(Ivor is a professional musician & psychotherapist based in the UK.)
We seem to live in a ‘Self-Help’ era. If you go into most bookshops you will find a multitude of titles designed to help you achieve all the goals and ambitions you could possibly yearn for, whether that be moving toward personal enlightenment, losing weight or anything else you can imagine. Our television sets seems full of programmes such as ‘Doctor Phil’ and ‘Oprah’, all bringing positive stories into our lives and guiding us to a ‘healthier’ way of living. Surely, positive thinking has to be a good thing I hear you say. Well, I agree with you, in many cases it is, but there is a dark side to all this that I think we need to be aware of.
Firstly, lets look at the benefits of being positive.
A ‘positive’ story.
Although I had some violin lessons in my early teens, I was, more or less, a self taught musician. In my early twenties I realised that I felt something was missing from my musical life and that I wanted to have the experience of studying classical violin at Music College. I have always been very direct in my approach to things, so decided to find the best teacher I could. The first was a world famous violin pedagogue. After I had paid the required £90 for the 45 minute lesson, I was informed that I was much too old at 25 to contemplate a classical training, and also far too tense physically to ever have a chance of studying classical violin at music college.
The next teacher I found was a college professor, and after playing for him, I was told that I should carry on with folk fiddle playing because it would be impossible for me to change my technique to that needed for classical music. A few years later, I met him on the stairs to the music college I had got into in London, by chance the one he taught at. I will always remember his expression, a rare mixture of shock and guilt.
Remaining positive and keeping up your self-belief no matter what others may say is obviously a good thing. We can achieve many of our goals if we want them enough and are willing to work hard and intelligently to achieve them. So far positive thinking seems to be ‘all good’, so where is the dark side? Well, lets look into that.
The dark side of ‘positive’.
We shall first look at emotions. We are all made up of both darkness and light, and have the potential to experience many feelings, whether that is sadness, happiness, fear, joy, anger or frustration. All are useful and healthy in the right context. The modern world however is addicted. We are addicted to feeling ‘high’ all of the time, be that with overuse of self-help literature, the Internet, drugs, texting, television, wealth, fame, gambling or food as just a few examples. What is it that’s driving us to occupy every second of every day with something external?
I would argue that its partly because we don’t like being alone with ourselves. If we were, we may start to feel some of the ‘darker’ emotions I mentioned earlier. To explain further, lets look at what addiction does. When we are pursuing the thing we are addicted to, we are in many cases experiencing a ‘high’ whilst doing it. It is likely to be distracting us from other perfectly natural feelings, whether that is loneliness, sadness, emptiness or even boredom. Lets take this ‘high’ feeling as one extreme and imagine placing it at the top of a graph. Take depression as another opposite extreme, and place that at the bottom of the graph. We seem to want to be continually at the very top. Its great for a while, but deep down the feelings of emptiness and hollowness remain, eating away at us as we suppress them. What happens in reality is that because we can’t maintain this hyped state of positivity, this leads us to collapse and depression. The reality then is that we cannot keep the positivity ‘act’ going forever, and to do so is a false aspiration.
In truth, to feel real contentment, we may need to accept that as healthy humans, we should be listening to all of our emotions, not just the so-called ‘positive’ ones.
The danger of positive thinking then is that it can be used to cover up other perfectly natural and healthy emotions that are beneficial to our health and well being in the long term.
As another personal example, I have a relative who on outward appearances is very positive. During conversation they often use words such as ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’. Now don’t get me wrong, I do like talking to positive people, but if I don’t feel anything other than a fake positivity I begin to worry. I would rather talk to someone I feel is being ‘real’, including their darker sides than a positivity ‘robot’. This was bought home to me recently when I told them about quite a serious operation I will be needing in the near future, to be met with the rather inappropriate “that’s great, fantastic” which seems to follow any topic I talk to them about.
What has any of this got to do with music I hear you ask? Well, lets talk about that.
I have enjoyed listening to great music all my life, and don’t feel I have many boundaries in terms of what I listen to. I think there is wonderful and not so wonderful music in every genre though I might favor some genres over another. Well, that was until I listened to music created as part of the ‘positive thinking’/ modern spiritual movement. Lets be blunt, its generally rubbish isn’t it. What you have is a mixture of synthesized sounds, in some cases whale noises, maybe some water sounds and a flute or pan pipe. It’s relaxing because it’s so devoid of, well, anything, that you have to go to sleep. I’m being a little cruel here, but my point is that it does exactly what I talked about earlier. It removes most emotions from the music so that it becomes rather like ‘nothing’. Now that’s fine if the aim is to fall asleep, but I’ve also heard ‘chart’ music, folk, country, pop, jazz and classical that seems to do the same thing. It’s as if we are no longer able to identify with anything deep and meaningful that contains the emotions we are so busy trying to avoid in our everyday lives. Art tends to follow trends in society.
Great art often comes from struggle or difficult personal feelings. Great classical music, great bluegrass and great jazz for example carries this emotional outpouring with it. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel all of our emotions and let them be heard, we cannot, as musicians, expect to be able to express them when we play.
We may arguably have increased our technical prowess as players in the modern era, but are we losing the very essence of what art should be about: emotion and expression? The truly great painters, dancers, composers, singers, film makers and musicians don’t patronise us with emotionless performances, but challenge us with real feelings and yes sometimes painful ones.
To summarise, I am not against positivity. I do believe I am a generally positive person, but I know that the art I respond to contains both light and dark emotions. When I play, I often feel I am expressing a melancholy or sadness that I want to share, not just a happy energy or a vacant one. When I meet and talk to people, it is a genuine connection that is important to me, rather than any fake veneer of positivity. As people, performers and listeners, maybe we could begin to feel comfortable being whole again; to express and share whom we really are inside, not just a narrow band of emotions. I’m sure it makes us healthier if we can be our ‘full’ selves; makes us more genuine and therefore better performers, musicians and listeners in the long run.
Any comments regarding this or other articles are much appreciated.
Please contact me through my website at: www.ivorottley.com