WHAT’S WRONG WITH POSITIVE THINKING?
A 7-part Review
(with major apologies for chaotic paragraph indents. in course of time this post has gone its own way – in consequence i suppose of my continuing to use pre-composed compositions a la Word and its kin despite wordpress reminding us of the risks. I’ve tried to ‘improve’ indents and will try to improve them further when I can. – July, 2013.)
Barbara Ehrenreich has published “Bright-sided”. She speaks of her book and her theme on a number of available interviews (see websites: “Democracy Now”, “Daily Show”, … Please also see: http://ehrenreich.blogs.com/ for many focused, on-point, observations on what is happening around us.)
I could not agree more with Ehrenreich’s thesis! Hear, hear! An extended celebration of, and toast to, this author!!
She contends our culture has shot way past any reasonable mark of what is meant by “positive thinking”. What I offer in this post has been on my mind for some time. It is my ‘take’ on damage created by our enthusiasm for what “positive thinking” has come to mean. It is no longer ‘one aspect’ of how we may analyze and address suffering.It has come to be the sole means. A new religion, complete with its own dogmatic pronouncements!
A large number of us have been persuaded that no matter what major concerns challenge us, our most appropriate response, our strongest resource, is to discover the “gift” of such challenge. We are to look at our beliefs about ourselves. We are to notice how, by our very thoughts, we “create our own realities”.
The dogma says: When an individual experiences powerful challenge and set-back, the individual has “manifested” this condition. All by himself. All by herself.
Abundance is usually sought in arenas of relationship, income, material comfort, and health. We are coached by processes, described in The Secret and elsewhere, that each of us can achieve full and reliable abundance in any part of our lives. Furthermore, since this is an individual matter, we can achieve abundance without our choices having any impact or influence on anyone else. (The dogma actually says our own ‘correct’ mental state of appreciation does have impact; it is a duty to be cheery and appreciative in all circumstances and in this way we help to uplift the spirits of all.)
The dogma dismisses issues of justice: Injustice is not injustice. Enthusiasim for “Law of Attraction” would conclude injustice simply does not exist. Instead, we might have “personal life challenge”. Because injustice is not real, it is not related to larger inter-personal and/or social, political, and economic dynamics. All human interference with one another, all “tampering” with opportunity for one another, all manipulation of policy and resources which secures abundance for some, and eliminates access for others, is irrelevant.
We have discovered, been exposed to, The Answer of All Answers! Eureka! How Grand! All we need do is to “adjust” our thinking to remove hidden “blocks” to abundance and well-being! We must embrace our challenge! Find the gift, rejoice!
The emphasis in dogma of Postitive Thinking is always on the individual. Awakening to capacity to create ones own reality is viewed as “enlightenment”, as “empowerment”.
I have not explored “Prosperity Gospel”, but it seems to line up with “manifesting” abundance, (Law of Attraction). “Get in harmony with creative forces” (God) and your highest dreams will be realized.” Logic suggests if you do not experience your highest dreams, there is something wrong, “in error”, with yourself, with your thoughts, with your relationship to creative forces (God).
Widespread enthusiasm for learning to manifest abundance is something of a spiritual version of libertarian thinking (as I understand libertarian thinking). Prosperity is purely an individual matter. By libertarian thinking, anyone who does not experience prosperity is ‘lazy’ or deficient in some way. By “manifesting technique” thinking, anyone who does not experience prosperity “still has a lot to learn” about underlying “resistance” to abundance, which is always available. By Prosperity Gospel thinking, anyone who is not experiencing prosperity is “not yet right with God.”
With each of these, there is also a strong attitude of “not my problem” toward anyone who does not experience prosperity, abundance. Since the clear emphasis is on individual capacity to rise to a state of self-empowerment, it is logical that the individual should be left to learn her/his way out of whatever morass she/he happens to be in. (The three systems: “positive thinking”, “propserity gospel”, and libertarianism will provide answers and coaching for anyone who want changed life experience.)
Logical purity of these beliefs suggest to help is to interfere. Helping “promotes” dependency. Helping delays enlightenment. Helping masks lessons that otherwise would be learned.
Some support, some “help”, is allowed. It is allowable to encourage the individual to make lemonade out of lemons. A practitioner of libertarianism, or of Prosperity Gospel, or of “manifesting techniques”, is allowed to share ideas and techniques that keep the struggling individual from giving up. The struggling individual is encouraged to notice any “personal “resistance”. If the individual begains to talk about his/her rising consciousness of “self-reliance” (or improved Prosperity-God relationship) he/she may be cheered for “coming around” to the dogma’s wisdom.
If a struggling individual instead says that social, political, or economic policies are blocking progress, these statements are ignored, re-directed, or explained as a form of resistance. By the dogma, the person’s interpretation is mistaken. (To point this out is considered “helpful”.)
For a practitioner of libertarianism, Prosperity Gospel, or “manifesting techniques” to agree there may be social, political, or economic policy influencing possibility of prosperity is off the table. Such agreement is not allowed, does not follow the logic of the dogma.
This lmited, restricted, thinking in libertarian, Prosperity Gospel, and “manifesting enthusiasts” relieves them from responsibility to social, economic, and political policy that might support individual prosperity. It gets them “off the hook” in a few key ways. Their logic tells them the reason they personally experience prosperity is because they have “arrived” at “individual empowerment”. Their success proves their thesis and supports denial of social, economic and political factors. Their logic tells them that participation to bring about change in policy would be to acknowledge dynamics that “aren’t real” by their own rules and definition of ‘reality’.
From their point of view it is unreasonable, illogical, for a struggling individual (or group of people sharing a struggle) to argue for social (political, economic) responsibility to be examined, to be changed.
(An aside: Emerged enthusiasm for “individual empowerment”, “individual responsibility” calls up residual Calvinistic attitudes. Calvinism gone secular. I was raised Presbyterian, and I am not sure anymore just what John Calvin’s main thesis was. But I do know the “effect” of that perspective! (Will post a poem soon: “The Stern Uncle” which suggests something of the effect of Calvinism as it strikes me.) Calvinism, as I experienced it, views “reality” as black/white, yes/no, on/off-target and somehow solely within individual “will”. No confusion. Absolute accuracy of judgment. I am not alone in finding “Calvinism” a strong flavor in our culture.)
Another effect of emerged enthusiasm for individual empowerment, “individual” responsibility, is to deny role of complex community. Libertarian, Prosperity Gospel, and “manifesting techniques” accept “community of like-mind” quite well. But none of these welcome challenge coming at their perspective, their beliefs. Challenging, alternative explanations of how and why an individual or group might experience struggle are met with cries of “socialism”, “off target”, “un-enlightened.”
Here’s my take on “life as we know it”.1 – Each has individual strengths, talents, skills, handicaps, challenges. 2 – Individual development is “community based”. Surrounding societal structure and practices, experienced from birth onwards, both assist and block the individual from comfort and eventual (adult) experience of prosperity. 3 – The logic of point ‘2’ suggests there is always a role for societal structure and practice to change in such a way as to boost possibility of individual comfort and eventual prosperity. 4 – Whatever is experienced by the individual “feeds back into” the surrounding society. The logic of this statement suggests there is benefit to all members of the surrounding society when an individual prospers. 5 – Finally (perhaps this should have gone first) we exist in a physical, material, plane of reality. Injury, disease, pain, and suffering exist here, along with moments of joy, experience of beauty, shared love. Individual and group/societal dynamics are real. Justice and Compassion are present; so are injustice and acts that lack compassion. 6 – Individual knowledge of factors at play in point 5 means the individual is in position to “choose” action, at any moment, that is more, or less, helpful to self and others.
There is a complicated dynamic at work, and “we” are “all” participants in this dynamic! At each moment, to the extent we are aware of “impact of choice on self and other, we can choose actions that reflect Justice over injustice, Compassion over lack of same. To the extent we deny interconnectedness we deny impact of our choices. To the extent we believe “every individual creates his/her own reality” we convince ourselves reality of others has nothing to do with ourselves.
Curiously, I find some valuable truth in points of view and teachings that encourage an individual to address struggle, in part, by checking out his/her own “attitudes and beliefs”.I have explored these teachings at some depth – especially as noted by “manifesting technique” enthusiasts. I believe in chakras, in “energy” fields, in “thought has effect” on reality – for the individual, (and through the individual to the group). I even believe a single individual has capacity to influence details and events by thought and attitude. But only in part! I only find some truth here! Inter-connectedness is reality; my thought, for example, needs to include awareness of how my choice influences your reality.
There is always “the group”, and there is always ‘societal structure’! “Manifesting technique” enthusiasts recognize this and are especially fond of using “thought processes” to effect change. But they are inclined to stop there. They equate thought with action. Many of these enthusiasts believe their best contribution to wide-spread “prosperity” is to keep their thoughts focused on “all is well”. They are fond of “sending positive, harmonious, vibrations out into the universe”. My quarrel with this practice is that when “focused thinking on all is well” is the exclusive means to “uplift humanity”. Earthly conditions require practical, tangible, ‘earth bound’ involvement if we are to assure others of basic comfort – involvement, for example, in social/political action.
Group (societal) and personal (individual) action (policy) are so thoroughly entangled, they cannot be separated, one from the other. As long as we live on this earth, by intent and by accident, we deny prosperity to another unless we pay attention to the entanglement. We are duty bound (by ‘law of shared peril’ if we do not) to look at social, economic, and political practices and policies for their role in human experience.
Up until a few years ago I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged member of the “manifesting technique camp”. For several decades I explored my own circumstances. I examined belief systems, I observed how I could effect some wanted changes. I became familiar with “personal blocks” to my sense of comfort. I learned a lot, and don’t regret the time spent – it leads to rich understanding of “what it means to be human” at a depth perhaps unavailable otherwise. Furthermore, it leads to understanding inter-dependent dynamics at personal and societal levels. I seemed, near the end of that study, to have left some “hard earthly realities” behind. Pretty neat!
Two radical developments “woke me up” from my new and rather fully pleased view of life and worldly experience. One was that I moved from Canada, where I knew I had health care as needed, to the US, where I was quickly denied access. Simultaneously, I found myself in a “housing nightmare” that has completely overtaken any notion I had of how my life here would unfold. Associated with the housing issue, a lingering “disability” based in powerful early childhood discouragements arose to prevent, make very difficult, otherwise available “strategies”, especially to my housing disaster. (For what it’s worth, my housing situation has almost no relationship to the widespread “housing crisis” continuing across America – except to create in me a great deal of sympathy for those facing loss of housing!)
Smack! Ah – I have “created this reality for myself”. No. I don’t think so!I’m here to tell you I’ve checked this out. In my deep searching for “mistakes” I might have made to bring these two ‘whammies’ into my daily experience (new fear of bankruptcy, debilitation, or death due to no cause other than lack of access to medical care, and full-out expenditure of all resources for some years to come to correct a housing disaster), I’ve found precious little that does not lead back to choices, beliefs, and policies of others who share this earth with me.
Politics, economic, and social policy are not new to me. I have dipped into them before with some passion, some enthusiasm. But, as I neared what looked like “at last!” comfort and possibility in my life, I began to “see” how my improved outlook, my improved belief in “manifesting” was bearing fruit. I confess I was quite pleased with my new understanding of reality; I looked forward to developing my awareness further and to serving others based on my new understandings. (I had not separated myself from a larger whole, but had discovered a much more comfortable and pleasant way to serve. I did not need to bother myself with social/political activism, had ‘outgrown’ the passions, frustrations and anger that often accompanies these. I could begin to explore “grace” as an attitude. I wasn’t trying for riches, have always had modest material goals. Life was looking pretty good!)
As I say: “Smack”. First I ran through my life-long repertoire of ways to “spin” my two very unexpected and real challenges so I could ‘appreciate’ what I might gain from “recognizing the gift”. Then I began to notice how my situation was viewed by those who knew it and might validate what I was facing. They demonstrated limited interest in lack of access to health care (for me or any one else). If they commented at all, they explained how this was “OK”. Some were as stunned at the housing as I was. From others, the silence, trite as the phrase may be, was ‘deadening’! I was sometimes congratulated for my courage, my creativity in ‘coping’. But despite my feeling in a constant state of reeling from shock, a state of daily trauma, I was not to mention it more than occasionally. I was not to make “a big deal”, was not to “disturb the universe”, over it. (I won’t describe housing disappointment in detail, but it was/is extensive, now partially addressed, with many years further resources needed to complete what I call “re-construction”. Superficial improvements such as floor covering, plaster repair, are so far in the future I will likely not accomplish them. I have for the most part ‘recovered’ from an especially deep year of “trauma” over it, have ‘adjusted’ to loss of ‘dreams’ of what I meant to be doing with time and resources in ‘retirement’ years. One of these, setting money aside for health care costs, is certainly off the table!)
Among those I turned to with my “double-whammy stress story”, I “ran into” views held by libertarians and practitioners of “manifesting techniques” almost immediately. It took me awhile to “get angry”. First I struggled with myself for having such a difficult time noticing all the “gifts” available to me in the challenges of no health care access and a house that is cold, without full plumbing, and in need of all my resources to address its many “issues”. In terms of not feeling ‘heard’ on my ‘challenges’, I practiced “understanding”; I practiced “forgive them they know not”, (which I still think is all too true – that ‘they know not’.) Then I got very very depressed. Finally I got angry.
I’m still at those last two places “they know not”, and anger. Not anger at individuals for “not knowing”, but anger at our entire human capacity to rationalize whatever gets us off the hook in terms of greater service, greater responsibility. Anger at our “self schmoozing” so we can experience comfort for ourselves without asking what dynamics prevent comfort for others. Anger that even though a ‘repair’ to ‘they know not’ might be to speak up, speaking up, no matter how cordially (or forcibly) done, is not well-received.
Maybe it’s not even ‘anger’. Maybe it’s full-fledged impatience.
I am generally aware of human developments in social, political, economic policy across time. I am generally aware of the difference between what we humans face “this time” and what has been available to us across hundreds of generations, thousands of years, in times past. Two of these differences are huge, “never before” differences. One is our population (and associated lack of interest in well-documented observation that high birth rates are linked to poverty). One is our lack of geographical “frontiers” into which we can expand. These two differences feed directly into our situation of a “trashed planet”, our developing energy issues, and increased suffering for individuals and groups.
I am impatient with explanations and excuses offered on inequitable access. As I’ve shown with numerous posts on this blog, universal access to basic health care is a need I feel strongly about. I’ve mentioned above the wide-spread lack of interest, and sometimes explanation that it’s deemed ‘OK’ for many to be without (at risk of bankruptcy, debilitation, or death). It feels like “pushing rope” to “get change going” in a genuinely helpful direction. I am concerned that we’ve waited perhaps too long to address corrupt belief and policy, (human corruption, at personal and societal levels). My years long explorations of ‘who we are’ vs ‘who we can be’ haunt me a bit. From study of human psychology, I ‘know’ the ways we dissuade ourselves from personal radical steps that may be required to effect ‘real’ change. And I think we’re at a place where only ‘radical’ change may turn us in a direction of “promise”.
“Positive thinking” cannot be practiced to good effect if it is “all about me or me and my group”. It’s got to be about service to interconnectedness. We live in a ‘real, tangible’ universe, and service to others has got to include real, tangible, response (action) – like shifting societal and personal resources toward need of others, like opening opportunities (for instance access to health care, but quality education is another) to those presently denied such opportunity.
Positive thinking can’t be used to “clobber” someone who is struggling, as if we who clobber have no role to play in reducing suffering.
For what it’s worth, I recognize in myself the ability to rationalize why it “is not my job” to contribute beyond my personal comfort level. I also understand being “maxed out” in service to greater need. One reason I “understand” general human psychology as well as I do is because I, too, am human!
But I do think we need for many, many more to shift out of comfort toward benefit for all. We need for more people who are ‘maxed out’ to show a little impatience, rightous indignation. We need for more people who claim “not my job”, especially those with higher levels of personal resources, to be called to task. (Called to task: asked to pitch in, to help.)
IF we attitudinally believed in “sleeves rolled up service” as a primary personal never-ending responsibility, social, economic, political policy would be completely different from what it presently offers! We could then “think positively” for good reason – we would be practicing “positive responsibility” to larger dynamics! We would “automatically”, without strong reservation, develop policies that bring each and every brother and sister into the fold of “always available prosperity”.
My Very Best to Each and All! — MaggieAnn