Shiny Happy People – Really?


‘When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.’ I don’t know who the first person was to ever say those famous words. But you hear them every now and again. Sometimes they come in the guise of a Monty Python song (Always Look On The Bright Side of Life), a Charlie Chaplin Song, made popular by Nat King Cole (Smile), of a political statement (Yes, We Can!) or a book (The Secret). Both songs became top ten hits, well, Obama won the election and Rhonda Byrne sold a heck of a lot of books. Bottom line: think positive, and life will be easier to handle. 

pastedGraphic.pdf

Shrinks and psychologists, you know – my kind, have been guilty (among others, of course) of popularizing that train of thought.  We keep saying it to our patients, mostly in therapeutically weighed words, but the meaning is the same: be a glass half full.

From the moment we begin to grow, we are told to smile, to be joyful, that people will be drawn to us more when we carry a happy face. We are nurtured, more or less, into being positive in every way possible – in mood, in attitude, in the way we look, etc. Exude optimism. 

How realistic is that? Smile, though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking… Come on… really?

Let’s face it: life is hard. 

In my line of work I meet people in need. They became ill in spirit and soul because life handed them too many lemons to make tasty lemonade. In fact, they drown in the sticky juice. They are not shiny happy people. Many struggle (some more, some less) to maintain some sort of standard of living or to simply survive.

Mostly reality comes your way and makes sure you don’t forget that you’re only a player in the theatre of life, and your happy play is in dire need of readjustment. Lovers cheat, your boss is not the nicest person, friends betray you, people you love die, your health fails, an earthquake takes your home, your friend goes to war, you freak out because your self-esteem rushes down to the pit.

Now where, in the name of Chuck, is the shrink heading with this, you might ask, kind readers. It’s simple: Sam and Dean Winchester are not shiny happy people. They are real. And that’s another aspect why I love this show so much. 

They are not actors playing a cheerful part; their problems are of a different substance. You see in their faces what price they pay. 

Today psychologists agree that positive feelings like contentment, gratitude, hope, courage or inner stability improve our health. People displaying a positive attitude get better jobs, participate in a rich social life, have friends, make friends while people that are often aggrieved, sad or withdrawn tend to lose friends and not succeed in their jobs. Though it’s common knowledge that the latter are more in need of positive moments, because of their attitude (stemming from whatever reason) they most likely won’t experience many. 

My favourite quote about optimism comes from Sir Peter Ustinov:  ‘An optimist is one who knows exactly how sad the world can be, while a pessimist is one who finds out anew every morning.’ According to this marvelous definition, Sam and Dean are the perfect optimists. They know how sad, hard, agonizing life can be. And they are not afraid to show it.

Of course, they do lie to each other, try to cheer the other up and hide their scared unhappy selves to shield the other from pain, but when it really counts, they are real.

When I look at the show from my first encounter with it, the authenticity of the story and its characters moved me beyond expectation. I am not referring to the paranormal activities (those might or might not be real… ahem), but to the emotional range that came across. Those emotions have been real.

Of course, their lives take place in their own ecological niche. They don’t have to apply for jobs or partake in the dating game to find a mate where you are instructed to stay positive at all times or to not complain in order to not scare the potential job/candidate away. Be yourself, but don’t be negative.

The point is: when you stand at a point in your life where you are being handed lemons, being yourself could mean to be sad, tense, nervous or easily irritable. Just like our Winchesters. Now, would we turn them away? Would we laugh at them for being miserable? Most likely not. Of course, their demeanor would strike us as – I reckon –suspicious at times. But simply because they are authentic and real, we would eventually begin to trust them. Their faces are not botoxed to kingdom come or playing a part all the time, but display their inner turmoil. Gloom is a part of their lives and their emotional state, and yet we love them.

Isn’t that a paradox, really? Living in a society that requests – quite often – that we emanate positivity, no matter how it looks on the inside, we still love two fellas that have been miserable for pretty much six seasons now… 

I think the answer to that lies in the gritty authenticity of the show. Supernatural is not escapism, well, not according to the definition in my personal book. For me, when I want to truly escape from every-day-toils, I watch really happy films, like The Court Jester or That Lady in Ermine, you know films that don’t confront me with sadness, loss, or the kind of suffering we’ve found our heroes in.  

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Watching these lovely Winchester men I notice a certain attitude in them, something in between despair, hope, languor and stubbornness, which moves me tremendously. Because – that’s the kind of spirit that tends to appear when the soul has suffered all it can. 

This provides not escapism. It’s an accepted confrontation with issues we have in life. Issues, many of us can relate to and have expressed without hyperbole in countless articles here on our site or in private conversations. Sometimes this show answers questions I didn’t even know I had or points me towards topics I have never explored before, and those are always linked to reality. 

It’s a story of humanity, of human flaws and human struggle within the small universes relationships are. In many ways, it’s an allegory to our society and to the way we live, we recognize ourselves watching this show. 

I identify in many ways with Sam, because I see a lot of myself in him, and I see a lot in him that I love so much. In other ways I identify with Dean, too, since he represents a different area of the spectrum of human behaviour and spirit. 

These men don’t live in a detached mindset of the militant optimist. They do know how devastatingly hard life can be, and theirs is most of the time. They have learned the hard way that it doesn’t work like The Secret or any other New Age books would like to offer. If you have the right beliefs you can manifest anything. Okay, but which belief is the right one? 

Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong believer in a positive attitude. But I also know how hard it can be to maintain one. Sam and Dean try to be hopeful, even when life spits in their face. But – they also know that some problems exist, no matter how much hope they manage to have, some things are outside their ability to control, and they have to find ways of dealing with them.  Just as we do in our real lives. 

They don’t over-blow the muscle of positive thinking. They know that hope alone won’t help, the actions resulting from it are the means that actually bring on change and create an outcome that helps them to survive to fight another day. 

Sam and Dean Winchester are no children anymore that could be fooled with ‘it’s gonna be alright, don’t worry.’ Children who don’t know much about reality can be made to believe that everything will be alright. In fact, they need the confidence of the adult to trust that it actually will. 

But an adult man who has seen more suffering than anyone should might find it irritating to be told to ‘think positive’. It would be insulting to his intelligence. Sugar coating reality is not helpful. Simply because positive thinking alone will not alter severe problems. More is necessary. Of course, it does help, but realistic thinking will provide less chance of disappointment when positive thinking might be too high a standard to achieve. 

When Sam or Dean try to do some sugarcoating for the benefit of the other, it often doesn’t work, because the other can see through the carefully set up lie. And they don’t keep it up long – I think, mostly out of respect for each other. Honesty and trust are fundamental in their relationship, in particular since these elements have been tested so many times, and painfully so. 

But, slowly, I think they have learned a crucial fact: things in the past cannot be changed. The realistic approach to the past is: face the truth of it and learn the lessons. Sam and Dean Winchester have begun learning the hard way, and even now, after all that has happened to them, they are still learning. 

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

They try to do whatever they can to make the best of the situation they are thrown into, and sometimes they fail. But they still try to go on, even when the decisions they need to find might be hurtful. That is also a realistic approach to life – to accept that some things are impossible, some, on the other hand, are perfectly possible. 

In the beginning, these brothers, and especially Dean, were not ready to accept any impossibility. They were even ready to bring each other back from the dead. But in the course of the show, they have learned to accept that some matters are just not probable, which is a sign for their growth and strength. Because, as I see it, being realistic requires courage. People that force themselves to always look on the bright side, to see everything in a positive light also avoid looking the sometimes uncomfortable truth in the eye, often because they are afraid of what they might find there: their own (possible) incapability to change the situation. 

Most important, however, is this: to decide what is called for at a particular moment in life. Sometimes it’s being positive. Sometimes pessimistic, sometimes realistic. All have their place and time. Sometimes being pessimistic can serve as a breather where we are allowed to moan about the cards life has dealt us, and we’ve seen Sam and Dean be that, too. 

We all remember Dean devastated at Sam’s death bed, reproaching himself, lamenting over this tragedy. He needed that moment of utter pessimism to gather some strength to finally make up his mind, despite fuelled by despair, to seek out the crossroads demon. We’ve seen them be positive, like in Monster Movie, but to my mind, we’ve mostly seen them being realistic. 

They know how hard life is. They are done euphemizing it. They assess potential problems which puts them in a better position to minimize losses. Sometimes they succeed, often they don’t. They learn the hard way, but that’s also a very real approach to how life is. 

We do learn the hard way, most of the time. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for the Winchesters to paste on the shiny happy face and think of the positive when their mother was murdered, their dad manipulated into a lethal deal, their childhood destroyed, their friends killed, in short: their world torn apart. But still, they manage to acknowledge that they are lucky in the sense that they have each other and a family of friends they can count on. And to find ways of not giving in, despite their tough moments. So, in the sense of Ustinov’s definition of an optimist, they are the perfect optimists, indeed, in fact realists. 

And that also touches me, because I can relate to that. In this long winded argument that found its home in my hellatus brain I stress again how much I love this show and one of the many reasons why. Simply because it is real. Despite its paranormal premises, there are no tacky monsters, no trite characters or hammy actors delving into theatrical histrionics. Supernatural is a drama about real people, and we can identify with them, because – more or less – it’s a show about us. And looking into a mirror is not always comfortable. There are episodes that I have watched only once or twice because they remind me of personal struggles. Others I love to watch repeatedly remind me of my strength. Would any of us be hooked to this show in the manner we are, if this was only a B-movie monster opera? I doubt it. 

We love it, because Supernatural explores reality’s philosophical, theological, psychological, existential, moral or political issues in an accessible style. There is the eye candy, of course, the humour and the great visual, dramatic and creative power, but under it all this show addresses matters that matter to us. And that is not easily achieved. Thank you.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf