If there is a secular religion in contemporary , which argues that through the “law of attraction,” positive thinking will bring positive things into your life.
, which argues that through the “law of attraction,” positive thinking will bring positive things into your life.
Ideas like these, at least in my experience, have very much left their mark on the culture of the LDS church. However, I have some serious reservations about the Gospel of Positive Thinking. For one thing, I think it undermines the call to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those that mourn. How can we possibly follow this injunction if there is no space in our community for people to talk about burdens, or mourning? I am particularly concerned by the logical implication of The Secret that if people suffer negative events in their lives, it must be their own fault for not thinking positively enough. That take on things is admittedly an extreme version of this approach. Yet even if people who experience various misfortunes are not outright blamed for bringing these misfortunes on themselves, the Gospel of Positive Thinking all too often gets used as a kind of club to bash those who commit what it views as the unpardonable sins: expressing doubt, or fear, or anger, or despair. I can only imagine what a Positive Thinking guru would have said to Job.
I also sometimes wonder at what point positive thinking morphs into flat-out denial. John Gravois of Slate has a great response to The Secret in which he extols the value of negative thinking, citing the research of Karen Cerolo, whose book Never Saw it Coming warns of the dangers of excessive positive thinking. We are in fact overly optimistic, she argues, and therefore fail to take important precautions and plan realistically for the future.
I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of this. When I first applied to PhD programs several years ago, I was fairly positive about my chances of getting in–enough so that I only applied to quite competitive schools, and only to a few of them. After the applications were sent away, the anxiety began to set in. However, when I mentioned to people that I was uncertain that I would get in anywhere, I was told on more than one occasion that I needed to “stop being so negative.” As it turned out, I didn’t in fact get accepted to any school that year. My problem wasn’t that I was too negative–it was that I hadn’t been negative enough, especially at the beginning of the process.
In a religious context, I am quite uneasy with the equation I occasionally hear between positive thinking and faith. I don’t think faith has anything to do with “staying positive.” The Gospel of Positive Thinking preaches the insidious notion that we can find a way to avoid the tragic, that life doesn’t have to involve genuine risk or pain. By contrast, I think developing faith involves learning to accept the ambiguities of mortality, and seeking to maintain trust in God even as life continues to remain tumultuous. I would even say that there are times and situations when letting go of our positive thinking, of any notion that we through the sheer willpower of our belief can make the world what we want it to be, is in fact a of radical act of faith.
Ultimately, my biggest objection to the Gospel of Positive Thinking is a theological one. Underlying its doctrine is an assumption that suffering is, in the final analysis, illusory–one can literally think it right out of existence. One does not have to experience it. But this directly contradicts the most central message of Christianity. For if this is the case, why was the atonement necessary? Why did Christ have to suffer all things? Why didn’t he just think positive thoughts, and then encourage us to follow his example? Who needs grace, really, if you have the Power of Positive Thinking?
- 4 June 2007