Here in this brutal second wave of coronavirus in India, with mental health problems endemic in a population that’s suffered economically and emotionally for upwards of 14 months, how are there still people glibly ignoring the reality of the situation in favour of chirpy phrases and flu tonics? That is not hope. That’s toxic positivity.
If you’ve done this, you may feel like you are helping. But this sadly doesn’t do anything useful for the person on the receiving end, who has to make an effort to be polite in response to platitudes when there’s so much else that needs (sometimes urgent) attention.
Loved ones who say “be positive, test negative” mean well; often, they want to make the recipient feel better. But there are much better ways to do this than to try to diminish the threat of the virus. Being unwilling to hold space for the fear, confusion, exhaustion, grief or other difficult emotions of a coronavirus or coronavirus-adjacent experience has adverse emotional repercussions on the person being told to cheer up.
Unless you are going to personally visit a patient’s or caregiver’s kitchen (double-masked mandatorily, obviously) and pluck, peel, chop, hand-pound and strain the selection of rhizomes, leaves and spices that you casually suggested over Whatsapp that they consume frequently – Don’t. It isn’t that these remedies are ineffective; it’s that it’s far easier to shoot off a prescription than to prepare something. You don’t know what the practicalities of their schedule, the ingredients or income at their disposal, or their energy level on any given day are.
I’m writing this amidst a respite from the way the virus has affected my own circumstances, and I’ve noticed what actually helped me in terms of communication. Since updates vary even between different parts of the same day, so if someone has reached out to you to, respond promptly. If you’re not usually in frequent contact, ask before you call – a caregiver may have their hands literally full; a patient may be resting. Catering, financial aid and such essentials may be appreciated; if you can provide, do.
In lieu of insensitive or even stupid phrases, ask meaningful questions or offer things that balance the difficulty of the situation with the hope that you feel (because you can; you’re not in their shoes).
“I pray for this night to be safely behind us,” a dear friend texted, showing me he wouldn’t pretend things weren’t scary with some “It’ll be okay!” nonsense. This crucial assurance let me safely pour my anguish out over a 2am phone call.
“I am curious about what is guiding you emotionally and spiritually right now, helping you find your own inner rhythm and be cared for and loved?” another dear friend asked. This beautiful question opened up a space for me to name, request and receive nourishment.
On that note: supplementing prayers with angry questions toward the authorities who let this country down will go far in helping us collectively recover from this horror. We must inculcate heartfelt resistance over toxic positivity. That’s what will give us resilience for the long haul. Those of us who survive are going to need it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 15th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.