Is it cruel to be kind?

I come from optimistic stock. My mother is preternaturally positive, and it works very well for her and those around her. She expects great things, she has high standards, she shoots high, works hard, and the rewards of this sunny outlook are evident in her personal and professional success and happiness - not to mention that of the many people she has nurtured and the social changes she has been a part of (Mr. Obama, she knew you when.)

I also come from pessimistic stock, but because I am my mother's daughter I tend to put that outside the frame. The price of optimism is a willful refusal to see the negative.

In the past week, I have been thinking of two dissimilar situations and finding them alike. A friend of mine is dealing with, and blogging in real time, her husband's cancer diagnosis and treatment. The community around her - the woman has a fiercely loyal band of supporters in several states and levels of virtual space - is mostly only able to help by encouraging her. The word "brave" comes up a lot. We all cheer. We all admire her humor and "bring no tissues" attitude.

At the same time a mom who is part of my online daily life and that of an online community around the world is struggling with two very ill children, either of whose needs could easily submerge an entire team of mothers, receives nothing but praise and admiration from people all over the world who all recognize the heroism and fragility of the situation.

And yet the comment that keeps coming to mind for me as I chime in with both communities of friends around these two women is the comment of a third mother: "Maybe all this talk of heroism is keeping her from seeking more help."

When we call someone a hero and "a role model" and say "when I see what S is enduring I know I shouldn't complain" do we risk making things worse?

Are we cruel to say "keep going" when we could be saying "enough?" Is it enough to tell S to have a glass of wine, that she puts us to shame, that we would "never be so brave." Are we enabling a "superwoman" attitude when we should be dolphin-nudging to "put your oxygen mask on now and call in more troops."

I wonder also at the effect on others with situations that on paper may not seem so dire as cancer or repeatedly hospitalized children but are nonetheless at the end of their own rope. Is optimism and a refusal to think negatively also a way of waving off our fears, of minimizing our own distress? Yet it strikes me that action-less optimism may simply be the only appropriate tool for those watching from the shore.

I confess that I did - still do - at times rebel against my mom's optimism. When I despair I can feel criticized by her sunny outlook and add resentment at letting her down to my troubles. I wonder how frightened I might have been had my pessimisms succeeded in bringing her into my dark point of view. Perhaps I would have, contrary creature that I am, turned on her pessimism in perversely positive rebuke.

That is not a theory I plan on trying with my friends, however. Unless I can be there to take responsibility for the fallout, I shall stick with optimism. And oxygen mask analogies. And yes: admiration. Instead of turning negative, I will remind myself that my little positivities may be all I can do but they aren't much.


  1. At least in one of the situations I wonder if there IS the option of getting any more help than a small oxygen mask with a very limited supply of oxygen so perhaps all we CAN do in that situation is to laugh and cry along - and fight for all we are worth to make sure that the next time anyone needs more support it is actually there to suggest to the needy person.

  2. When the conversation is online with someone that you have never meet IRL, all you can really do is to say encouraging things, share your relevant experience and suggest strategies and resources that might help this unfortunate person. A bit of admiration with much larger bits of the other stuff is good, I think.

    Maybe it depends on personality. I would be able to skim over praise and exhortations to "Keep going!" and get to the meat of the matter that would help me. And, of course, caveats about taking care of myself to prevent burnout and to know and respect my limits would always be welcome.

    If I had a friend living near me in need, I would do as much hands-on support as I could. When my D was really ill, there was no internet support, but I never hesitated to ask friends to help me with such things as driving and watching my S while I was taking my D to her many appointments.

  3. In my view, Laura, your posts in response to my description of my situation have struck exactly the right balance between dolphin nudging and optimistic encouragment.

    The forum gives me a place to vent with who understand, provides information from those ahead in the battle, and sensible advice to go get some help from someone in the real world.

    Any effusive comments about my supposed super status only serve to remind me that I'm so, so not, and need to take my limits seriously.

    You, and the other women in the online community have been a wonderful support. I'm still standing in part because you all are *one* of my resources.

    I'm just so grateful. You have made a positive difference to my life. Thanks.

  4. Thank you for letting others be supportive. It is an honor to know and be alongside you and the other "S" in my life.


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