What Happens When a Positive Thinker Confronts Suffering?

What Happens When a Positive Thinker Confronts Suffering? August 3, 2016

poor child
photo by Madi Robson


Why do people suffer?

Why does pain need to be any part of the human experience?

If we are creating our lives with our thoughts, why would we ever let anything bad happen?

I’ve been arguing mentally with a book I read recently, One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz. It’s about the history of positive thinking and how it has become a creed for Americans.

The book is fascinating, and I recommend it. But Horowitz finds a problem with positive thinking. He believes it is stymied in the face of suffering or evil.

I certainly agree that anyone who has been seriously ill or experienced a tragic loss knows there’s more to be handled than simply changing their thoughts. And answering the question why this happened might never be possible.

But here’s my question: Who does have a good explanation for suffering or evil?

The Buddhists might say suffering is a part of life because we are too attached to outcomes.

The Catholics might say suffering is redemptive because it brings us closer to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

We have stories as old as the Garden of Eden that try to explain why life is so hard.

I don’t know anyone who has found the ultimate reason for suffering, including Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, who explored the question in his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Whether we’re positive thinkers or not, we all see inexplicable suffering in the world and sometimes among our families and friends. Human suffering has occurred throughout history, and no one yet seems to have a good explanation for it.



I have my own thoughts about the meaning of suffering, and I believe it is possible to use positive thinking to explain what appears to be tragic.

But first, some quick background:

The idea that the mind has an effect on circumstances is an ancient one, but it flourished starting in the 1800s in New England.

It grew into many branches, including my spiritual path called Unity. Then through the years of Norman Vincent Peale and even Ronald Reagan, positive thinking took hold of the American psyche.

“Metaphysics morphed into mass belief,” Horowitz writes, and it seems to be withstanding scientific scrutiny.

Horowitz writes:

For all its shortcomings, positive thinking has stood up with surprising muscularity in the present era of placebo studies, mind-body therapies, brain-biology research, and, most controversial, the findings of quantum physics experiments. When reported without sensationalism or half-baked understanding, the data emerging from the quantum physics field suggests some vital, not-yet-understood verity about how the mind interplays with the surrounding world.

So Horowitz isn’t arguing against positive thinking or the creative power of our thoughts, aka the Law of Attraction. He simply believes it falls short in addressing life’s worst experiences.

I share his annoyance with people who chirp, “It’s all God, and it’s all good.” Obviously, it’s not all good!

hiding hands

I’ve written during this Year of Terrible Events about how to watch the news without despair, whether to forgive terrorists, how to stay spiritual when the world falls apart, and whether we can face evil without resistance. In other words, being positive doesn’t mean ignoring reality.

Also, I assume Horowitz knows that telling a sick person they created their own problems is considered metaphysical malpractice.

But here’s the thing: We are creating our experiences with our thoughts. We might disagree about the extent to which we have power over circumstances or about our level of awareness in this creative process, but we have centuries of evidence that thoughts make a difference.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” the Buddha said 2,500 years ago.

This idea is not new or New Age.



So if our thoughts have creative power, why would we ever create something bad? What explanation can positive thinkers give when life seems to go terribly wrong?

Here’s what I would say:

First, are you sure it’s bad?

Don’t you know people who say a heart attack or cancer turned out to be their greatest teacher? Or that getting fired was a blessing? We all have examples of unwanted events that shifted our lives into new, more positive directions.

Second, what did you come here to learn?

There must have been a reason you gave up your blissful, non-physical existence to live among these sometimes harsh creatures and forget, for the most part, your true divine identity. Why did you come into human form?

Maybe whatever is happening is exactly what you came to experience.

387324_505561892839583_942623530_nLet’s say your overall life purpose is to learn more about love. Well, love includes loss and grief. It sometimes includes rejection and betrayal. It challenges us with frustration and misunderstandings.

Or let’s say you wanted a chance to integrate your spiritual awareness into a human experience. That means dealing with a physical body, and bodies sometimes break down. Maybe that’s why so many people are able to turn illness into a graduate school for spiritual growth – it’s one of the reasons they came.

Maybe the person who hurts or thwarts you is a loving soul-friend who is perfectly playing a role that requires you to grow, much as a coach harangues a talented player to make him stronger.

Those things we call “bad” could be exactly what we need for our growth and understanding. They could be the brilliant work of a Higher Self orchestrating this lifetime for your highest possible good.

No one knows the extent to which we choose the human lives we are born into, but I believe we come knowing we will have (will attract) opportunities to support our purposes. Even the woes and suffering may be leading us into greater awareness and integration of the spiritual and human.

And if nothing else . . .

Even if life is random, and anything could ambush you around the next corner . . .

Even if your thoughts are powerless against fate . . .

Even then . . .

Every event is an opportunity to grow closer to God.

To turn to the Presence within you.

To draw strength from the universe.

To remember you are a spiritual being with a physical body made of star stuff, and you exist within a cosmos that works in magnificent order.

Somewhere, somehow, the events of our lives make sense.


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