Work today was mostly OK, except for a bit when I was on the phone to someone I often struggle to understand and then J started talking to me. I could not listen to both people and once and I heard nothing. At the time, I thought this was an autistic sensory or processing thing, but it’s probably something lots of people would struggle with it.

***

I’ve been thinking today about a couple of useful phrases for mental wellbeing. One was something I heard on an NHS group therapy thing I went to a few years ago. “I’m not responsible for the first thought, I am responsible for the second.” I can’t remember the exact context where I first heard this. I think it was mostly directed at self-esteem, as in I’m not responsible if a self-critical thought comes into my head, but I don’t have to follow it up with more. It’s good for dealing with those kinds of thoughts, but I use it with a lot of other difficult thoughts, particularly the type which, if dwelt upon, can push me towards pure O OCD (idolatrous thoughts, violent thoughts, sexual thoughts). I can just say that I’m not responsible for random thoughts that come into my head, so no guilt and catastrophising about being a terrible person for having such a thought, but also that I have the power not to dwell on them so I can move on, which is empowering.

The other phrase was something I learnt on a confidence and self-esteem course I did many years ago. I think some of the course veered towards toxic positivity, but one thing that was useful was the mantra, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.” That’s actually quite powerful and I focused on it today after the telephone awkwardness. I do tend to think that a lot of people have negative thoughts about me (people who don’t know my issues/struggles, but who witness my social awkwardness), but I can at least try not to care about it.

***

Speaking of toxic positivity, I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast on the subject yesterday. It was good, but I felt that they didn’t really get into the issue of toxic positivity in a Jewish religious setting. They spoke a bit about the sociological side of things, like mourning rituals creating time and space for sadness, but they didn’t really get into the theology. A lot of people would argue that Jews are supposed to be grateful and joyous all the time. This is an idea that is identified most strongly with Hasidism (particularly Breslov Hasidism), but can be found in other places too. This can be hard to accept or follow.

Part of the problem is that most of the sources dealing with joy and sadness date from before the development of modern psychology, so they don’t really distinguish sadness from clinical depression. Even accepting that, I think it is OK to say that sometimes the emphasis on joy and happiness isn’t always healthy or achievable, and that there is a place for sadness (they said this on the podcast, just not with religious sources). I used to know a Yeshivish rabbi who used to say that he was very glad that he isn’t a Breslov Hasid as he couldn’t be happy all the time. (It is also worth noting that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was also far from being joyous all the time and quite possibly had bipolar disorder, so we shouldn’t feel bad about not living up to a standard even he didn’t reach.)

Beyond that, I think there is a sense that joy is not the same as happiness or positivity. Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl wrote an essay on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in his Sukkot machzor (Tabernacles prayerbook). It’s a while since I read it, but I think he says that Kohelet is a book permeated with death and the sense of the shortness and futility of life, but it also has the word ‘joy’ more than any other book in Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible). The paradox is resolved because joy is not about always being happy and more about living in the moment and being grateful for what you do have, something that is compatible with feeling sadness from time to time.

***

Doctor Who thoughts, feel free to skip: I watched The Fires of Pompeii with E (long-distance). It’s a strange story, full of postmodern comedy, then it ends with the city being destroyed and loads of people dying. Doctor Who has done this before (the original series story The Myth Makers, about the fall of Troy, is very similar, tonally, although it’s hard to compare them directly as the older story no longer survives), but it seems weirdly awkward.

It seems like when Doctor Who, original or modern, does a historical story set within living memory, the writers and designers bust a gut to get every detail right and it’s all taken very seriously. No one is going to suggest the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Rosa) or the partition of India (Demons of the Punjab) were anything other than serious, tragic episodes, and while there is humour (e.g. the Doctor claiming to be Banksy in Rosa), it’s low-key and it doesn’t send up the period. Nothing like the Cockney Roman stallholder in The Fires of Pompeii.

If it’s set beyond living memory, however, suddenly the most outrageous errors (beyond artistic licence), anachronisms and silliness are permissible, even if it ends badly. The Witchfinders in particular sticks in my craw, for many reasons. Hence The Fires of Pompeii, an episode that mostly feels like Asterix… right up until the city gets destroyed. Weird.

There is a sense that, if no one in the audience can remember it, it’s ripe for comedy, which is a bit shocking for a programme that was originally supposed to teach children about history and to present the past on its own terms, as being as valid as the perspective of the present. Admittedly it wandered from this attitude very quickly, also in a story set in the ancient Roman Empire ending in catastrophe (the Fire of Rome in The Romans, a story very much in the same vein as The Fires of Pompeii). The Fires of Pompeii is far from being unique here, but the tragic nature of the climax, combined with the broadness of the comedy beforehand, make it particularly noticeable. I would like it if we could go back to really well-researched historical stories, but I suspect I’m in a minority here.

(Actually, I’ve just remembered Let’s Kill Hitler, a story that isn’t actually about killing Hitler, but does not exactly get to grips with the brutal reality of the Third Reich. It’s more about River Song trying to kill the Doctor, but I guess if I were inclined I could see it as more evidence of Jews not being considered a real oppressed minority in the eyes of the woke/BBC, although 2011 is a bit early for true wokeness. Anyway, as a general rule, my point still stands: recent tragedy: serious; further back: mockery.)

(Trivia point I noticed a while back: The War Games (1969) is closer in time to World War One (1914-1918) than Rosa (2018) is to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), yet it doesn’t feel that way.)

10 thoughts on “Useful Phrases and Toxic Positivity (and Doctor Who)

  1. The useful phrases exercise sounds interesting and potentially useful. I think where I would struggle is identifying the first bad thought and stopping there. Like today, I found myself deep in the self-critical/negative self-esteem rabbit hole without any recollection of how the thought spiral started in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. It occurs to me that “My thoughts are not always my friends” is another phrase I have sometimes used to dismiss negative thoughts which doesn’t need to be on the first thought. Although I used that more for religious OCD fears than low self-esteem per se.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Joy, happiness and contentment are very different in my opinion. I still care what others think of me, but not as much as I used to. I know better who I am and value myself, and if they don’t like that person, there’s nothing I can do about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for sharing that bit about Ecclesiastes and joy vs happiness.

    Hello, from the (nearly) pure O camp. I was sharing with my therapist today a fleeting thought about starting to paint OCD bullies/monsters/imps and wondered what they’d look like. I think they’d seem to be much louder and bigger than what they actually are.

    Liked by 1 person

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