Monday, October 12, 2009
Is There Power in Positive Thinking . . . or Just Disenchantment ?
Saturday afternoon I took my son Ramsey (17) with me for what we call a "two-er." That means two visits to Starbucks on the same day. I know, we're pathetic. But we had our usual book reading and discussion on Saturday morning at Starbucks. Then the two of us worked hard for the rest of the day blowing in additional insulation into our attic (my part of trying to be green). I had to return the insulation blower at the end of the day . . . to the island just south of us. They also have a new Starbucks with a large, comfortable (and quiet) reading area.
After delivering the machine to Home Depot we stopped and enjoyed some more brew (which I've been trying to exchange for home-brewed tea in preparation for Nepal) and reading. I have just started another book by James Joyce, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. I hope to talk about that book latter. I'm mainly reading it because it is on the top 100 English Novels list that I'm working through but also because it has a voice in this issue of people loosing their faith in God from experiences (bad ones at that) in their youth.
But while I was at Starbucks, and when my eyes and mind were growing weary of Joyce, I picked up the book review section of the New York Times.
I read this article about Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided. Basically, in this book she starts by describing her ordeal when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and started treatment. She discovered that in the "culture" of breast cancer sufferers there is this belief system that people should think positively, smile all the time, look at the bright side because these things help you get better. While there is a little evidence that severe depression can be counter-productive to any disease state, she found out that there is no evidence to support the notion that positive thinking makes a real difference in the outcome. On the other hand, she believes that the cult of positive thinking has had a negative influence on society, by limiting our ability to look at things (including cancer in her case) honestly and correctly.
She also examines the development of the positive thinking movement and she believes that it started within the Church. She points to the start of as a counter-reaction against Calvinism or possibly Stoicism within the Church. One of the first proponents was of course Norman Vincent Peale and his best selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. From there the movement created a whole new industry (such as the Guide Post magazine and other programs) journeyed into the TV evangelist circuit and to best selling authors (and mega church pastors) such as Joel Osteen.
On the secular side, there was the human potential movement and the age of motivational speakers that continue to win the hearts of minds of the masses.
In conclusion, she says that the positive thinking people want to paint her as a pessimist or an Eeyore for even questioning them.
This started me thinking again. Maybe she speaks truth, however, I do have a special place in my heart and life for Peale. When I was an adolescent, I was really struggling with some issues, which I know now were anxiety and depression. My mother did the best she could do . . . so she bought me Peale's book. I read it from cover to cover looking for anything that could help me. He had the reader do exercises such as writing out positive sayings and positive Bible verses on 3 X 5 cards and post them all around your living spaces. I posted them on the inside of my sun-visor of my green Mustang. I was really embarrassed when I had a car-load of cheerleaders with me. One of them reached up and pulled down the visor and there was the cards. They all burst into laughing. I think it was the same trip that one of them found the Andy Williams tape under my back seat . . . another social disaster (so I thought).
Later I even went to Johnson City, Tennessee to listen, in person, the late Dr. Peale.
I do think his directing me towards the Bible (although you can certainly question his feel-good theology) was the very early first step to me becoming a Christian.
But I wonder that maybe Ms Ehrenreich just might be right. You don't have to be an Eeyore to feel uncomfortable in a Christian bookstore (with the wall of plaques of positive sayings, figurines of angels and sweet little churches . . . part of the Thomas Kincaid collection). Can you imagine walking into one of those stores when you were truly distressed (and I did once)? You feel like you are standing at the crossroads. Do I live in reality or do I walk the pretend hunky-dory path of the positive thinking?
I would like to do a study where 100 people walk up to Christian bookstore clerks and say, in tears, "I just found out that I have breast caner" or "I just caught my pastor husband in bed with the church secretary" or . . . you get the point. I think the clerk would be speechless. Some of them, if they have any sense, would give the person a hug, sit and listen or cry with them. However, many might point them to a rack of "Smile for Jesus" books/tapes, figurines or bumper stickers.
I'm looking forward to reading her book for myself.
Posted by MJ at 9:34 AM