Tuesday, December 01, 2009

December 1, 2009 - The Glad Game

Many people have heard the name “Pollyanna.” Her full name is Pollyanna Whittier, and she’s the title character in a classic series of children’s novels. The first one was published in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter.

In the grim little New England town where the orphan Pollyanna goes to live with her aunt, she teaches others to play a little game her late father taught her. She calls it “The Glad Game.” It has one simple rule: find something to be happy about in every situation, no matter how dark or desperate.

The game’s origins go back to one particular Christmas. Digging deep in the charity barrel, hoping to find a doll for her present, Pollyanna finds only a pair of crutches. A poor kid without a toy at Christmas? What could be more pathetic than that? Pollyanna’s father teaches her, then, how The Glad Game works: be happy you found the crutches, he tells her, because “we don’t need ‘em!”

The Wikipedia article on Pollyanna gives a few examples of how adept the little waif becomes at playing The Glad Game:

“When Aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, she exults at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to ‘punish’ her niece for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant, Nancy, Pollyanna thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.”

Pollyanna becomes an evangelist for The Glad Game, bringing a treacly sweetness to her little town, until further misfortune in her own life forces her to practice what she preaches:

“Eventually, however, even Pollyanna’s robust optimism is put to the test when she is struck down by a motorcar while crossing a street and loses the use of her legs. At first she doesn’t realize the seriousness of her situation, but her spirits plummet when she accidentally overhears an eminent specialist say that she’ll never walk again. After that, she lies in bed, unable to find anything to be glad about. Then the townspeople begin calling at Aunt Polly’s house, eager to let Pollyanna know how much her encouragement has improved their lives; and Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she has legs. The novel ends with Aunt Polly marrying her former lover Dr. Chilton and Pollyanna being sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and is able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled.”

We cancer survivors hear a lot about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. In many ways, that advice is but a warmed-over version of Pollyanna’s Glad Game. The problem is, no real person can be as relentless in playing the game as the fictional Pollyanna. Feelings of sadness and dejection sometimes present themselves, and that’s OK. They come with the territory.

If we take the “think positive” advice too seriously, we can end up denying the existence of those negative thoughts – which are only natural, after all. Sure, maintaining a positive attitude is important, but that doesn’t mean we can never give ourselves permission to feel anger, or sadness, or frustration or any of the other negative emotions that come from this kind of protracted struggle.

There’s a lot of emphasis, in some cancer-treatment circles, on mental exercises like meditation and visualization as practical ways of calming the spirit. These practices are of proven usefulness and have their place, but it’s possible to take them too far. Some of the more enthusiastic promoters of these techniques claim they stimulate the immune system, actually unleashing the body’s healing energies – as though they were a treatment modality in themselves. It’s easy to see where such exaggerated claims can lead: to the belief that, unless we devote enough time each day to pulling ourselves up by our own endorphins, we’re giving up altogether.

Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, a psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, touches on this in her book, The Human Side of Cancer. She tells of a patient of hers named Jane, who had been successfully treated for breast cancer, but who felt troubled by the fact that she sometimes worried about a relapse. Could her worries in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Jane wondered? This caused her to worry even more. The doctor comments:

“Jane was echoing a refrain I often hear from people with cancer: the notion that feeling sad, scared, upset, or angry is unacceptable and that emotions can somehow make your tumor grow. And the sense that if the person is not in control on the emotional plane all the time, the battle against the disease will be lost. Of course, patients like Jane didn’t come up with this notion on their own. It's everywhere in our culture: in popular books and tabloids on every newsstand, on talk shows, in TV movies.

For most patients, cancer is the most difficult and frightening experience they have ever encountered. All this hype claiming that if you don’t have a positive attitude and that if you get depressed you are making your tumor grow faster invalidates people’s natural and understandable reactions to a threat to their lives. That’s what I mean by the tyranny of positive thinking.”

Sometimes we just don’t feel like playing The Glad Game. Sometimes, we shouldn’t have to.


Ronni Gordon said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for putting into words something I often think about. You're pushed into believing that if you feel sad or angry, you're having a "pitty party" and you better move on or else.

Katrhleen said...

Carl, I didn't know you were dealing with cancer. I'm so very sorry for your trouble. My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the esophagus 7 weeks ago. He has since gone thru a myriad of tests, scans & treatments including chemo & radiation. He finishes up his 30th radiation trtmt. on Dec. 23. We then must wait 3 weeks for more tests to determine if surgery is an option. If so, then we have life threatening and life changing decisions to make. This has already turned our lives upside down and much more is to come. Jerry is struggling with side effects but his attitude is great, mostly. I'm struggling with things emotionally that took me by complete surprise. It has been a living hell. I saw your post re: the glad game & it struck a nerve. Not only are the patients told about this "positive thinking" stuff, but so are the families. You're not supposed to express your fears (in my case, terrors) of what is happening to your loved one or your family or your future or your dreams being just shattered. No matter the outcome, our lives, my life, is unalterably changed. Life as I knew it will never be again. There is sooooo much involved here & you are told, for the most part, just 'suck it up" & be strong. Because I was so devastated by this, I was told by an "oncology counselor" that I needed to see a psychiatrist & should be on meds.!! That is not what I need. Positive thinking only goes so far. Trying to understand what God is doing and having Faith in the firey furnace...well, books could be written about that. Anyway, I just felt like I had to share that. There is not too much out there that I have found, that helps the spouse deal with this. We need help, too. Thanks for listening.

Carl said...

It's a revealing story you tell, Kathleen (or is it really Kathrleen?) about the medical professional who offered you some prescription help for your feelings of dejection in the midst of your husband's difficulties. Sure, it's a good thing to try to think positive, but there times when sadness is situationally appropriate. "Helping" is not synonymous with "fixing it." Some things can't be fixed. Helping, then, becomes a matter of walking beside, accompanying, lending strength. Thanks for sharing.