The other day I went to an educational meeting at one of the chambers of commerce I’m a member of. The presenter did a talk on positive thinking. As I listened to him speak and trot out all the usual tropes of positive thinking, I couldn’t help but think about how misleading positive thinking can be, and how it can reinforce the inequality present in society. I say that with a provision nonetheless, which is this: When used properly, positive thinking can be a useful tool in your toolkit. We’ll discuss that later, but let’s consider first the peril of positive thinking and how it applies to magic and Paganism.
Positive thinking shows up in business books, new age books, and yes, even in books on magic. What is positive thinking? It is a form of thinking that shows up in two different ways. It shows up in the law of attraction, which argues that what you think about is what you’ll attract and manifest in your life. For example, if you are poor or obese, according to the law of attraction, it must because you attracted such states of being with your thoughts (we’ll discuss the problems with the law of attraction in more detail below). The other common conception of positive thinking is one where you adopt a positive attitude and thought about any situation and use that positive attitude and thought to get you through it. The concept of positive thinking shows up a lot in our culture, to an extreme that leads to a lack of empathy and non-recognition of others’ circumstances. The following traits illustrate the perils of positive thinking:
The illusion of equality. Positive thinking reinforces the illusion of equality. It argues that each person is equal and faces equal circumstances. This is simply not true. Not every person faces the same circumstances or has the same options available to other people.
Reinforcement of privilege. Positive thinking reinforces privilege because of the illusion of equality. It reinforces privilege by arguing that the only thing stopping a person from succeeding is their own thinking. It does not recognize that a person will encounter different experiences because of their race, sexuality, or class and that those experiences may limit their opportunities. It is not enough to think positively in such situations, especially when such situations will not change by positive thought alone.
Lack of understanding and empathy. Positive thinking leads to a lack of understanding and empathy. When we blame others’ circumstances on failure to think positively, such lack of understanding creates an inability to connect to or empathize with what other people are experiencing. This thinking poisons our ability to connect meaningfully with other people and makes it much harder to enact social justice.Victim-blaming. While it is true that your perception of a situation affects your outlook and experience of that situation, taken to an extreme, as occurs with the law of attraction, what you see is an argument that states you have attracted the experience you are having because of what you’ve thought, and that whatever problems you are having are there because you have attracted them with your thoughts.
Positive thinking can create a solipsistic perspective that causes a person to fall out of touch with the world and the reality that people have experiences that aren’t under their control. It even creates a lack of perspective for the person believing in such thinking, because when that person has bad experiences, they will see those experiences through the lens of the law of attraction, instead of actually seeing the circumstances for what they are. That lack of perspective can cloud a person’s ability to determine how to remedy the situation. Even if a person utilizing positive thinking has some degree of success, the lack of awareness the person may have in regards to the situations other people are experiencing can reinforce the divides and problems our society faces.
It is important that we examine our spiritual practices carefully and make sure that if positive thinking is part of such a practice, it is weighed carefully. The proper perspective on positive thinking allows us to utilize it, but it also keeps us grounded in the realities of life and recognition of the challenges other people face. In my next article, I’ll explore how positive thinking can be used and what we need to remember if we choose to use it as part of our toolkit.