Emotional Control: Mandatory Happiness Makes Me Sad

I recently joined Pinterest. I resisted for a little while, like I always do, but eventually decided that it would be a convenient way to store ideas for home decorating (I just moved house) and wedding planning (for next fall). The result was my sudden immersion into Pinterest “culture.” You see, there are a lot of evangelical-fundamentalist Christians on Pinterest. It’s yet another venue where they share child-rearing advice and inspirational messages made into art projects for the home. Fundamentalist mothers are often very crafty; it’s part of a whole constellation of lifestyle choices that marry frugality and efficiency to beauty and creativity.

So, inevitably, I recognize a lot of it.

Wall plaque reading “Always tell the truth. Use kind words. Keep your promises. Giggle and laugh. Stay happy and be positive. Love one another. Always be grateful. Forgiveness is mandatory. Give thanks for everything. Try new things. Say please and thank you. Smile.”

Plaques or photo frames that say “Smile,” “love,” “joy,” and especially the ones that play on the idea of house rules (“in this house we love one another”) mean something totally different to me than the words they contain.

Is there anything wrong with being positive? With remembering to use kind words and keep your promises? Is there anything wrong with staying happy and being grateful? No, of course not.

It’s the imperative that’s the problem.

My fellow bloggers have commented on emotional control extensively. As fundamentalist Christians, we were raised to be constantly on the hunt for the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). Not manifesting those traits visibly did not just mean you were having a bad day or weren’t feeling well or were having a spell of depression. It meant there was something deeply wrong with you in a spiritual sense. If you really had the Holy Spirit, you would never be anxious; you’d have peace that passes understanding. You would never be lonely or sad or fearful; you would have joy unspeakable and full of glory. You would always have a “sound mind.”

I was an extremely depressed teenager. This was not okay.

I often found myself walking blindly into chastisement because of the look on my face. What was the look? I have no idea. I was usually too surprised by the sudden reprimand to remember what I had been thinking about.

People assumed I was angry, or sulking, or thinking rebellious thoughts when I was totally minding my own business. If I wasn’t happy, they took it personally: was I resenting the authorities in my life? Feeling sorry for myself? (My pastor loved to pick on “pity parties.”) Was I letting the devil put thoughts of discontent in my head? Was I forgetting the great privilege I had to know the Truth at such a young age? Probably all of the above, right?

“You have a bad attitude” was the expression I most dreaded. How did they know what my attitude was? I hadn’t even spoken to them! But the mere absence of a smile and a slight sluggishness of movement was enough to condemn me to the heap of prayer requests for poor, struggling teens who obviously weren’t yet “sealed” with the Holy Ghost.

It’s really difficult to sort out your own actual spiritual condition when everyone around you decides what it is based on your face. I remember a lot of interventions and reproachful remarks over my “problem” and how I ought to pray harder to chase away the demons and leave my soul light and wide open for the Holy Spirit.

All I really wanted was an hour by myself to think.

So when I see plaques like the one above on Pinterest, what comes to mind is the chastisement. The imperative. “Change your attitude.” “Smile.” “Be grateful.” Don’t you dare be upset, hurt, angry, impatient, anxious or – god forbid – depressed.

What I see isn’t a gentle encouragement to count my blessings, to remember the things that make me happy. What I see is emotional control. Be happy or else. Be grateful or else. And that “else” was never ambiguous. I must live in a perpetual state of joy and peace or I’m probably missing the Rapture. Smile. Or get burned up with all the drug-dealing Muslim Democrat lawyers who kill white Christian babies while watching Satanic porn. Right?

I’m decorating my house without any “inspirational” words. Instead, I choose pictures that remind me of things I love. Forests. Maps. Animals. Words are too easily turned from expressions of kindness to demands for gratitude. They too easily become coercive. When I have children, I want our home to be the place where we can be real people. Life demands we put on enough faces as it is: work, school, sports, performance, meeting new people. Home is the place where you can go to your room and be sad for a little while. It’s the place where you can tell someone how frustrated or nervous you are and have them understand. Home ought to be the place where you scrub off your latest public persona and restore your energy, your passion, your positive feelings.

Home shouldn’t be a place where you have to perform.

  • Jenn Dyer

    “If you really had the Holy Spirit, you would never be anxious; you’d have peace that passes understanding. You would never be lonely or sad or fearful; you would have joy unspeakable and full of glory. You would always have a ‘sound mind.’”

    The Holy Spirit is starting to sound like an antidepressant to me. Seriously, the only time I’ve felt that type of peace is when I’ve been on antidepressants. A person suffering from depression could never feel that way without medication and I doubt even a person not suffering from depression could ever feel that way all the time.

    I understand. Growing up my parents always asked for more. Even when I was doing things that were normal, accepted practices, I was always told I should be doing more for spiritual growth. I loved to read, but if I wasn’t reading the Bible, then I was lectured even though I was reading Nancy Drew or a Christian juvenile fiction. I always felt that I could never do enough. That I had to completely surrender everything that was me to our beliefs, otherwise I wasn’t devout enough. No one could see my thoughts, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t still subject to thought control.

    Along with the belief that I should sacrifice all was the belief in demon control, which led me to fear, not just fear of outside influence, but fear of myself, of my own thoughts. It took me a long time to work myself free of that fear and free of the belief that duty was more important than self.

  • Kelly

    I happened to wach an episode of 19 Children… (I know I know). Anna’s sister is getting married. The cameras sit and talk to the older girls about marriage and what they want. The thing that kept coming up again and again was “we have to be content”.

    Contentment can be a good thing, a restful thing. But it can also be a stagnating suffocating thing. Your must be hppy post reminded me of the girls’ quiet insistence to one another that they must be content — no complaining was the underlying message I got :(

    • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

      Ascolutely! If we’d remained content, we’d still be living in caves.

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    After an unbelievably stressful couple of weeks at work, several nurses and I talked about what we could do to make things better. We figured out some possible solutions and decided to implement them. Later on that day with a close friend, also in that group of nurses, the two of us talked about how we needed to change our attitudes so that we could be happier both at work and at home. With nursing, the job is your life and it doesn’t really end when your shift ends.
    The point is, we discussed solutions to the problems before attitude adjustments. If you put attitude before solutions, that is not only shaming you for reacting appropriately to a bad situation, it discourages you from actively seeking much needed solutions. In this way “contentment” is a recipe for disaster, not only on a personal level, but one that could possibly effect many others.

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

    Yep, I’ve always hated being told to “SMILE!!!!!!” It’s not just confined to fundamentalist circles though, my mother still does it to me, even though I’m 37 and have asked her repeatedly not to.

    Being told to “SMILE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” when you are truly, clinically depressed can be utterly soul destroying. And even if you aren’t depressed, it’s bloody annoying.

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

    Where I work we have a number of people who are fond of sticking up those motivational posters and sticking inspirational quotes on the end of their emails (even though this violates the email policy which states contact details only, in a readable font). One of the most annoying is “There are no problems, only opportunities!” Um, yeah, if the main computer server has suddenly lost communication with a 16,000 person organisation because there’s some idiot with a backhoe cut a cable, or a lightning strike has started a major electrical fire, I’m really not seeing any “opportunity” beyond massive damage control.

    And I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but in my experience, the ones pushing the annoying motivation messages are usually responsible for stressing and demoralising staff with unrealistic expectations and bad behaviour.

  • http://stuckinthered.blogspot.com Evelina

    Argh – my Mom used to do this to me. I’m actually a pretty chipper, upbeat person, but if I was quiet or frowning she would start worrying that I was depressed. (This didn’t have anything to do with the Holy Spirit, she just loves to diagnose people with psychological problems.)

  • smrnda

    I hate being told to smile. Even on a good day I don’t walk around SMILING!! and GRINNING!! at everyone. I think telling someone to smile, or to be positive, is just saying “Hey, I don’t care about you. If you are feeling anything bad, pretend to be happy so I don’t have to actually care about you or whatever is going on in your life.” Plus, if you can’t show negative emotions, how can anyone really help or care about anyone else because the time when you need to care about someone is when they aren’t feeling good?

    Having traveled a bit, this whole always look happy thing is very distinctly American, which might be due to the influence of religion, though I don’t have any clear theories or ideas on this one.

    • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

      I don’t think it’s distinctly American – my mother does the “SMILE!!” thing a lot, as do some other annying women I know, and this is Australia. I think it’s more indicative of relentless positivity.

  • JeseC

    I’d like to introduce them to *my* circle of crafty people. Almost entirely alternative types who got into crafting because, hey, how else am I going to get a lacy blouse with crystal skull buttons?