Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Are You Positive About That?

I have a confession to make: I've read a lot of self-help books over the years. I like to read and I learn easily through reading, so if I have an issue, I'm likely to read a book about it. Also, although I am obviously fabulous, I always feel like there is room for improvement. But in the past few years, I've found that I keep coming across the same "you create your own reality" teachings over and over again.

The concept, in case you're not familiar, is the idea that everything is made up of energy and that you can actually picture an outcome and make it happen by "raising your vibration" to match it. It doesn't matter if that outcome is healing from a disease, a new car, or untold weath. You can have whatever you want, according to numerous self-help gurus, as long as you picture a positive outcome and hold it firmly in your mind. Anyone whose outcomes are less than satisfactory, of course, simply "allowed negativity" into their minds.

I began to wonder: am I the only one who thinks this sounds an awful lot like faith-healing for secular folks? I also began to wonder if I was the only one who had noticed that this prevailing attitude inspires an appalling lack of compassion -- after all, if "you create your own reality," then any illness or misfortune you may have is your own fault. If someone is unkind to you and you don't like it, it's your own fault for "focusing on negativity."

I am partucularly horrified by a popular corallary: the idea that we each make a "contract" before we are born, and "agree" to all the events and people we will encounter in our lives. Now, my life is pretty good. I have terrific friends and family, and I'm healthy as a horse. I live in a great place, and I have plenty of food to eat and clean clothes to wear. But I refuse to believe in a pre-birth contract, and here's why: Jessica Lunsford. I was, coincidentally, in Florida in 2005 when 9-year-old Jessica was abducted and authorities were hunting for her, so I followed her story. (Spoiler: it ended very, very badly. You can read her story here, but be warned -- it's not for the faint of heart.) If Jessica was the only person that ever happened to, in her honor I would refuse to believe that she either "contracted" before she was born for what happened to her or made it happen by "attracting it." And Jessica is not the only one.

Where did these ideas come from? It didn't take a lot of research to find out that the same "New Thought" that brought us Christian Science brought us "positive thinking" and "the law of attraction." It's simply been repackaged many times in the 150 years or so since Phineas Quimby first began teaching it.

It turns out, I'm not the only one thinking about this. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an entire book about it called Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. In it, she discusses the roots of the positive thinking movement, and how it has seeped into churches (where the concepts of faith and positive thinking are used pretty much interchangeably), into business (where people facing layoffs and the survivors of a series of layoffs who are facing a burdensome workload are sent to motivational seminars to keep them loyal to a company who has no loyalty toward them), and even into our culture's attitudes about debilitating illnesses such as cancer. It's a really interesting, and often very funny read.

Do I think it's a good idea to face life with the attitude that good things can happen, and that the world is, in general, a pretty nice place to be? Sure I do. Do I think it's healthy to expect an axe murderer to jump out from behind every bush? Of course not. But equally, I think it's unhealthy to believe that we are each individuals creating our own realities independently, so things like kindness, compassion, and cooperation don't matter. They do matter. They matter a lot.

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