The (Dis)Empowerment of Positive Thinking

A lot of people I love and admire believe in positive thinking. I’m polite about it. I smile, nod and express appreciation for the good intention behind the platitudes. But I’m not a fan of the positive thinking philosophy.

The theory behind positive thinking, or PT for short, is that our thoughts have an incredible ability to influence ourselves and the world around us. This is true to some degree. Human thought has transformed our planet and species. It is a marvel of the universe. However, quite a few proponents of PT seem to think every thought has an equal ability to influence, including stray thoughts. I have a problem with this.

For one thing, it’s easy to disprove. Quite frankly if every thought I had was equally able to influence the world then quite a few people would have died in a fire by now. I’m not a violent person, but that doesn’t mean that in a pique I haven’t had a thought to wish someone harm. All of us do that. There’s no denying it. At some point in our lives we have all had an encounter with someone where we wished the other person would just drop dead. And of course they never do.

The other problem with this is the profound connection between depression, melancholia and creativity. Innovation doesn’t come from people who always think positively. No, it comes from people who are certain that something is wrong, who have a dim view of things and therefore rise to the challenge of making things better. You don’t fix what ain’t broke. Positive thinking focuses on what works. Negative thinking searches out the problems, analyzes them and tries to fix them. And there’s always a problem. Always an improvement to be made.

Aside from the connection between creativity and mental funk, there’s also the element of victim blaming that such a philosophy spawns. Controlling your thoughts is the most difficult thing a person can do. People struggle to be able to do it for short periods of time in zen meditation, but no one can have an iron grip on their mind 24/7. If nothing else, your dreams will spew forth what you repress. Expressing a negative thought, or thinking something negative does not mean the sky will fall on your head. And getting a flat on the freeway isn’t because you didn’t have positive thoughts regarding your journey.

For someone who suffers from depression, perserverative thought and speech patterns, or other mental disorders, the whole concept of positive thinking is kin to telling them to sprout wings and fly. Negative thinking is not a “bad habit” for some people, or something they can control with simple willpower.

Magic is something I practice and believe in. I know the mind has incredible abilities to affect change in ourselves and our environment in various ways. But that change is most often intentional, directed and requires work, physically and mentally. A stray thought, a bubbling up of worry, a moment of doubt or a passing hate isn’t likely to destroy your life. While stories about lives turning on a dime and a single word or thought changing the world makes for great entertainment, far more often it’s diligent work day after day, year after year, that effects change.

If you’re worried that your thinking is too negative, cultivate an intentional positive habit, such as expressing gratitude daily. Then let your negativity exist without fixating on it. Just let it be. It’s an important part of you, and a crucial part of humanity. It’s the part of us that sends intricate and sophisticated scientific equipment to Mars because we doubt the Earth will always be able to support us. It’s the part of us that calls the cops because we think that guy with the crowbar looks shady. It’s the part of us that innovated metalsmithing because if we had to nap one more arrowhead out of flint we were going to freaking kill someone.

And if any of what I’ve just written made you pump your fist in the air out of glee, make sure you check out Against Happiness by Eric Wilson.

I must not worry about being negative.
Worrying about stupid crap is the mind-killer.
Blaming my problems on stray bad thoughts is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my negativity.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the negativity has gone there will be nothing.

Only I in all my glorious humanity will remain.

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