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Take a Walk on the Dark Side

Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

“One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” Remember that one?

Here’s an often overlooked application of that idea: it also applies to your concept of being positive.

We all get the idea that one person might love video games while another person hates them. We all get the idea that one person might love visiting museums while another person finds it to be a drag. We all get the idea that one person might love having lots of alone time while another person sees that as a nightmare. When it comes to hobbies, entertainment, and recreation, we all understand the idea that different people are turned off and on by different things. But when it comes to our ideas about what it means to be a positive person, we tend to act as if there’s only one right way to think.

Case in point: Back in my college days I worked with a guy who was always perceived as a “negative nelly.” The reason was because he always focused on bad news whenever anyone asked him what was going on. And the funny part about it was that he would reach as far as he needed to reach in order to have some bad news to share. That is, if nothing was going wrong in his life, he’d make it a point to find something negative to report about someone else’s life even if he didn’t know them. Bill focused on other people’s problems with same degree of intensity as he focused on his own.

For instance, if you were to say “Hey Bill, what’s going on?” He’d look around and lower his tone as if he were getting ready to tell a grave secret. Then he’d say something like “Do you know John, the guy that works in the kitchen? Well, he has a friend named Sandy whose cousin is having a real hard time right now. Apparently Sandy’s cousin has a best friend who was supposed to be in the olympics or something like that and he got injured some kind of way and the whole family is just a mess because of how hard he’s taking it.”

Bill’s stories were always so tough for people to listen to because they required you to feel bad and say things like “I’m so sorry to hear that” unless you were okay with seeming like you were a total jerk who lacked empathy for others. It didn’t matter what day, time, or occasion it was. If you asked Bill about anything, he’d give you a story about something bad that happened to someone somewhere and you’d end up feeling a little less happy about the fate of your fellowman. Sometimes I would fantasize that Bill was a kind of superhero whose sole purpose was to remind people of the Yin/Yang principle.

The funniest thing about working with Bill, though, was all the fruitless effort everyone would pour into trying to make him more positive. People would always tell him to cheer up or they would try to direct the conversation towards something positive. Some people would awkwardly say things like “Hey Bill, did you do any FUN & EXCITING things this weekend?” That never worked though. Bill would just say something like “No, it was way too crazy for any of that. I had to talk to my girlfriend Sheri for like 5 hours because her son has just been driving her up the wall this week.” If you tried to beat Bill in an energy battle, you would lose every single time.

I don’t think people really cared all that much about Bill’s happiness. I think they were just trying to protect themselves from having to listen to his stories because it negatively affected *their* happiness. What I realized about Bill was that he actually enjoyed *sharing* bad news. For Bill, that’s the kind of stuff that was most worth talking about. Based on his value system, it gave him a sense of belonging and purpose to play the role of the guy who was always aware of bad things and always there for the people who were going through them.

One of the reasons Bill always had so many bad stories to report was because he was always spending his time listening to people talk about their problems. And if no one was around to talk about their problems, Bill would go search them out. I wouldn’t say that Bill was particularly “happy” in some stereotypical sense, but I would definitely say that he found great meaning in the practice of focusing on other people’s unhappiness. When people would try to make him become more positive, I would just think to myself “What he’s talking about may be garbage to you, but it’s treasure to him.”

I love horror movies. Not the blood and gore kind, but the suspenseful thriller kind. Movies like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Get Out, Mama, The Witch, Sinister, etc bring me to the edge of my seat and they inspire me to think deeply about the nature of the universe, the possibility of the supernatural, the problem of evil, and how we can improve our ability to deal with the shadows in our own lives.

My wife, however, hates horror movies. And it’s not just a matter of aesthetic taste either. If she watches the kinds of horror movies I like, it ruins her sleep and it will freak her out for at least a few days. The experience of watching horror movies, for her, is a form of negative thinking. To watch a movie like Sinister would be the equivalent of making her imagination a breeding ground for fear. But here’s the funny thing: she loves to listen to me talk about horror movies after I watch them. She likes it when I tell her stories and philosophize about them. But she credits this to my personality, not to any messages or insights that are actually in the movie.

Like Bill, I find great meaning by paying attention to things that others might find depressing or frightening. That doesn’t make me negative. It makes me negative to be around when you’re the kind of person who seeks meaning in different types of things.

I once read in a self-help book somewhere the following advice: “Never try to force another person to be positive.”

I think that’s good advice, but we should take it one step further: Never assume that your definition of being positive is the same as the other person’s. The kinds of thoughts that you treasure might be boring or bad to someone else.

In your quest to make the world a more positive place, be open to the possibility that the people you’re trying to inspire are already enjoying themselves far more than you think.

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