The XX Factor

Positively Annoying

In October, we talked about pink ribbon culture and wondered whether there might be a backlash brewing, but it looks to me like it has metastasized. This was White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Sunday, talking about Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who collapsed at the State Department on Friday and is still in the hospital, critical:  “He had a tremendously difficult situation Friday. He had an aortic bleed, and many people would have succumbed to that. Richard is fighting through it.”

Oh? What is he doing exactly?
Sending lots of extra-positive thoughts to those platelets? Urging his blood vessels to fight the good fight? Maybe! After all, Gibbs informs us that Holbrooke is a “very tough person.”

Sorry, but it seems to me that once there’s a hole in your aorta, whether you live or die has very little to do with your strength of character. So why do we talk like we can will ourselves well? Life makes it abundantly clear that we can’t.
(Ask the Edwards family whether resilience is an effective form of cancer treatment.) But we act like anyone with a disease that doesn’t finish them off in a single blow can tough it out, pep-talk their way to immortality.

Holbrooke’s situation makes it clear that the pernicious positivism isn’t confined to October, or breast cancer, or even cancer. Why do we talk like this? We would never say that someone “succumbed to a car crash” or “is going to beat that gunshot wound; she’s so tough!” We get that external forces can wreak havoc on our bodies; why do we have such a hard time admitting that disease can be as random, as merciless, and as out of our control as the killers that make the news?