The Pollyanna Paradox


I once dated someone who observed that I’m drawn to depressing movies, TV shows and music. “Why?” he asked. “Because I feel that I can connect – that the writers and characters are expressing something I feel but cannot articulate,“ I said. He shrugged and said he didn’t get me. (I guess that’s why the relationship didn’t last long.)

Many years later I’m still drawn to melancholy or even self-deprecating humor (although the latter might just be a result of my neurotic Jewish DNA). This sentiment has carried over into my own forms of expression. I produced a documentary that unabashedly explains what it’s like to live with a chronic autoimmune disorder. It’s not a pretty picture. (There’s no lipstick on this pig!) But I think that makes the topic all the more beautiful. It’s impossible to really understand the complexities of chronic illness if it is discussed as something that’s easily manageable. That approach gives naïve audiences the impression that certain challenges really aren’t so difficult, and that attitude leads to dismissiveness. And that’s, well, really unfair.

Since I completed my film a few years ago I have submitted it to festivals and to national health societies in an effort to get the message out there. I know it’s a difficult topic but it’s one that needs to be discussed on a national scale. Sadly, my film submission was turned down again and again. I figured my chances of getting in were limited so I wasn’t too upset until I saw what these organizations chose to screen instead: stories of remarkable people overcoming their disabilities. I saw countless descriptions of films that all shared a theme of people with disabilities accomplishing unbelievable feats – many of them athletic in nature.

These films were meant to be inspirational and I imagine that they are to people who know nothing about what it means to live with a disability.  Unfortunately, they come with a risk of causing further despair among those who are living with disabilities. Of course it’s great when someone with Lupus or M.S. can complete a triathlon. But that doesn’t mean that everyone with these disorders should be expected to rise to the same level. Imagine how these stories of accomplishment feel to people with serious illnesses, many of whom truly struggle to get out of bed. My therapist once said to me, after really getting to know how my own health issues impact my quality of life, that I make “Herculean efforts” just to support myself and remain an active participant in life. But I’ll never be able to run a triathlon. And I don’t think I should be made to feel badly about that. Nor should you.

The bottom line is this: Sometimes pretty pictures are unrealistic. We see this all the time in magazines and on TV. Celebrities often seek cosmetic surgery to achieve or maintain a certain look. (Maybe that’s what is meant by the title, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”) Images are airbrushed to remove imperfections. And these images are then consumed by the public who compare themselves to them. And guess what happens when we compare ourselves to these images? We don’t measure up. As the conductor Benjamin Zander said, ( “When there’s a winner, there’s a loser.” So let’s make a pledge today to stop comparing ourselves to these unrealistic pretty pictures.

I believe that real people dealing with real issues, and anything that portrays the same, are incredibly beautiful. None of us should feel badly if we don’t look like Kim Kardashian or have Olympian skills. As long as we can look at ourselves in the mirror and know we make an effort every single day to do the best we can, the image we see in the mirror should appear beautiful.

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