The Power of Positive Thinking

From time to time I get into a little wrangle on Facebook with a friend who has posted a message that’s intended to be positive, uplifting, and inspirational. This has led to bad feelings in the past … and today I did it again.

I have a naughty tendency to check in with reality. I engage my brain and actually analyze the things that people say. This gets me in trouble — primarily, it seems, with people who are eager feel a certain way and disinclined to engage in thought processes that might cause them to reconsider their feelings.

Today my friend said, “You know the Universe loves you and wants you to be happy. Your thoughts create your world.” She said, “I believe that if you’re not happy with the way something is that you can change it.” She said, “You get what you expect to get. There are plenty of people who have made a better life for themselves despite their circumstance. I believe in hope.”

Here’s what I believe. I believe that it’s both useful and important to encourage people to take action to improve their circumstances. I believe that there are often things people can do along those lines that they have not considered, or have rejected too quickly. I believe that having hope is quite generally useful. Hope will give you a morale boost that will get you into action, and hope can help your actions be more focused and effective.

But this is all quite different from saying, “You get what you expect to get.” To start with an extreme case, I think it is morally irresponsible in the highest degree to imply that the people who died in Auschwitz got what they expected to get. Except, I suppose, in the most immediate sense, which is that once they arrived in Auschwitz, if they were expecting to die in a gas chamber, they were not deceived in their expectation. But if we rewind the movie a year or two and ask whether they were expecting to die in the gas chamber before they were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz in the first place, I think we would have to conclude that, on the contrary, they were probably expecting that no matter how bad things got, vis-a-vis anti-Semitic discrimination, things would never get that bad.

Did they get what they expected to get? Clearly not. And it is monstrously cruel to imply that they did.

I’m sure my friend doesn’t think of her feel-good philosophy as monstrously cruel, but it is. Ultimately, it’s a blame-the-victim philosophy. It’s a philosophy that says, “If you’re not happy, it’s your own fault.”

Let’s contemplate a more down-home case. Is a 14-year-old girl who is pregnant and has AIDS because she was raped by her stepfather getting what she expected to get? I would be inclined to think otherwise.

One of the difficulties with my friend’s philosophy is that it entirely neglects to take social circumstances into account. It puts all of the responsibility for suffering on the individual sufferer, and none on the societal forces that may be contributing to the suffering. A teenager who is being bullied and tormented by his peers because he’s gay is not responsible for his suffering. His teachers and school administrators are responsible for it, because they’re failing to stop the bullying and failing to work to overcome the homophobia in their society.

There may indeed be things this teenager can do to improve his circumstances and reduce his suffering. He should be encouraged to look for actions that he can take. But we need to recognize that someone in a situation of this sort may not be using the best possible judgment. If this teenager thinks his choices are limited to committing suicide and running away from home, he is probably (though we cannot say for certain) guilty of defective judgment. But whose fault is that? He’s a kid. His judgment is not fully formed, and quite likely neither his family nor his teachers have encouraged him to develop a capacity for good judgment, especially where such an agonizing issue is concerned.

Finally, we need to realize that the capacity to make good judgments rests on the ability to imagine certain courses of action, anticipate the likely outcomes, and realize that some courses of action are not viable. We can’t have good judgment unless (a) we know quite a bit about the real world and (b) we’re willing to acknowledge that some of the things we may want passionately to do are not likely to work well, or at all. If we lack this capacity, we cannot possibly know what to do to relieve our own suffering. We may try things that make matters worse, and that may be very discouraging (or disastrous).

So let’s assume that our hypothetical tormented teenager sits down and makes a list of five things that he could do — not just run away or commit suicide, but three more things too. Let’s assume he concludes, after using the best judgment he can muster, that none of those things will work very well. Let’s assume that just possibly he’s right.

My friend’s feel-good philosophy explicitly denies that such a thing can happen. My friend is saying that there will always be something the lad can do — something effective. If he hasn’t found it yet, it’s because … why? Is it his fault? That seems to be the implication. But in the real world, certain circumstances simply do not have any positive outcomes. A philosophy that denies this fact is based on a lie, and a philosophy based on a lie cannot be relied on.

In addition to outer circumstances, we have to consider inner circumstances. To take a simple example, not everyone is gifted with an equal capacity for overcoming feelings of rejection. Some people bounce back from being rejected pretty quickly. They go out and try again. Others suffer far more deeply from being rejected, and have a much harder time continuing to pursue their goals.

It is not the case that we all have an infinite capacity for setting aside our hurt feelings and remaining active. Some of us are sometimes overwhelmed. But my friend’s philosphy makes no allowance for that very real possibility.

Of course, if I point all this out, I’m the bad guy. I’m the one who is raining on the parade. Oh, well. If your philosophy has no tools with which to overcome my realistic objections, it isn’t much of a philosophy, is it?

I’m not going to comment in detail on the ridiculous idea that the Universe loves you. People who believe that may as well believe there are invisible pixies dancing on their lawn, and that the pixies are planning to put gold coins under their pillows while they sleep. The two beliefs are not even faintly dissimilar.

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1 Response to The Power of Positive Thinking

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    Apart from using good judgement sometimes events are beyond any substantial control one may have to exercise. What if your 14 year old had gotten AIDS and pregnant merely because she was overwhelmed by hormones, the romance of “love” as portrayed in this society, and just plain pressure from the male (pleading, threatening, negotiating, the usual teenage ploys)? Would she have gotten what she expected? Certainly not the AIDS and probably not the pregnancy. Must less the result of circumstances totally out of her control but not really. When I was drafted, not what I expected although I was acutely aware of the possibility I weighed my options. Exile (forever, or so it seemed at the time), prison, the life of a fugitive, or complying. Additionally there would be the familial shame that I would cause by picking any but the last option. ut in truth these were not options because it was akin to be asked at Auschwitz if you preferred the gas chamber, starvation, a bullet, etc. None of the choices were real choices because, as you point out, none of these things that were in a list of expectations for the direction one’s future might take. I chose compliance because it presented the best chance for positive change just as the average Jew would take hard labor and starvation over the immediacy of the gas chamber (if given a choice). And that’s whee hope, even when events around you suggest 99% otherwise. Time equals opportunity. And so I agree 100% with your statement about friend’s portrayal that placing responsibility for getting what you expect completely on a victim of circumstance is irresponsible at best. And their are magic pixies but they work for corporations and through invisible lobbying they manage to take your money.

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