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.


pennyyak said...

When I read Elisa Wall's book, Stolen Innocence (she was FLDS), the answer to all ones problems and questions was a monotonous "be sweet". A mantra of sorts, like thinking positively (perhaps). I have found it helpful to try and excavate something good out of some unfortunate experiences, but I can't say I've been very successful at times. And it has helped me to try and think positively when I was a like an LP with a scratch, repeating a record of gloom over and over to myself.

Bad things happen to us - disastrous things. Again, recalling the testimony of refugees (can't remember which civil war - so many) and their state of mind. "I will continue walking and find my family," which sometimes happened and sometimes didn't. There is a peculiar thought process invested in self-preservation that is wishful. In difficult circumstances - I can hardly blame anyone for engaging in them.

To live life in a self-induced bliss or obliviousness of some sort would seem a contradiction to truth - there have been (and will be) events to which resignation, grief, anger - are appropriate.

I cannot remember a single positive thinking sort of book I've read (no interest). There may be helpful aspects to them - I don't know.

My hope is not that my brain will churn out cheery stuff. Also (I hate to say this) - it sounds boring.

Perhaps there is a more balanced perspective out there.

Your readers are not overly shy about providing such.

MJ said...

There must be some kind of balance in life. I think we have as a society and more precisely a Christian society, a problem of leaning in the direction of only speaking and thinking positively. So this results in us denying a big part of our lives.

For example, I can think of three families in our church who, right now, are hurting over some very serious situations. I only know about these situations through whispers of friends of friends (but not hearsay . . . reliable sources outside our church) but none of these key families can mention a word about their pain to anyone in the church because it is a place of "positive talking."

I've had a habit of trying (but failing) to speak honestly, and when I AM vulnerable . . . I am perceived as "unspiritual," a complainer or in some way making lite of God.

Yes, as you have alluded to, I think there is a place for hope. Where we do keep walking and searching, expecting goodness. Of course the great war has been won once and for all . . . but the battles still hurt and people still suffer.

I've debated in my mind if I should walk up to these families at church and just spill the beans. If I should say, "Hey I know that your son pulled a knife on you and is in jail and you must be dying on the inside. I'm here and I love you and would never judge you or think less of you as a Christian parent." But maybe I'm just too scared. Thinking positively is so much easier.

I think Peale's book is the only one I've read. My mom is hooked on Olsteen and sends me his books all the time. I tried, for her sake, to read one . . . but I just couldn't continue it. She turns 88 tomorrow and anything that brings her comfort, no matter how silly it is, is okay.

Jaimie said...

Maybe you could write those families a card? Sometimes it's not that people don't want to be negative, it's just that they don't know HOW to be... and a card might cut down on the awkwardness, encourage them, open them up a little.

shallowfrozenwater said...

i think that there's a lot of sh*t that happens in every life and it's not very Christian to pretend or lie about it just because we think we have to look on the bright side of life. Jesus didn't tell us that it'd all be sunny days at the beach in fact he told us to expect thunderstorms and rocky ground.
i think i really agree with the premise here and in my experience my deepest relationships are ones where i'm honest about all the sh*t that's happening.

Scott in Boston said...

...all I can think about is the closing crucifixion scene from Monty Python's "Life of Brian" where one of the condemned, hanging there, admonishes Brian on his negative attitude and launches into the song "Always look on the bright side of life" [whistle whistle]...

Scott in Boston said...

Ever since I heard your missions story, Mike, and having experienced my own, I've wished for a compilation book of such true missions stories that would never fall into the "Heroic" category, but should be required reading for overseas candidates...not for instruction on "How NOT to do it," but rather, "this may be how it goes for you" prepare them.

Scott in Boston said...

I had a terrible time writing missions "newsletters" due to the awful perceived pressure of having to report something positive...I wrote my first after a year and a half (a FOUR-PAGER to make up for lost time...and fully formatted) and maybe only one more brief text during the entire five years abroad. I just couldn't write what I expected people wanted to hear--and REALLY couldn't publish what I was REALLY FEELING...part of that was my own fault, but certainly the pressure is there in our culture. (To overcome writer's block, I had the bright idea of recording a "newsletter tape" on my walkman, while strolling around my daily haunts & sharing impressions, but I suspected it sounded too negative, and asked my local girlfriend to screen it for me--she agreed hands down). This "positivity pressure" was confirmed by a comment from one of my indigenous acquaintances, who had spent a year in the states as an au pair with a Christian family, and had seen such missionary newsletters stuck on the fridge...she felt they were unrealistically positive and imagined that must be a difficult expectation to live up to.

Lutestring said...


I've heard that that movie is profane, but now that you tell of this, I almost feel that that is a tribute to true Christianity. (I haven't seen the film.)

On the very disturbing, very thought provoking article -

this really makes me think! It does sound like the woman who wrote this book has some very good things to say, and some hard questions.

I was admonished some time ago, at a crisis in my life (where I was making my own share of mistakes) to stop being negative and melodramatic. This person kept on using the word "negativity." Well, I just got torn apart, so yeah, I'm going to be negative. Give me good admonishment, but let me grieve.

So yes, I do think there is something fake in the whole "Positive thinking" thing. Something very wrong somewhere. But I appreciate your telling the story about Peale. I probably wouldn't relate to him very much, nor would many others - and it's always good to hear good things of those different from us.

I do believe, however, that "Positive thinking" and such are a surreal, even obscene parody on something very good and very different that we need to survive, that is at the core of hope.

I have struggled with depression, spiritual and physical and emotional - all kinds, for a long time now. When I was younger, and understood less about what was happening, I went through an agony and horror that even now I shudder to look back on. I think of Martin Luther talking about a desolation he could not endure for one tenth of an hour.

But one morning, in the time this was going on, I went out to the back yard and I picked a morning glory. I looked at the morning glory, the simple beauty of the petals and I felt a goodness and purity, just a little bit, coming back into my spirit.

It's so easy to say to a suffering person "Go and look at a pretty flower and you will be happy." But the different between this and what came that morning is the difference between a scarecrow and a living person.

MJ said...

Yeah, Scott I know. Regarding Monty, I've forgotten that scene. I do, of course, remember the "Every Sperm is Scared" song from the Meaning of Life. Books, like I mentioned here, Monty Python and other sources, that I would have considered a sacrilege in a previous life, sometimes helps us to see the truth . . . through absurdity.

I think I told you before (regarding newsletters) that I knew a missionary in Egypt. He had to be admitted to a psych ward for severe depression. Afterwords, I asked him, "How are you going to explain your situation in your newsletter?"

He replied, "Are you out of your mind? I couldn't mention anything to my donors about depression or they would drop us like a rock. No I will tell them the usual, Things are tremendous. I am so happy in Jesus and He is blessing us left and right . . . because that's what they want to hear."

Sad. Jesus does bless . . . but we are human and it is too bad that we can't accept each other as we honestly are.

PRS & ALS said...

Such good thoughts from all.

I think we need authenticity between ourselves and God as well as between ourselves and other people. And I think there must be a balance in relationships where each person feels free to share who they really are and what they are really feeling. I've had friends who are so focused on their problems to the exclusion of everyone else's that they drain the energy out of everyone around them. And I'm sure there have been times when I have been that way with other people. We have to be careful that we don't just dump on a person all the time. But I think what may happen is that when we find someone who will listen and who seems to really care, we dump it all out.

It is so unfortunate that the church has become a place where we can only present a happy face. I pray that the church, and I try to be this for people, will become a place where people can be authentic and vulnerable and can walk with people and support them as they are going through difficult times.

Re: the missionary letters: We are longtime friends with a couple who were missionaries for 20 years. They told us things (the negative stuff) that they couldn't tell anyone else. And they swore us to secrecy. I don't think they sent out too many newsletters, but they didn't have to raise funds since their salary was paid by their denomination. Of course they couldn't let the denomination know all of their struggles. Our son and his wife are getting ready to get on a 2 year mission and are having to raise funds. I hope they will find places to be authentic with their struggles. I hope I can be a place of support for them whatever they face.

I have found that if I look long enough and begin to be open with people I find those with whom I can be vulnerable. And they in turn feel they can be open with me. There are those out there who are searching for deep meaningful relationships.

MJ said...


I agree with everything you've said and don't have much more to add.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on Positive Thinking. It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Positive thinking

Mano said...


You've got an extremely wonderful blog. To grow to be a productive individual the standard factor is to have positive thinking. Enjoy Sky Rocketing Achievements with Turbo charged Positive Affirmations... Develop Positive Thinking So It is possible to Eradicate Pressure From the Existence, Enhance Your Self-Confidence and Plan Your self For Lifetime Success!

camilyn said...


You have an incredibly good weblog. Most of the people don't realize what mind power can do to one's achievement Start off directing the awesome power of your mind and subconscious mind to produce the life you want with our Mind Power training process. Get the Free of charge Mp3, E-Course and CD today and begin directing the power of your mind and subconscious mind to develop the life you choose - in 7-simple measures.