You don’t want to surround yourself with people who only tell you what you want to hear… but neither do you want to be dragged down by negativity
One of the common recommendations in the plethora of self-help books available these days is that you should surround yourself with positive people.
It can seem a little trite and a little obvious. You could also say that autocrats and dictators surround themselves with positive people, lackeys who tell them what they want to hear and tell them how wonderful they are, at least a few times a day.
On the other hand if you are surrounded by negativity it equally does you no good and will eventually get you down. There are people who thrive on bad news and, paradoxically, are not happy unless they have something to complain about, from potholes to Putin, from inflation to interest rates and the habits of the next generation.
As the stoics used to say, ‘virtus in media stat’ — virtue is found in the middle. We need people who will tell us the truth in a way that is balanced and enabling rather than imbalanced and disabling.
I remember talking to a friend of mine who was appointed a bishop a number of years ago, and while the vast majority of people congratulated him, one of his close friends commiserated with him saying, “you’ll never hear the truth again” — meaning that facts are often filtered when anyone attempts to tell the truth to power.
Facing somebody in power with the truth can be an unenviable task. One of my favourite hurling stories concerns a Tipperary dressing-room at half-time during a League match against Cork. The Premier lads were being well beaten and left themselves with an enormous hill to climb in the second half.
Their manager was not at all pleased with the performance and gave the pep talk of all pep talks, a classic that involved beating hurleys off benches and shouting loud enough to lift the roof off Semple Stadium.
The final act in his mini-melodrama before he sent his charges back into battle saw him going from one player to another, eyeballing them as he asked, “Who’s going to win this match, tell me?”.
Each of the players dutifully replied, “Tipperary”, until he came to a player who was known for his disarmingly straightforward, deadpan approach to hurling and to life in general. He wasn’t in the least put out by the volcanic presence of the apoplectic manager staring him in the face and shouting, “Who’s going to win this match, tell me?”
He simply replied, “Well boss, at this point in time it kinda looks like Cork will do it, what do you think yourself?”
They say that in the Haughey era, the man given the job of breaking bad news to Le Comte d’Abbeyville was the bubbly and forever optimistic Brian Lenihan, who had a knack of sugar-coating even the most dire of tidings. He didn’t always succeed; in fact, often, his efforts only succeeded in further infuriating his leader.
Thankfully most of us don’t move in the nerve-wracking environs of inter-county dressing rooms or the heady heights of ministerial office, but our lives are equally affected by bad news and by good news about ourselves. We are particularly affected by the way that news is mediated and moderated.
Put very simply, there are people who do your heart good to meet, people who make you feel good about sharing the planet with them, who have a genuine good wish for you. They are the kind of people who, when they take your hand or hold you by the arm their very touch is like a poultice that draws the good out of you.
Hopefully these are the people the self-help books are talking about, rather than the pumped-up feel-gooders who have taken their vitamins, their crunchy granola and spinach juice before practising their eye contact and their firm handshake in the mirror.
Of course, there are people who are carriers of the negative, who see threats coming in all directions.
When I worked as a tour guide, the most difficult clients to deal with were those who had decided that the holiday was going to be a disaster. They were convinced they would have a miserable time and the travel company was only interested in doing them out of their money.
I was treated with the utmost suspicion. You see, I was the public face of the organisation and I’m a pleasant and engaging sort of guy, most of the time. I was young and keen and more than willing to help the clients in any way I could.
But as far as some of the clients were concerned, I was the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a mystery to me as to why they tortured themselves by going on holidays when they could have been miserable at home.
There is a touch of arrogance and entitled selectivity in the advice to surround yourself with positive people, but there is no harm in seeking them out. Their energy and outlook will charge the batteries and act as an antidote to the cacophony of negativity coming at us from all directions.