Tuesday, April 5, 2016

G is for Glad (or, A Defence of Pollyanna)

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna.  
Image from disneywikia.com
A year or two ago I borrowed the movie Pollyanna from our local library.  It was a movie I watched often as a child and, sparked by some memory, wanted to see again.  This time, though, I watched it after years of reading commentaries that had steeled me against the naïvete and excessive optimism that are now associated with the name "Pollyanna".  When referencing her name and story, commentators always set Pollyanna up as a straw woman to be knocked down.  A "Pollyanna", when used by them, is someone so intent on seeing the good that they are blind to the reality of evil and suffering all around them.

Commentators are not the only ones to use "Pollyanna" as a term of derision.  In her book Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman describes an upbeat fellow prisoner in terms of praise, only to clarify that she is "no Pollyanna".

Imagine my surprise, then, when I watched the movie and found Pollyanna to be a regular old pillar of strength and goodness, neither blind to suffering nor protected from its reality in her own life.  For example...

1) The girl has just lost both of her parents when she is shipped off to her rich aunt's house.  Did you catch that?  BOTH OF HER PARENTS ARE DEAD.  I don't want to overwork this point, but if you're a child who has just lost both of your parents and you're still smiling and trying to make others happy then MORE POWER TO YOU.

2) The aforementioned aunt is emotionally neglectful, critical, and overbearing.  But Pollyanna, who knew love from her now-dead parents, keeps loving her aunt as best she can.  If this is an irritating quality than MAY GOD BLESS ME TO BE SO IRRITATING!

3) Pollyanna FALLS FROM A FREAKING TREE AND LOSES THE USE OF HER LOWER LIMBS.  Is she sparkly-la-dee-da about it?  No.  She is heartbroken and sorrowful and needs those she loves to help her hope.  And they do.

Pollyanna is so naive and blind to suffering.  Right?  Right?
Image from disneywikia.com

It's probably Pollyanna's penchant for playing what she calls "the glad game" that has earned her the needless ire of writers, theological and otherwise.  Taught the game by her father (who, we must remember, was a missionary at a time when missionaries packed their clothes in coffins to ensure a proper burial in their adopted lands of work), Pollyanna looks for something to be glad about when a situation seems, at face value, to possess no good thing.  Initially those around her find this obnoxious, but as she continues to succeed in finding things about which to be "glad" she persuades even the crankiest cranks to search for something good in their lives.

The danger of the glad game, and perhaps why Pollyanna has been so denigrated by theologians wrestling with evil and suffering, is when it is taken to be a cure-all; believing that if we find what is good and (to tinge it with a biblical note) give thanks for it, the bad will cease to have any power over us.  Positive thinking alone will not transform straw into gold or pain into power.  Gladness exists alongside the many other things that make us human: sorrow, anger, grief, apathy.  It plays its part and its part alone.  To force gladness on what is un-glad is to do violence to ourselves.  I do not try to find the good in my current physical condition.  That's not to say good will not come at some point, but I will not do violence to myself or my situation by pretending it something that it is not.  My faith tradition has at times pushed adherents to do just that, to give thanks for the loss, for the suffering, to see God's divine purpose right now...but I find such practices repellant and harmful.

What I want--rather, what I need--is to take a gentle step back and look (paradoxically) more widely and more narrowly.  I can see the difficulty; I rarely forget it.  But since it looms so large, I play the glad game as Pollyanna did: I step back and take stock of the thousands of things taking place that have nothing to do with the difficulty but still make up my life, right now.  

And of those thousands each day I pick the gladdest: first one, then another, then another.  Some are so small and insignificant I might never even have noticed them if I didn't take the time to do so.  And some are so large and breathtaking, I am thankful for the push to write them down that I will not, in years to come, forget they happened at all.

A certain little girl features regularly in my daily glads.  

Confession:  I didn't start playing the glad game because of Pollyanna.  A few weeks into my leave, my doctor advised me to download an app that was supposed to help improve my mood.  The app wasn't available on my phone, so I downloaded an alternative one that offered a very simple exercise: write down three good things that had happened to me that day.  My own faith tradition has a similar practice:  in all things give thanks.  And I myself have done a practice out of the Jesuit tradition in naming one life-giving and one life-taking thing over a period of time (day, week, month, etc.)

But being wrenched from my faith tradition by my illness, I found it easier, when I went on leave, to go Pollyanna's route and simply look for good things around me--things that make me glad. In the beginning I was still experiencing round-the-clock panic and anxiety, and thankfulness required an energy (and theology) I could not summon.  But I could observe and record; I had the energy for that.

Here are some actual examples of "good" things in my first month of leave:
October 20:  I flirted with Matt and he flirted back.
October 20:  I made the lunches and got Juju ready without panicking.
October 21:  I got my kids to school on time.
October 27:  I had fun matching socks and watching The Office.
October 28:  I heard the sound of the rain falling on the fallen leaves.
October 29:  I prayed for other people on my walk to the park, and it felt like a blessing, not a burden.

When I began cognitive-behavioural therapy two months into my leave, the practice of finding three good things was expanded to include why they were good. It was an easy change to incorporate given my eyes were already open for good things to record at the end of each day.  Longer-term, the goal was not just to remember what was good but to intentionally nurture what was good in my life as a way of increasing health and hope.


I resigned from my job this past Thursday, with my congregation being informed during the following Sunday morning service.  It was a decision I had been agonizing over for awhile, but was finally made when I accepted that I am not going to be "all better" anytime soon.  I don't doubt that it was the right and necessary decision.  But in the meantime I hurt; in the meantime I am a bit lost.  The metaphysical strings of my heart and soul stretch and tear often, and if I could bypass all of this, I would.

The glads will not make this hurt go away.  Pollyanna couldn't walk, and the glad game didn't change that.  I can't pastor, and the glad game doesn't change that.

Still, I continue this practice of recording the good and the glad.  In my journal, every day that I remember to, I write down three "glads" before I go to sleep.  As my health has improved, the bar for a "glad" has grown higher, but they are still comprised mostly of simple, day-to-day goodness: snuggling with my kids, connecting with my husband, reading a nourishing book, having a good run.

So far, I have always been able to find three: the good, the glad, the gifts that I enjoy in the here and now.  Which is why I keep looking.  And why I trust I will keep finding them.


A blessing for you, and for me.

May the glad things of this day,
This hour,
This moment
Not be missed by us.
May we see clearly
What is so very good around us,
That we might be strengthened to bear
What is not.


  1. Your story is so important. Your writing about it matters. Thank you for your honesty and for giving the rest of us a chance to peek in and walk with you.