I recently finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Her premise: the US (and Canada, too, I’d argue) pushes everyone to maintain unbridled optimism about anything and everything that may come their way. Even cancer. The problem is that thinking positive thoughts doesn’t change the outcome of cancer treatment or of anything else investigated in this book.
Religion and positive thinking are both guilty at times of giving our thoughts far too much power. As I said earlier, the problem with positive thinking is not optimism, it’s expectations. There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side or expecting that everything will eventually work itself out for the greater good. There is a big problem, though, with the magical thinking that often accompanies persistent optimism. Thoughts cannot be weighed or measured. They cannot bring down the wrath of the gods if the wrong idea flits through your head. Certain thoughts can be harmful if they lead you to do or say something hurtful (or if they’re a symptom of mental illness and you’re not able to shake off the burdensome ones.)
It is true that positive thinking is not a religion in the sense that it worships a god or gods. But it does have a mystical quality to it all: follow these steps, say and do these things, believe in this idea (and never that one), and all of your problems will melt away. If your problems don’t go away, if you doubt, if this system doesn’t work for you for any reason, it’s because you were never a true believer.
There is no middle ground here. No fine print. It’s one size fits all in a world with an infinite number of sizes and shapes. Imagine a board with a series of holes lined up in neat rows from top to bottom. Each hole is just large enough for a small rubber ball to fit through it. It isn’t big enough to pass wooden building block through it, even though some of the other people in the room thinks that everything in the room – the building blocks, the potted plant in the corner, the windows, the desks, the chairs – should be able to fit through that hole if one tries hard enough and cultivates the correct attitude and thoughts.
This isn’t the way life works in the world that I live in. I understand that these types of black-and-white absolutist statements are a source of comfort and stability for many of the people who subscribe to various religious beliefs and I’m happy for those for whom these ideas genuinely work. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to start chopping up the chairs, shattering the glass in the windows or digging the plants out of the soil so that they can fit through the holes in the board in my imaginary room, though.