used on their validity. And the reason I want to do this is because I feel that often they are empty words. I know words can work as a placebo, and that is something, but I think many memes are a misdirection. And misdirection is a technique used by snake oil salesmen, sneaky politicians (not all mind you, not all), skilled statesmen, and dodgy preachers. Worse than that though, inspiration memes can be sticks and stones that do harm.
Sometimes Choices Aren’t Choices
I say this because sometimes choices aren’t choices. Sometimes they are illnesses that have nothing to do with free will. And sometimes those illnesses lead to other illnesses: addictions. Fighting occasional blue funks with memes that amount to inspirational porn is one thing. Believing that a person with a mental health issue, a clinical disorder, can be prodded into health with positive messages is another. It’s like saying good thoughts cure cancer or lung disease. (And if you believe they can, then I’ve got some swampland in Florida just waiting for you.) Good thoughts are important, but they aren’t the cure or an enduring or effective treatment, even when they are meant to encourage good practices. This is particularly true for addictions. One thing we know about addiction is that it anesthetizes pain. For people in pain—those suffering from undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health issues, addiction is a double burden. A judgey meme isn’t going to galvanize change. The “just do it” mentality serves mostly to remind people that they aren’t worthy. This opens wounds and personalizes blame. It makes things seem simple when they aren’t. It prefers to assign blame to irrational things; to ascribe great power to people who are in many ways powerless to their illnesses. All you need to do is get your act together, one minute or second at a time and all will end well… Simple words for a Sisyphean task.
Much like inspiration porn, where people with disabilities are called inspirational just because they live with a disability, this mental health and addiction motivational porn serves to make people who don’t have a mental health or addiction issue feel like they don’t have a responsibility, or part to play in turning things around (beyond posting encouragements). It largely forgets that mental illness is in some measure, structural and the treatment of it requires more than a few encouraging words. It requires money. Money for treatment and continuing care. Money for housing. Money for teams of professionals doing research into the medical, psychological, and social conditions that create and perpetuate mental illness and addictions. People don’t fail to “conquer” their mental health and addiction issues because they aren’t courageous, or clever, or fighting hard. Getting healthy does require great, and often repeated effort. But it isn’t just a personal thing. It has more to do with decent support systems and societal advantages than shaming people with “change your thoughts, change your life” memes.