The Perils of Positive Thinking

In our society we like to believe that a positive attitude will make us a success, that positive thinking will cure our ills, and make us rich.  On last week’s CBS Sunday Morning featured “Just How Powerful Is Positive Thinking” that said belief in positive thought is wrong.  Of, they admitted that people with positive attitudes might get through chemo easier than depressed people, but thinking positive won’t cure cancer.  Then I found “When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work” at Secret Entourage that says positive thinking only works when you have the skills and experience to back it up.  Then over at Huffington Post I found “Why Positive Thinking Just Doesn’t Work.”  If all go-getters have a positive attitude and most fail, the ones that do succeed can believe their positive attitude is what made them a success, but is it true?

We all die, so no matter how positive you are, or how holy, good thoughts and prayers eventually fail – and probably never helped at all.

Now I don’t want this essay to bring you down.   What I want us to do is think about thinking.

When people believe that thinking positive or prayer can cure disease what they are believing is thought can change reality.  When they pray for someone else they believe their thought goes to God and God reaches out and heals the other person.  We know, even without scientific studies that nearly all prayers fail – if prayers succeeded even one percent of the time we’d be living in heaven.  And scientific studies do show that prayers have absolutely no success.

What people believe when they believe in positive thinking is that they have some kind of power to influence reality with their thoughts.  That positive thinking generates healing vibes or creates an aura of success.  If you think about this it’s pretty obvious that if it worked everyone would be rich, successful, happy and healthy.

Obviously altering reality takes more than thinking and wishing.  If willpower could conquer disease Steve Jobs would still be with us.

After Steve Jobs died I watched a bunch of documentaries about him and on the surface you would think he’d be the poster child for positive thinking because of his amazing string of business successes.  And Jobs does give us the answer.  He said if you can see what’s possible you can work to make it happen.

Thinking will let you see what’s possible, but it’s work that makes it happen.

If you have a disease work the hardest you can to get the best medical treatment possible.  If you want to get rich, work harder than anyone else.  If you want to be an artistic success practice for 10,000 hours.  If you want to make great scientific discoveries, work at it like a fiend with relentless concentration.

I’ve dreamed of writing a novel for over forty years.  Finishing NaNoWriMo last month illustrated perfectly the limits of positive thinking.  Working 2-4 hours a day got me finished.  And I only finished a first draft.  If I want to produce a novel that’s worth reading by book buyers than I need to put in 25 times as much work, or more.

Thomas Edition said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – which I’ve heard my whole life.  I just wished I had learned it’s meaning back when I was seven.  I’d love to think I’ll finish my novel, but I know with perfect certainty that positive thought does me no good.

I’d like to think I can think my way out of my spinal stenosis – but I can’t.  What helps it is physical therapy – even more than drugs.  There are no magic pills either.  I’d like to think I can loose weight, but I’ve been thinking about that for decades and it hasn’t work.  Sometimes nothing works.

It’s not a question of positive thinking but how far can I push myself.  The fascinating question is:  Can I push myself further than I can imagine?

Like Clint Eastwood said as Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” 

All of this is why I love “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany.  It’s a science fiction story about wanting to go further.  It’s hard in life when we see people go further than our own limitations.  The reason why the belief in positive thinking is so universal is we all can see success, riches and abundant health in other people, so thinking it’s possible for ourselves is seductively easy.  To seductive.

And finally, reality is relentlessly harsh.  Some people work their asses off and never succeed.  There’s limit to work too.  There’s limits to everything in this life.  We just have to keep pushing those limits.

JWH – 12/1/11

Prayers for Atheists 1

Why would atheists want to pray if they don’t believe in God?  Let’s make a theoretical assumption that tomorrow we all wake up and it’s obvious to everyone that God doesn’t exist.  Do we just throw away all the sacred books, bulldoze the churches and forget religion completely?  Or would we recycle the components of worship for practical secular use?  For thousands of years the best and brightest of the human race applied their minds to understanding reality through the eyes of God.  What if we step back, and say God was not the inspiration to these spiritual seers, but their own seeking minds, then all sacred knowledge discovered by our ancestors in the name of the all-powerful was really created by the minds of men.  Religion serves homo sapiens whether God exists or not.

What if religion has a purpose even if God doesn’t exist.  Take for instance the “Serenity Prayer” made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous.

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer begins by petitioning God, but is God’s assistance really necessary for the prayer to succeed?  We could begin, “Let the universe grant me the serenity,” to imply that all of reality offers help, or we can pray to ourselves by saying “If I can find the serenity,” which affirms that we are pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  The goal really doesn’t change, we want to grasp a philosophical concept that is extremely useful that’s embedded within the words of the prayer.

People often see God in the role of the father, but can you imagine being a father to 7,000,000,000 children all pleading for attention?  And since we’ve discovered how big the universe is, it could mean that God’s children runs to a 7 with pages and pages of zeroes.  Even if God does exist, don’t you think it’s time we stand on our own feet and give the old Eternal One a breather? 

In the prayer above, the petitioner is asking for a kind of serenity that comes with special wisdom.  Is that wisdom something we can learn on our own, or teach one another?  The serenity prayer is a fantastic prayer, one of my favorites, that gets to the absolute core of religion.  From the dawn of the conscious mind we have all wanted to understand reality, and on the surface this prayer requests the wisdom to understand reality in a very fundamental way.

The serenity prayer is very subtle and has onion-like layers.  On first reading we think it’s asking for the ability to look around ourselves, at reality outside our body, and see what’s possible and impossible to change.  It implies we want an answer every time we attempt to alter reality as to whether we have to strength to make the change.  But at a much deeper level, at the spiritual level, it’s asking for the knowledge to see how our minds work, or our souls, if you wish, so we can program our perception of the world. 

Do people and events around us encourage us to drink, or do  motivations within pour another shot?  Do we hate our jobs because of the people we work with or because we can’t control our emotions?  Did we fail to write that novel because life never gave us the time or because we never made the time?  What does it take to beat cancer, and when must I accept death?

This is why AA loves this prayer – to stop drinking requires the power to change our inner programming, but the prayer works just as well on any negative or even positive addiction, whether you want to give up heroin or become an artist.  Of course everyone assumes they can find the power to change, and that might not be true.  That’s why the prayer requests serenity as the primary subject of the prayer.

Eastern and Western religions break down along two lines of force:  acceptance and change, so the Serenity Prayer meets the two in the middle.  The force of the Western mind has been to adapt reality to our desires, while Eastern philosophies has been to teach the gentle path of acceptance.  The Western path has always been about the will of God and obedience.  To the faithful, that will came from a higher power, but to the secular mind, the will of God has always been the desire of the leaders, the men who wanted to build a nation or cathedral and worked their people like the Great and Wondrous Oz, pulling strings and levers behind the alter.

The Serenity Prayer can work without an all powerful creator, or even without a powerful leader wearing religious robes, or even without a mundane individual called a psychiatrist, because it does work when the petitioner gains their own self-wisdom.  That person can get outside help, as soon as they see how to accept it, but the help can come from anywhere or anyone.  If you want to credit an unseen force, and call it God, that works too, but the real success belongs to the individual who can make the prayer come true with enlightenment.

The actual purpose of religion has always been to build stronger souls, to create civilization by evolving the minds of men and women.  If you look at the Serenity Prayer it’s about change, and if the Force of Evolution had a conscious mind, the Serenity Prayer would guide it.  The Serenity Prayer is amazing because it doesn’t just beg, “God give me power to change the world.” 

The prayer asks for serenity, a state of being that comes from meditation and wisdom.  It asks for acceptance for what we can’t change – a power that lets us avoid frustration and living a life of quiet desperation.  Then it asks for courage to change what we can, implying that we need to move full speed ahead when we can and not live with comfort of the status quo.  Finally the prayer asks to tell the difference between what we can and cannot change, because that’s real wisdom.

Any atheist, agnostic or theist who meditates on The Serenity Prayer each morning will benefit from its inspirational power.  What I’d like to do is create a book of prayers for the atheists, but for now I’ll create a series of blog posts about my favorite prayers.  I tend to believe that my atheist friends in their hast to free themselves of the illusions of theism might have overlooked hardcore religious wisdom that works well with the reality of science.  We might not have an eternal soul watched over by a guardian angel, but we do have a soulful mind that is evolving.  And we might not have a God that shapes our lives, but we do have the collective wisdom of the ages that inspires us to keep trying, to keep evolving.

JWH – 11/4/9