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Fighting Pollyanna

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

As the first pimples of puberty appeared on my face, my moods took a downward turn. While all around me my classmates were morphing into butterflies, I was stuck in a perennial pupa stage. I was dismayed by this ungainly self that seemingly overnight had dropped over me like a disguise that I didn’t recognize and couldn’t escape. Disturbed by my low spirits, my mother hastened to remind me that I had good health, loving parents, a reasonable level of intelligence, and food and shelter—i.e., nothing to be depressed about.

“Count yourself lucky,” she went on, “that you didn’t have to go through what your father and I had to go through when we were young.”

She was talking about the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, of course. As a teenager living with her parents and siblings on their farm, many nights she had had to shelter in a ditch to escape bombardments. My father, then in his early twenties, spent those years hiding in my grandparents’ apartment in Barcelona, to avoid being executed by the anarchist gangs that terrorized the city. Food was so scarce that the family would fill their stomachs with water at night so they could sleep. I had to admit that, compared to that, my pimples and awkwardness were less than trivial.

Not only did I have nothing to complain about, my mother said, but I had a moral obligation to be happy. Not surprisingly, though, the more she insisted that I should be happy, the more discontented I grew. Then one day she  found a Spanish translation (we were living in Ecuador at the time) of Eleanor Porter’s 1913 book, Pollyanna. She thought it was just what I needed.

“Read this book!” she said. “It’s wonderful! It’s about a girl who finds something to be happy about even when bad things happen to her. I would like you to be like her.”

At my age, any girl that my mother held up as a shining example was bound to make me run in the opposite direction, and so it was with Pollyanna. But it wasn’t just that my mother thought I should be like her. I found her preachy and self-satisfied, and I refused to believe that her disgusting cheerfulness spread to everyone she encountered, adults included. I sneered when I read, in the final chapters, that she even found reasons to smile when she lost the use of her legs after an accident. Instead of turning me into a little ray of sunshine, the book had turned me into a child cynic.

“Have you finished it? Didn’t you think it was fantastic?” my mother wanted to know.

“I hate it! I hate Pollyanna!” I growled. “She is stupid because she ignores all the terrible things in the world, the hunger and the diseases and the earthquakes. And she’s conceited, I can tell.” At twelve, that was the limit of my critical abilities, but the vehemence of my dislike for positive thinking did not dissuade my mother from her goal of persuading me to be happy. Day in and day out she countered my frowns with rational sermons on the virtues of optimism.

Predictably, she failed. Although I was as compliant a child as you could imagine–respectful, studious, devout, polite—in the matter of happiness I saw my one opportunity for rebellion. My parents could expect proper external behaviors from me, but they could NOT, they could NEVER, control my inner states or my worldview.

If my  mother had been a little more devious, she might have let the topic of happiness rest. But she was too naïve a believer in logic, expecting that when presented with a syllogism—only tragic events justify unhappiness; there are no tragic events in your life; therefore, you should not feel unhappy—my rational self would bow down and adopt its conclusion.

And that is how it happened that, from an adolescent desire to rebel against my mother, I adopted a darkish view of the world, one that I harbor to this day. I have at various times urged myself to see the glass as half full, to walk on the sunny side of the street and let a smile be my umbrella, with no success. But lately I have decided to befriend the vein of melancholy that runs through my psyche, and as a result I’ve cheered up a bit.

10 Responses

  1. I loved Pollyanna since I was in bed for a year with rheumatic fever and my best friend had polio and we visited her at warm springs where everybody had polio, including FDR
    It takes a heap of optimism to survive
    Your sweet revenge is that you grew up a beauty

  2. I have somehow remained an optimist – no matter what happens, I eventually find a way to live with it, and still get as much as I can of what I want.

    It may be built-in – my parents went through WWII – and we had air-raid/atomic bomb drills in LA when I was little – so they moved us to Mexico City after the war, and I got to know my mother’s parents and my cousins on her side. But I remember being confused and unhappy in grad school – which was a lot of work, with no support from other women students, and there was a brightening of the outlook when Cognitive Behavior Therapy first came out: two of my grad school friends gave me The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns, and I got the message, and learned to talk back to depression, and separate truth from lies. I liked his logic; it made sense to me (which is maybe why I say optimism is built in).

    I still use that formulation to this day, through all the stuff that has happened, including chronic illness. Glad I have it.

      1. It was, especially if you were the only woman in most of your classes, BUT money was tight in grad school – and two friends spent theirs on buying me a copy of Dr. Burns’ book – I must have seemed particularly bad.

        There are still days I wonder how I made it through! I did NOT want to abandon school and go back to Mexico to become a housewife…

  3. It is fascinating to look back and imagine at what point did I decide we were being duped by parents, religion, teachers etc.? For me at a young age the nuns were collecting money for the pagan babies in Africa and I wanted to know what was wrong with the babies just the way they were? We were supposed to give money to save them, from what I wanted to know? If they were God’s children as we were taught then they didn’t need us interfering in their lives, unless God was favoring some over others. Why were we being taught to impose our ways on others? Then I saw the duplicity in so many of the messages but I decided kindness was the best direction and have pursued it as a counter to the evil, meanness and greed.

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