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Why Realistic Wisdom Beats Positive Thinking

Whatever happened to luck? Or providence? Or mystery? Whatever happened to not having all the answers? Whatever happened to the simple compassion we should have for those who don't have it as good as we do?
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The other day a client of mine tearfully revealed a childhood filled with fear. Her father was an unpredictable and menacing man who was nearly as big as the front door. She was only a toddler, but she had vivid memories of him hollering as he came into the kitchen, the sweet smell of too much whiskey floating off his skin as he picked up a utensil to beat her mother. Her mother, also a drug user, in rage at her husband, tried to drown her daughter by pouring soap and water down her throat. With mere seconds to go, she was saved by a neighbor who had heard the screaming.

She cried silently for a while and then she asked me: "What did I do wrong?"

At first I heard her as any therapist would. Many, many -- too many -- children blame themselves for the horror they are born into. Why? Mainly because the people who are hurting them tell them that "It's all their fault" and because they are children, they simply don't know any better than to believe them.

But then I heard something else. I heard the recurrent theme of a culture obsessed with success and the exterior trimmings of "well-being" as a manifestation of our inner grace, a culture that has rejected the entire idea of luck or providence as the limping hope of the loser and has embraced the personal accountability of the "individual as all." This takes us to many places, not all of them bad, but decidedly not all of them good. This child was one example of what happens when personal accountability is perverted.

I had another client who had difficulties finding work in a professional field. She went to interview after interview but she kept getting turned down. Finally, I asked her how she went to the interview -- what time she showed up, how she dressed, how she spoke. "I go like this," she said and waved her hands in front of herself proudly. "I go as myself." She was dressed in flouncy pedal pushers, ankle socks, shoes that seemed way too comfortable (especially for an interview), and a short-sleeved shirt that stuck out of her waist. Her hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail. With every non-judgmental muscle in my mind working in reverse, I could not help but see her as responsible for her difficulty.

But what about luck? What about those people who seem to have all of it? And those others who seem to have none?

A young woman with a terribly sad story comes to mind: a young illegal immigrant who literally crawled here from south of the border. I mean what I said. She crawled on hands and knees through jungle and tunnel for miles, the only female with 40 men. She had been beaten mercilessly as a child. She had been taken by a man to be his wife without her consent and tormented by her "husband" (who was a high functioning member of a drug cartel) for years. She had been tortured and thrown around so badly that she lost her eight-month pregnancy and spent a month in coma. She finally left because she was certain he would kill her and reluctantly left her only child with her mother. She grieves every day for that child. Was that her fault? Were her beatings a product of her own negative thinking? Would a couple of aphorisms have changed what she had to deal with? The family she was born into? The country?

I think of another immigrant with a very different outcome. With a similar state of abject misery in his early childhood, he scrambled into this country by jumping cargo trains. Finally, starving, he turned himself into a slave laborer on farms across the southwest, drinking and drugging to oblivion. During those intoxicated years he committed a series of crimes for which he is deeply remorseful. But he--as opposed to our young mother--had the good fortune to one, never get arrested and two, marry a woman who stayed with him, who raised their daughter kindly and kept a decent job. Then he had the even better fortune to have a moment of divine grace that got him to put down the drugs and alcohol for good. He cannot explain the moment or the grace. He just says as he holds a Bible to his chest, "In a second, it all changed."

I mentioned my thoughts on this to my husband. I told him that I thought our culture had gone too far with the idealization of the self, that certain things are and will remain a mystery, that bad things happen and we very often don't know why, that some idiots get all the girls and gold but some of the finest people on earth suffer in endless silence.

I asked him: Whatever happened to luck? Or providence? Or mystery? Whatever happened to not having all the answers? Whatever happened to the simple compassion we should have for those who don't have it as good as we do? When did we start lecturing the poor and sick on their lack of positivity and forgetting that we all stand on the edge of an abyss? When did we come to rely so heavily on the "power of intention" and turn our own cortical functions into a spiritual platform?

Does anyone really believe that Trump deserved all the money he inherited? That somehow his mental state was sufficiently advanced or positive and healthy enough that he "drew" that energy to him? I continued on my soapbox: When did we become masters of the universe, whether by our quantum minds or our technology? When did we start thinking that somehow we could control what was around us that way?

And in his typically Montanan manner, he said, "But life without that idea in some form is hopeless."

Of course, as usual, he was right.

And as usual, things were never quite as linear or straightforward as I might have liked. Life is a mess. This issue is no exception.

A culture of control
One way it goes wrong is in degree. America is a culture of extremes. Its need for control is no different. It is an extreme need that manifests everywhere from the personal to the political. While it is perfectly reasonable to say that one's choices make a difference or that one's thoughts have a profound impact on how one feels, it's an entirely different thing to insist that the "self" (whether that's my thoughts, my choices, my ideas) is all that matters in the formation of a life. There are way too many things that are beyond our control for this to be absolutely true. I may be able to manage my thoughts, but I can't change the global politic or the state of the economy or the winds that blow in from the west filled with smoke.

It also goes wrong in its reductionism. We have been taught to be empirical beings so things must be understood in linear ways. They must make sense, the columns must add up. If they don't, it's because we lost control and did something wrong. There must be someone or something to blame.

Two traditions perpetuate this:
1. Calvinism and the doctrine of the elect/predestination;
2. Eastern philosophy and the concept of Karma.

While they initially may seem like odd bedfellows, they are curiously similar in that they both interpret our station in life (good or bad) as a function of either our grace or enlightenment. While "karma" is a relatively new ingredient in America's philosophical soup, Calvinism's doctrine of the elect permeates the American root system. In both ideologies, nothing is random or mysterious. Your good fortune is either God's personal choice for you and you are obviously one of His favored, His "elect," or it is because of something you did or did not do in a past life. If you are poor and suffering, clearly you deserve it. If you're not slim and simultaneously pushing a baby stroller while running a board of directors, there's something awry. And that can mean there's something wrong with you now (your intentions are weak or not right) or there was something wrong with you a hundred years ago and you're paying for it now.

Some people take this concept to an extreme, which is where it truly begins to distort.

I remember a woman at an animal training workshop I took some years ago. It involved some psychological techniques that were much like Cesar Milan's dog whispering. Somehow the conversation got diverted to the spiritual state of animals, particularly dogs. That woman told a story about a dog who was always tied to a tree, who was clearly in pain, and was often neglected or beaten. I piped right up: "And you got him, right?" It's what I would have done.

She dismissed me with a toss of her hair. "Of course not. How do I know it's not his destiny, that he's supposed to be there because of something he needs to learn?"

She smiled, quite satisfied with how spiritual she sounded. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I do not suffer fools gladly and I especially do not easily tolerate the smug, intellectual dismissal of pain and need in others -- particularly children and animals.

The power of proper rather than positive thinking
One of the most important pioneers in Mind-Body medicine, oncologist Dr. O. Simonton had a unique perspective on thinking and healing. Quite a while back, he was asked which individuals were more likely to survive cancer. It was clear that the author of the question assumed Simonton would say, "but of course, the positive thinkers." He didn't. He said that pure (sic: unbelievable) positive thinking ("I am healed," for instance) actually worked against patients as much as grossly negative thinking ("I'm dying; there's no hope"). What seemed to make a difference was what he called realistic thinking. When a person could believably say to him or herself that everything was being done to help and they were doing everything they could to be better and healthier every day, they seemed to cross a threshold -- from the fanciful into the possible, which is where real hope exists.

I say a prayer (often) that I'm sure most of you know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

To me this is truly hopeful. This puts an appropriate percentage of responsibility in my hands. This says I can do something, but not everything. I can do what I can do and I will. I can use imagery to help myself heal (yes, that works). I can use proper medicine (I choose classical homeopathy). I can pray. I can eat right. I can sleep, play and work in balance. I can choose to forgive and stay in gratitude. I can use the tools I am given with all my heart and all my strength.

What I can't do is lie to myself. I can't use my thoughts to manipulate others, create opportunities that don't exist, or generate mounds of cash in a toppling economy because "I'm worth it." I can't pretend that everything makes sense or that all suffering is self-generated. I can't make the columns add up when this universe doesn't add up. I can't believe that a child who was nearly killed by her own parents somehow merited that because of something she did either in this life or any other.

I can believe that the young woman who crawled here from South America did nothing to "deserve" her pain but that, with help and patience, she can find ways through it and possibly build a new life. When I last heard from her, a fund was being taken up by people she had met in this country to help her get her child and mother to safety. It was a spontaneous and unexpected act of love and kindness just when she had nearly lost all hope.

I believe that good things happen in the same way as bad things -- mysteriously and surprisingly. I believe with all my heart that everything does have a purpose, that I can have a personal relationship with God, and that eventually what is wrong will be made right. But I don't know how or when. In the meantime, I ride the waves of good and bad as they come without pronouncing judgment about them or using them as philosophical weapons of self-justification.

In the documentary film, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" one of the doctors interviewed said he had a hard time with affirmations and, to paraphrase him, he found them vapid and unbelievable. What he could say to himself and what allowed him to be inspired, sometimes courageous and hard working in spite of obstacles was this simple idea: "I can always be surprised by how good it gets."

Me, too.