Many people are drawn to positive attitudes such as “be tolerant,” “always show compassion,” and “just be happy,” because such attitudes often do enhance health and joy in life. However, it is important to remember that the shadow side of exclusively embracing any attitude, positive or negative, can create more problems than the specific attitude is expected to convey. What remains in the shadow causes destruction in harmful, unexpected ways.
There are situations where we should not be tolerant, namely situations that call for judgment, discernment, and protecting yourself and others. There are certain behaviors, which do not deserve compassion, but that need to be exposed and criticized to prevent further harm from being done. There are times that do not call for happiness, namely when there is a need to experience loss, grief, and sadness.
Tolerance that is grounded in understanding rather than permissiveness and fear does not shy away from discerning the differences, good and bad, between different actions and behaviors. Compassion based on empathy and understanding is more humane and meaningful when it prioritizes whom it blesses with sympathetic concern. Happiness that is grounded in acceptance of the ongoing losses that we face is a deeper happiness than a forced cheeriness that turns its back on the difficulties in life.
While a positive attitude does wonders for one’s health, state of being, and relationships, we should make sure that we don’t become so one-sided that we stop taking the necessary time to view the world with discernment, to hold others accountable for harmful actions, and to experience the breadth of human emotions, which in effect deepens our presence in the world.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD