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Spare us the “positivity”

Reading Owen Jones’ Guardian tribute to Stephen Sutton, the teenager who died this week after raising £3 million for a cancer charity, I found myself becoming more and more perturbed. In fact, downright angry. Jones’ tribute was heartfelt and I am in no doubt that Stephen was an admirable young man who made a genuine contribution to others’ lives. But as a cancer patient I object strongly to the praise of “positivity” that pervades the piece.

Jones lauds Stephen for not “being full of rage and misery” and for his “display of cheerful defiance.”

He goes on: “His social-media updates were relentlessly upbeat, putting those of us who have tweeted moaning about a cold to shame… his response [to his cancer diagnosis] was unabashed positivity from the very beginning…’Spreading positivity’ was another key aim. Four days ago, he organised a National Good Gestures Day, in Birmingham, giving out ‘free high-fives, hugs, handshakes and fist bumps’….He did not want to die, but his thirst for life did not manifest itself in gloomy or depressing ways. ‘Cancer sucks, but life is great,’ was his motto… cancer never defeated Sutton, even though it took his life.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the burdensome unreality of the “heroism” and “bravery” rhetoric surrounding cancer. And also about how we – cancer sufferers – are so often required to make the affirmative gesture, whose real purpose seems to be reassure everyone else that this isn’t as horrifying as it seems. The emphasis on individual heroism is worse than useless for most cancer sufferers; it’s an idealised standard very few of us can hope to live up to, nor should we have to live up to it to have a claim on others’ sympathy. Actually this “triumph of the will” shtick is a stock element of neo-liberal ideology, and I’m disappointed to find Owen being so insensitive to this.

For Stephen, the idea that “cancer sucks, but life is great” proved helpful, but for me and I’m pretty sure for others, it fails to capture the nature of the ordeal we’re going through. Life with cancer is the reality we’re faced with, and therefore part of being alive does “suck”. Having to deny this in order to maintain “positivity” is just an additional cruelty.

Sorry, Owen, but as someone whose life has been turned upside down by cancer, I am often “full of misery and rage” and at times my feelings about my situation are “manifested in gloomy or depressing ways” – and I’m damned if I’m going to be made to feel inferior because of this. The idea that to submit to these wholly natural feelings, to express one’s frustration or unhappiness with a frustrating and unhappy condition, is somehow to be “defeated by cancer” is perverse. We can do without these super-human expectations.

[More detailed reflections on the social issues surrounding cancer can be found in my new book “The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer”, published by OR Books.]

PS. Now Stephen Sutton’s story is being used by the Daily Mail to attack campaigners for assisted suicide. I won’t circulate the link to this noxious piece by Rosa Monckton but people will get the flavour from the headline: “Boy whose love of life shames those celebrity cheerleaders for euthanasia”. The author has a go at Richard and Judy and others who’ve discussed publicly their plans to terminate their lives if they become unbearably burdensome. Here’s a little dose of the dubious moralism that pervades this scree: “It makes it all the more shocking to see people actively wanting to bring an end to their lives when you see others fighting to survive, fighting to live another day, because they recognise that our life on Earth is precious beyond measure; that it is a gift beyond price.”

Interesting to see how the abstract principle of “life affirmation” becomes a stick to beat those who dare to wonder about the continuing value of their own lives. We have a right to escape suffering and impotence if we choose. Once again, we’re being force-fed “positivity”, bullied and shamed into suppressing our fears, our complaints and our despair.