The word ‘toxic’ has become overused. Toxic relationships, toxic friends, toxic colleagues, toxic families – though I do feel it is entirely appropriate in the context of the phrase ‘toxic presidency’. But what is toxic to me, might not be toxic to you. You might be ‘toxic’ to me, but I might also be ‘toxic’ to you. Toxicity is subjective, biased, personal : a colleague of mine, one of the very few-non-Japanese teachers I work with, told me directly to my face last year that sometimes, when I walk into a room and am clearly in a bad mood (it is true that I am not very good at concealing my emotions), I am like a ‘poisonous ice fog that infects all who come into contact with me’. I would definitely dispute this – although I think he is entitled to his own opinion of me – seeing that I am sure that many of my Japanese co-workers would say instead that I am really quite friendly and affable (when I am in the mood for talking). I also don’t think he is a bad person – I just shudder in his presence. After two quite unpleasant exchanges this week, one involving politics, the other a simple small talk conversation about the weather, which left me feeling very unsettled and, indeed, slightly poisoned, I have come to the conclusion that we are simply incompatible.
Human relations are rarely uncomplicated. We are all different. When I was doing the first part of my distance learning Perfumery Diploma, we had to do diagrams for each unlabelled essence we were studying; giving each one a rating of how strongly it was citric, ambered, cloved, peppered, woody, vanillic, etc etc, marking a cross along the line from one to ten and then, at the end, joining up the crosses to form a unique, individual shape. I think people are like this as well; we all have differing concentrations of personality facets and ideals, traits, from conservative to liberal, introverted to extroverted, optimistic to pessimistic, active to lazy, realist to dreamer, rational to irrational, thrifty to decadent, libidinous to unsexual – the list goes on and on forever, which is why it is a small miracle when we make a true friend or find a suitable partner; the person doesn’t have to be the same as you, but the characteristics must interlock in some way or be magnetic to each other; attract and be mutually enjoyable.
This person I work with – mercifully only for very short periods of time on two days a week (but I am going to avoid him from now on : my natural instinct is for confrontation and to get things out in the open, but we have already done this once and it made things ultimately worse – I think a clear-eyed acknowledgement that it is never going to work would be better); the good thing being that in Japanese culture, unpleasantness is to be avoided at all costs, and we are both bound by these incontrovertible rules. Simple ‘konnichwas’ will have to suffice.
Speaking of the Japanese work place, I read a very interesting article the other day on ‘toxic positivity’, which truly chimed with me as being an excellent summation of the positives and negatives of the culture of this country. Although, as a Brit, I sometimes do miss the moaning and complaining on a Monday morning, when everyone sighs and drinks tea and commiserates on the fact that the weekend is over and nurses their hangovers, then finally decides to ‘get down to work’ (in Japan you just say hello and get straight down to work without a moment’s hesitation), at the same time it is nice to not have any office politics – at least not on the immediate surface – and to be able to get on with what you have to do without too much worry about people you can’t stand the sight of; you simply keep that to yourself, and try to not let it bleed out into the atmosphere around you.
I also love the fact that you don’t have to worry about being knifed in the street, as you often do in the UK, or being shot – in the US : that you basically feel physically safe, in other words – which is not something to be sniffed at. People are civil, polite – the deepening chaos in America as the Pig (the most toxic person in recent memory, in the last hundred years – whose negativity – everything he has done or said has been so deeply negative, hateful, rageful, petty, nasty ) deliberately stirs it all up for the sake of his hollow satisfactions, is unimaginable here. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo that borders on docility: an ossification of the mind that can foster a pale, inwardly looking negativity that eats the soul.
An article in the Japan Times the other day analyzed the fact that the suicide rate here has increased rapidly over the last few months, during the isolation of the coronavirus lockdown – particularly among women, school children, and a number of high profile celebrities – who have been taking their lives at an alarming rate. One of the reasons for this is said to be ‘toxic positivity’ – which seems like an oxymoron (how can something positive be considered negative?) until you think about how shallow and shiny Facebook is, with the majority of people presenting idealized versions of their lives; Instagram even worse – a neverending parade of smiles and desserts and cute children and lunches – or for me, the true horror that is Disney, a place that makes D and I want to practically kill ourselves in a desperate lovers’ suicide pact as the giant masked puppets smile their hysterical, rictus fixtures of permanent, wide eyed delight. A surfeit of unrealistic, relentless positivity and fake happiness is corrosive and dangerous to the human spirit – with sometimes deadly consequences.
I have always resisted this, in the way I also reject extreme negativity. Although I would never present myself as an ‘ideal’ anything, particularly considering how extreme I can be; I am hedonistic, extravagant, excessive, narcissistic – the list goes on……. to me, because I am me I suppose, my own balance of positivity and negativity feels just about right. I cannot stomach really negative people for too long as they are just such a downer (and they bore me to death). But equally, fake positivity makes me sick. I am not really interested in small talk; I can do it, because you have to in order to lubricate the wheels of communication in society with something, but as my friends know (and I am lucky in being able to say that I really do have real friends), I usually just jump in at the deep end; I can handle desperately difficult situations and tragedies more easily than eye-avoiding, pointless banter; if it is real and honest, then even when the topics of conversation are difficult, the admittance of the fact that our lives are not perfect, and that we all have problems, often very serious ones, is, as one friend said to me the other day, a ‘balm to the soul’.
The inherent problem with the colleague I have been having difficulties with is that we are polar opposites in this regard. He hates anything other than pleasantries and conversations that involve something external (he is very intelligent, knowledgeable, analytical if opinionated, as of course am I) and can and loves talking at length with the other Japanese teachers about etymology, geography, history, sport, trivia, all while laughing continually even though it isn’t remotely funny: a Santa for all seasons — I cannot do polite laughter to save my life, I absolutely detest it), whereas in my case, if I can’t have a real conversation, on the whole I would rather say nothing at all. Therein lies the rub, though – everyone is different. But perhaps he is ultimately far more suited to a Japanese company than I am; there is no doubt, as the article on toxic positivity says, that Japan has very particular cultural norms in terms of discussing emotion, and I do believe that this atmosphere is more appropriate for his particular character blend. (I personally find all cultures stifling, restrictive, limiting, incidentally, which is why I have chosen to be outside them as much as possible; you might call it a ‘bubble’, and that I am not living in ‘reality’, but I would definitely dispute that; it is a choice; I reject all false parameters on my being in terms of cultural expectations, gender, age, nationality, everything; at work I have almost complete freedom in what I teach with no interference; the only requisite being that the students enjoy the lessons and benefit from them educationally; I am not part of the internal machine in that regard, more the maverick who flits in and out three and a half days a week ; my liberty is everything to me, a true ippiki ookami – lone wolf.)
But a lone wolf who feels connected. I personally reject the extreme negavitity of the Monster, as I reject the isolationist misery of Brexit. I don’t miss the aggression and overt negativity of much of British society, even if I equally agree with the author of the article that too much concealment of emotion, in the stereotypical Japanese version, is also extremely dangerous for the human soul. Neither system is ideal, by any stretch – some kind of blend of the two would be better, ‘Western’, and ‘Eastern’ : but then would countries then have any individuality – or would they just become a homogenized mush?
This post is not intended to come to any conclusions. There are no conclusions to be had, and I don’t know if I am just contributing to the terrible maelstrom we are living by tossing out ideas about what and who we are as individuals, as societies, as global humans. I just know that for me, light and dark, positivity and negativity, life and death, have a natural equilibrium; we need both. I love happy music and sunshine and emotive and sentimental films and joking around and delighting in the aesthetic beauty of the world as much as I love listening to depressing music in the rain and horror; when I am happy I like to have happy conversations, and when I am not, I don’t shy away from expressing it. The point is balance. And that is something that is dangerously absent right now in this chaotic, and ‘toxic’ air, that all of us – no matter where we live – are currently breathing.