Toxic Positivity Afloat: a Modern-Day retelling of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea

Toxic positivity is running amok, and not even Hemingway’s Santiago can reel it in.  Then again, reeling it in would be the antithesis to Santiago’s indestructible pride just as it would be to a large percentage of humanity whose hold is as relentless as the old man’s.  Some would label it a conundrum; others, a paradox.  And both would be challenged.  Destruction is a much better word choice.  And yet even if Santiago could turn back the clock, his toxic positivity (i.e., his unshakeable perseverance and determination) would prevent him from charting a different course.  Santiago would, most assuredly, resist even the known dangers that led to his eventual downfall.

Toxic positivity brings with it a level of denial and minimization of such dire consequences that is reminiscent of the inevitability Santiago encounters as he attempts to bring in his giant marlin, knowing full well that the sharks are gathering.  And yet, he takes pride in pressing on.  He denies that one plus one equals—will always equal—two.  Toxic positivity would argue otherwise, even with the facts clearly stacked.

Even as Santiago encountered one defeat after another, both from the uncertain and incalculable seas to his physical and mental exhaustion, he held tightest not to the pain from the skiff’s ropes, but to his own toxic positivity.  And if Santiago were to magically appear among us in 2023, he would be welcomed with opened arms by throngs of those who have also become drunk on the sugary concoction that they gulp by the gallons.  Metaphorically, this modern-day retelling represents toxic positivity through Santiago’s unnerving denial as those of us who become its victims struggle, much like the marlin, to remain afloat in turbulent seas that circle us like the unwelcomed sharks, knowing full well the outcome.  Donning a falsely-positive façade leads nowhere except a manic search for an abundance of fig leaves.  In the end, our fate, like Santiago’s is sealed, leaving toxic positivity like a thin, barely-visible layer of ice covering depths of the sea that we do not wish to traverse, however lightly.  Toxic positivity’s first cousin, avoidance, has nowhere safe to rest its weary body.

Oh how I wish Santiago’s fragile feelings of doubt and grief and aloneness could have been shouted to the rooftops, soaring into the gathering clouds, where he could absorb the rushing storms to then gaze upon the emerging sun.  Shaming and guilt and failure be damned.  Unfortunately, Santiago does not recognize his own self-inflicted cruelty, anymore than we do.  That’s the real tragedy.  “Santiago,” I would whisper, “it’s okay to not be okay.”

Kathleen M. Jacobs writes books for young readers.  She holds an M. A. in Humanistic Studies, and lives in Charleston, West Virginia.  She can be reached at

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