Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Being PollyAnna isn't all it's cracked up to be

PollyAnna, April 1, 2012

I first read PollyAnna by Eleanor H. Porter (published in 1913) when I was a child; I’m not sure if I read it first, or saw the movie version (starring Hayley Mills) first, but in any case, the book and movie both struck a chord with me.  I admired PollyAnna greatly, and I wanted to be just like her.  I saw her as the ultimate loveable person: so positive, so kind, so….so….so…. perfect!  She was perfect.  Even her admitted imperfections just made her more perfect to me.  She was delightful and kind to everyone, bringing sunshine and joy just by being herself, despite the hardships of her life.

For those of you not familiar with the story, the short version is this:

The title character is named Pollyanna Whittier, a young orphan who goes to live in Beldingsville, Vermont, with her wealthy but stern Aunt Polly. Pollyanna's philosophy of life centers on what she calls "The Glad Game", an optimistic attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It originated in an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna's father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because "we didn't need to use them!"

With this philosophy, and her own sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul, Pollyanna brings so much gladness to her aunt's dispirited New England town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. 'The Glad Game' shields her from her aunt's stern attitude: when Aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, she exults at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to "punish" her niece for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant, Nancy, Pollyanna thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.

Soon, Pollyanna teaches some of Beldingsville's most troubled inhabitants to 'play the game' as well, from a querulous invalid named Mrs. Snow to a miserly bachelor, Mr. Pendleton, who lives all alone in a cluttered mansion. Aunt Polly, too— finding herself helpless before Pollyanna's buoyant refusal to be downcast—gradually begins to thaw, although she resists the glad game longer than anyone else.

Eventually, however, even Pollyanna's robust optimism is put to the test when she is struck down by a motorcar while crossing a street and loses the use of her legs. At first she doesn't realize the seriousness of her situation, but her spirits plummet when she accidentally overhears an eminent specialist say that she'll never walk again. After that, she lies in bed, unable to find anything to be glad about. Then the townspeople begin calling at Aunt Polly's house, eager to let Pollyanna know how much her encouragement has improved their lives; and Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she has legs. The novel ends with Aunt Polly marrying her former lover Dr. Chilton and Pollyanna being sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and is able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled.

It’s a dangerous book, though.  Put in the hands of the wrong person, this book has some really terrifying messages.  Put in MY hands, that is.  Perhaps I am the only person in history to twist this sweet story the way I did, but here’s what I took away from it:

-          It’s okay for the rest of the world to be “troubled” and “querulous” and “miserly”, but it is the job of nice girls to be “sunny, sincere” and “sympathetic,” even while the adults around them treat them poorly.

-          Little girls have the power to transform nasty folks into delightful people, and with just the right touches, such changes will happen.

-          No matter what crumbs one receives, one should be grateful.

-          Nice little girls do not complain.  They just work harder at being good.

-          In the end, one’s goodness promises a happy ending.

There are clearly some advantages to being a PollyAnna – it is delightful to be able to find the good in people and things.  It is a gift to contain light and kindness.  The world may be nasty and unkind, but we can add kindness, and that does give joy to ourselves as well as others.

Here is why it is NOT a good idea to base one’s marriage off a PollyAnna story:

-          Sometimes grouchy people are just grouchy, and no amount of sunshine can change that.  As a matter of fact, sometimes shining some sunshine on someone is a very good way to annoy the hell out of them.

-          When grownups say “Oh thank you so much for the tiny crumb you gave me!  It’s so wonderful – you’re delightful!” they send a different message than gratitude.  When a wife treats her husband like a king for taking out the garbage, sometimes the husband starts to expect that treatment.  When small kindnesses – crumbs – are treated like glorious gifts, sometimes instead of inspiring further kindness, it sends the message, “All I need are crumbs.”  Once you’ve taught someone that all you need are crumbs, when you ask for a whole slice of cake, they will look at you like you’ve lost your mind.  (Trust me on this one.  Years of experience here.)

-          Kindness and a sunny disposition are great, but without boundaries, they make for a really great doormat.  PollyAnna let people walk all over her, and maybe she had to because she was a child with no control, but when grownups just say “no problem” to things that are actually great big problems, they are teaching others to dump problems in their laps.

-          Taking care of an adult someone all the time, without getting care in return, is exhausting.  When you are a grownup and you have a breakdown, like PollyAnna did at the end, you are still expected to run the house and care for the child(ren) and be glad for the opportunity.

So, here’s what I’d like to say to that little PollyAnna Whittier.  I’d like to say,

“Come here, little one.  Climb up beside me.  I’ve got a nice cup of hot cocoa, made just the way you like it, with a little vanilla mixed in.  You are a beautiful creature, and the light you have brought our lives is a joyful gift, and I’m so glad you’re here….but I know you have some sadness.  It’s okay to cry sometimes, sweetheart.  Let me hold you….it’s okay.  I’ll bet you miss your mama and your daddy until it hurts, but I am here for you.  It’s okay to miss them, love.  I would do anything to bring them back for you, and I’m so sad that I can’t do that for you.  All I can do is tell you that I love you, and I will do everything in my power to honor them in the way I love you.”

Like PollyAnna, my early life wasn’t perfect, and like PollyAnna, I thought it was my attitude about it that mattered most, and not how others treated me.  I taught my husband how to treat me, and what I taught him was that I didn’t matter.  But you know what?  Every little girl matters.

Maybe I should have read A Little Princess more often instead!

No comments:

Post a Comment