I hear New Age / positivity thinking / success gospel / bright-sider / secrets of selling aphorisms and slogans all the time, whether on public radio, in books I scan but pass up at the library, mouthed by people in 12-Step groups, vouchsafed by people in personal growth programs and more.
At their best, they're arguably not totally harmless, though with some of them, the kernel of motivational truth they bespeak may outweigh their downsides.
At their worst, when told to people in cancer recovery, soul-killing stretches of life, or other problems, they're a mentalist form of social Darwinism and thus, quite harmful indeed.
So, let's dig in and look at a few of these.
That "eating toads" phrase, though commonly attributed to Mark Twain, comes from the French aphorist Nicolas Chamfort, according to writer and novelist Paul Theroux. He wrote: "Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day."
So, let's start right there.
1. Here's my take on that phrase, "Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day."
Why shouldn't I instead figure out a way to better my life so that I don't face the perceived necessity of toad-swallowing in the morning? Better yet, why shouldn't we as a society work for that as a societal goal? And, why shouldn't we also as a societal mindset, move at least partially beyond the "no pain, no gain" behind this?
Related to that ...
2. One of the most common of these pseudo-insightful aphorisms is "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
So laughable on several grounds.
My standard response is: "How do you know in advance if it will kill you or not?" Plus, as a good secularist, I know there's no "you" left after you are dead.
Bill Murray, in a Tweet a few weeks ago, had a more sarcastic take: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you smaller." And, that actually, if it's "sometimes" rather than "always," is true, sarcasm aside. A bout with cancer may not kill me. However, it will certainly weaken me, and perhaps for the rest of my life, not just temporarily. And, not just physically. The "fog of chemo" is a well-known mental issue for cancer survivors. And, even after chemo's done, I may be permanently affected enough physically by the cancer for the effects to include my mind, my self, my personality.
Add in that this was first uttered by Nietzsche, and that's probably good reason to dump the phrase right there.
3. I mentioned earlier, that these phrases are downright harmful if told to, say, a person trying to get over cancer. Or a person in a 12-Step program still struggling, and struggling in part because the slogans sound like nonsense.
One of them is "All you have to do is believe," or something similar.
Excuse me, but believe in WHAT? This sounds like Eisenhower's take on civic religion, namely, that everybody needs some sort of religion or deity.
Second, the harm? The cancer survivor who is told this, when encouraged to try an "alternate" treatment, then gets told her lack of faith is the problem when she doesn't get better. Ditto for the would-be sober person for whom an "anonymous" group simply doesn't work. Both of them get depressed, with various further, potentially deadly, consequences.
So, you want a New Year's resolution? Work on decluttering your mind from stuff like this.