In case you hadn’t heard, the iconic Tower Bridge here in London had a bit of a nervous breakdown a few days ago. It’s a bascule bridge, meaning it opens in the middle to let ships pass through on their way up and down the Thames. On Saturday afternoon the bridge opened to let a ship pass but then failed to close, leaving cars, buses, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians stranded on one side or the other. It remained closed to motorists for a few days while engineers worked out the kinks.
This was problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the Tower Bridge is an important connection between the City of London’s financial district and the borough of Southwark, home to about 320,000 souls, making it the 11th most populous of London’s 32 boroughs. It’s one of the busiest bridges in the city, with some 40,000 people crossing it each day.
Second, there’s a LOT of road and bridge maintenance being done in our fair city right now, and a malfunctioning bridge is the last thing London needed. The bridges at Hammersmith and Vauxhall in west London have closed to most motorized traffic for maintenance work, while London Bridge – located near Tower Bridge in the city center – has only been open to buses, licensed taxis and bicycles for a few months now.
The Thames is basically a border between busy North London and busy South London. To cross that border, you mostly have to use bridges or take the tube (aka subway). There’s only one tunnel I know of that accommodates cars: the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which connects the Tower Hamlets borough to the Southwark borough.
So when a bridge goes down, it sets off a chaotic rat maze of motor traffic. When more than one bridge goes down – forget it. You’re better off crawling to your destination.
Even in the best of circumstances, this is a very rough city for driving – which is one reason I don’t drive here. The roads tend to wind every which way. Some come to a full stop, go right or left, then proceed in the same fashion. You don’t see many four- or six-lane boulevards that go straight for miles and miles. Roundabouts are a big thing in London, and they just confuse the everloving shit out of me. Many of the roads are populated with pavers, excavators, loaders, cement mixers and other machines that loom like ghouls, telling you a detour is coming.
This can be unnerving to those who require motor transportation to get around in London. When you add a malfunctioning bridge to the mix, it tends to ratchet up the anxiety.
I bring all of this up because it happens to coincide with something else I’ve been wondering about lately, which is how you’re supposed to react to these kinds of situations in this weird and cosmically depressing year.
Presumably, a whole lot of people got pissed off when they found themselves stuck on the Tower Bridge. What began as a minor annoyance likely escalated into seething rage when folks finally discovered that they had no choice but to turn around and take another route. I’m not exactly sure when that moment came. It looks like the bridge malfunctioned for just over an hour. But even when it got put right, the decision was made to close the bridge to all motorized traffic until maintenance and repair checks were done.
Imagine you were on a bus when the bridge malfunctioned, or in a taxi or Uber, or driving your car or truck. Maybe you had an important delivery to make. Maybe you’d had a long day and just wanted to go home. Maybe you needed to be somewhere – quick. Maybe you needed to visit the toilet in the worst way.
It’s frustrating, yes? Annoying. Enraging.
But do you have a right to be mad about it? Are you allowed your moment of anger?
Or, are you expected to look on the bright side because it could be worse, and everything will be fine in the end? Are you worried that some peppy smiley face sitting two seats over will gently remind you that being stuck on a bridge is a “first world problem,” and that your little inconvenience pales in comparison to all the really bad problems out there?
This is not just idle thinking on my part. It’s part of the fabric of our lives in 2020 – this notion that no matter how bad something seems, it’s not as bad as you think, so you should stick a rose in it and call it a bouquet.
As pointed out in a recent Washington Post article, “toxic positivity” is a very real thing nowadays. Even in one of the gloomiest years in recent memory, humanoids are expected to look at the glass as half full pretty much all the time – even when the glass is half full of rodent piss, and it’s getting ready to shatter in your hand.
Per the WaPo article:
With data indicating that anxiety and depression, among other mental health problems, have surged to historic levels in recent months, adding toxic positivity to the mix may only exacerbate the rising tide of negative emotions by preventing people from working through the serious issues they’re experiencing in a healthy way, experts say.
“By far the most common [phrase] is ‘It’s fine,’ ‘It will be fine,’” said Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “You’re stating that there really isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed, period. You’re kind of shutting out the possibility for further contemplation.”
The article also quotes Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston: “While cultivating a positive mind-set is a powerful coping mechanism, toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative. It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones.”
It’s certainly admirable to look on the bright side of things. But it’s not necessarily the best course of action in every circumstance. For one thing, it takes a physical and emotional toll when you always feel the need to deny your own pain and anger just because you are told, over and over, to always look on the bright side.
For another, forcing yourself to be positive in every situation might have an adverse effect on your social, personal and professional lives. A January 2019 article from the You Magazine website, citing data from a BBC report on research done at New York University, had this to say about your inner grouch:
The truth is, pondering the worst has some clear advantages. Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.
Good moods on the other hand come with substantial risks – sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish. Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex.
A couple of months ago I shared a link to a similar article on my Facebook page, partly because I thought it made interesting reading and partly because I felt vindicated in my own grumpiness. I let the post sit there for a few hours. It got a couple of likes, but otherwise it was ignored. I began to wonder – as I often do when posting on Facebook – whether I’d hit a wrong note.
Social media is like the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of human interaction. On the one hand, people bitch about pretty much everything, from annoying neighbors and crappy restaurant service to the half-wits running the government.
On the other hand, social media is practically drowning in Happy Face emojis, and some people are quick to trot out phrases like “privilege” and “first world problems” when you bitch about something mundane like a piece of overcooked fish. To these folk, everything is a zero-sum game – it’s simply not possible to be upset about both the overcooked fish and the problems of poverty, injustice and inequality that plague the world.
Not surprisingly, toxic positivity seems to be a bigger issue in America than elsewhere. The Washington Post noted that in United States, positivity “is an attractive behavior in people that makes them seem more well adapted and more popular with their peers, so there are a lot of reasons people want to seem or be positive.”
I have personal experience with this. I write for a couple of U.S.-based websites that encourage you to keep an upbeat spin on things no matter the subject matter – even when you’re writing about a global pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, shuttered millions of businesses, put millions more out of work and wrecked much of the global economy. But…but….
It could be worse!
I was born and raised down South, where forced and often fake politeness has been raised to an art form. I also spent a few years in sunny Los Angeles, where positive vibes are so sacrosanct that complaining about any damn thing is probably grounds for indictment.
One of the reasons I like New York City – and others hate it – is that it’s okay to complain there. It’s not only okay, it’s expected. Just about everybody complains in New York, about everything, all the time, and if you’re waiting for someone to smile at you every time you think you deserve it, you’ll be waiting ‘til the deathbed. You don’t ever have to guess how most New Yorkers feel.
London is similar, at least in some respects. You’re not likely to get a fake smile just because you want or need one, or be told everything will turn out just fine after you just slipped on a banana peel and broke your collarbone. You’ll be told that it’s best to keep an eye out for banana peels in the future, and it will take time and therapy to recover, and the recovery will be aggravating, and you’ll always feel a little tenderness there, so forget about your career as a cricket pitcher.
But they’ll do so in a measured and polite voice.
I’m sure many Londoners who got stuck on the Tower Bridge on Saturday uttered a few thousand “bloody hells” or “bloody f**kalls.”
But mostly in measured, polite voices.
*Photo credit: Thames RIB Experience/AFP via Ge