LESSONS IN NEGATIVITY
By Jeanne Martinet
Let’s face it. When someone is serving up exceptionally juicy gossip—whether it’s hitherto-uncovered dirt on a person who has been mean to you, an unsavory secret about an unscrupulous business competitor or a scandal about a celebrity—joining in can be a delicious temptation. But the urge to disparage can be even more mundane: Sometimes it’s only that a good friend is driving you crazy, and you happen to be with a mutual friend or friends who you know will understand exactly what you mean if you decide to complain about it.
I witnessed this phenomenon not too long ago; though to be absolutely truthful, I was not an innocent bystander, but a participant. I was in Central Park with a group of friends, waiting in line for tickets to Sondheim’s Into the Woods. These “Shakespeare in the Park” waits can take hours, and depending on where you are in the line, can be less than comfortable. There is definitely a lot of time for chatting. We went from politics to our personal lives, and eventually someone brought up the subject of the characteristically absent M., a friend who was always delighted to get a ticket to the theater from one of us, but would never be caught waiting in line herself, even though she worked at home and had as free a schedule as any of us.
“She’s been like that since we were in high school,” said Catherine. “I really love her, don’t get me wrong, but she has an unmatched sense of entitlement.”
“You don’t have to tell me about her sense of entitlement!” said Joanna, tossing her long hair back over her shoulders. “Who do you think is the only person who never hosts dinner parties, even though I’ve had her to three at my house already this year?”
The conversation went on like this for a while (I’m embarrassed to say), the bad-mouthing gaining momentum, and was punctuated by wicked jokes and guilty laughter. It was 90 degrees in the shade. We were hot and fussy, and we were finding great solace in our common complaining.
Suddenly my friend Josh, who had been both horizontal and silent the whole time that this M.-bashing was going on, lifted his head off the blanket. “Go ahead, girls, feed the tiger!” he said, like some kind of hipster King Solomon. “Feed the tiger.” Then he leaned back and closed his eyes again.
I was taken aback. At first I had no idea what he meant. The only time I had ever heard that expression was in the context of alcoholism; “feeding the tiger” meant gravitating toward unhealthy behaviors that could lead to relapse.
But then all at once, with an inner flush of shame, I got it. What Josh was saying was that by harping in this unchecked, negative way, we were all causing our negative feelings to grow and flourish. As comforting as it may feel in the moment to bitch together, what we were doing was to ensure that whatever flaws M. might actually have would now be intensified, more pronounced in our minds. Our negativity was like a beast growing larger every minute. We were in essence “feeding” it. Before you knew it, we would be blaming the poor absent M. for world hunger and global warming.
As everyone knows, “accentuating the positive” is easier said than done. It can be a lifelong challenge. It’s so very tempting to give in to inner fears and frustration; it’s fun to be snarky! Snarkiness gives you an immediate, if fleeting, sense of superiority. It is, in fact, addictive, like a drug. Negativity is very seductive—just like the proverbial hungry tiger. The tiger needs food to survive. She purrs when you feed her. But what happens when the tiger gets stronger? She will kill you and eat you. You will get sucked into her malcontent. The moral: Feed the negative, and it will eventually devour you.
After Josh’s pronouncement and my subsequent epiphany, I managed to resist joining the others in their “playful” derision of M. I unwrapped a sandwich, and fed my stomach instead.
Note: No tigers were harmed during the writing of this piece.
Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction; her latest is the novel Etiquette for the End of the World. She can be reached at JeanneMartinet.com
Tags: Miss Mingle
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