The Importance of Not Being Earnest

Here is an example of what I mean by painful earnestness. Somebody posted the following poem on FB:

Oliver is not my favorite poet but it’s obvious from the format of the piece that it’s a poem. It’s clearly not an official statement from the American Psychiatric Association. Taking it as a statement of clinical fact is clearly an unproductive approach.

Immediately, though, somebody comments, in a tone of “passionate intensity” that what the poem says is wrong. Anxiety can’t be so easily overcome. You can’t just decide not to suffer from anxiety. And besides, if you haven’t gotten rheumatism yet, it doesn’t mean you won’t get it in the future.

The commenter is clearly sincere. And all she’s saying is actually true. What’s kind of scary, though, is her utter incapacity to see that delivering these truisms in response to a work of literature is silly and somewhat embarrassing.

Back in the USSR, there were the cynics who adopted the rhetoric and used it to enrich themselves. And there were the simpletons who actually believed it. The latter were a lot scarier than the former because their earnestness allowed for no critical distance between them and the slogans. Since then, the readiness earnestly to sloganeer has never ceased to scare me.


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Not Being Earnest”

  1. Yes. My take on this is that Oliver’s work invites this response by its own passionate sincerity, and by the idealized speaker who never adopts a bad attitude toward anything. I hate Mary Oliver with a passion. However, the naive response is also deeply stupid, because the poem is not saying that anyone can overcome anxiety with a positive attitude, but simply modeling an attitude toward worry (not necessarily clinical anxiety of depression).


  2. At least this poem is better than the dreadful Singapore bathroom one… (took me a while to realize it was the same author).

    It’s about a half step away from something that might appear in Reader’s Digest or AARP monthly…

    Warning against taking it seriously as a medical diagnostic tool is 87 types of funny or tragic depending on whether you know the person who takes it so seriously.


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