The Power of Positive Thinking

It seems like the latest mass delusion is the idea that when you practice positive visualization and believe something good will happen, your wishes will come true thanks to the amazing powers of the human mind.

For the most part, I actually believe that this is true. I don’t believe that any supernatural agency or inexplicable human superpower is at work, but I do think that feeling hope, gratitude and confidence can work what feel like wonders.

I haven’t seen The Secret, but based on what I have read about it in the New York Times, no way am I buying its ideas. I have seen What the Bleep Do We Know, which I found misleading, silly, fraught with shitty science, and fundamentally a recruitment tool for the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. I do believe in the power of thinking good thoughts about myself and my life; I just believe that this power is natural and explicable.

I mean, first of all, in the end what’s the worst-case scenario for most problems we encounter? People, in my opinion, tend to torture themselves with worst-case scenaria that rarely work out as bad as we envision they will. Let’s look at my current worry — the recent loss of my biggest and only regular client due to downsizing. Best-case scenario — I quickly find plenty of lucrative and regular new clients who give me more and better revenue streams than I have ever had before. Worst-case scenario — I must handle a few months of income loss, living on my credit cards and asking friends for help. [Author’s note: problems like this only apply to freelancers who are also COLLEGE STUDENTS and can’t work full time. Please don’t let this issue confuse you as to the lucrative nature of the business.]

Wow, that worst-case scenario is pretty stressful and bad. But it’s not the end of the world, and it would be bearable. Even if it does come to pass, what would better prepare me to deal with it? The idea that I was doomed to struggle for months, or the idea that something good might be just around the corner, and that meanwhile I had friends and allies willing to help me? Hoping for the best has no supernatural power, but it sure does help you to be more energetic and more persistent in pursuit of your goals. Believing that the best outcomes will happen because you command them to with the force of your mind is idiotic and ridiculous. Hoping for the best, understanding that things really and truly often do work out for the best, believing in yourself, and constantly reminding yourself to be grateful for what you do have is a practice so fundamentally healthy that I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

When times are hard, energy and persistence are good. So is a sense of gratitude for what you have, right now, even in the middle of all your problems. For God’s sake, 40% of the world’s 6.5 billion people live in poverty, and about 16% live in extreme poverty (these figures are not pulled out of my ass but are from Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’ book Making Globalization Work, which I’m reading for a class). Do you live like that, on $2 a day? No, you don’t. Like me, I figure you live in a house or apartment, and your food budget, while possibly leaving much to be desired on occasion, is more than enough and in fact includes a fair amount of tasty restaurant meals with your pals. It doesn’t hurt to be glad for the very real privileges of having enough food, shelter and good health. Not everybody gets even these basics.

Something a blogger wrote the other day really got to me. I occasionally read the blog of my distant cousin and former writing mentor, an up-and-coming SF novelist who is really living a world-beater of a life. As a reader of his personal blog I know that he grew up in poverty with a single mom, and that he has earned everything he has purely through talent and hard work; I am well aware he is entitled to every good thing he’s got. I was mildly jealous over him winning the John W. Campbell award, and of the PW starred review for his first novel, but since I don’t plan to write fiction, I am more jealous of the rolling hills of his large rural property, and the beautiful sunsets he photographs from his yard. But I was most jealous of something he wrote recently, about how if he were to die tomorrow, he would want to spend his last night “in love with my family.”

Ah, that one got me. I’m OK with never having children, but I really wish that it could be a choice I made, and not one that was foisted on me by fate without any input from me at all. And I’ll do all right without a life partner, but I was really hoping for someone interesting to hang out with all the time in a very permanent way, as in it would be nice, really, to find some good-hearted nerdy man and like, live in the same house as he does, and have him around to talk to and do things with. The cats are not very good conversationalists, nor are they much on cooking dinner when it’s their turn.

So I was pretty gut-kicked by this blogger’s statement, read in the quiet of my empty home, where I so often feel like the queen of a lonely castle. The big sigh, the sinking chin, the eyes that blink back tears. But then something happened that has never happened to me in quite this way before. A newly growing mind-muscle flexed, and it made me think, Well, you do not yet have a family of your own, but do you have an excellent mother and sister, and some very good friends. Which is quite true.

It might not be all I want, but it also might be all I get, and I had damn well better learn to appreciate it for the priceless gift it is. Must I really be made so miserable by lack that I cannot see the worth in what I do have? And also, my God, most people I know had not even yet made a good marriage (though they sure made some bad ones) by the time they reached my age. Do I believe myself somehow more special than they are, that I deserve good things sooner than they got them? Is my life made worthless by not being married and not having the kids I’m not even sure I want? Does an imperfect part destroy the whole?

Today I had a good breakfast. Coffee and an egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich, with a tasty and flavorful slice of organic tomato. This afternoon I’ll set up my new badminton set, and pet my cats, and knit a sock, and the world is afire with the new green life of an Appalachian spring. I can hear birdsong from where I sit, and the splash of a fountain two dear friends gave me years ago for Christmas. Today I may plant seeds that will grow into tiny purple and yellow flowers, walk with bare feet in wet and tender spring grass, pet a cat who purrs at my touch, think of a dear friend having a Passover seder with her family, maybe even go listen to a free chamber music concert at the college.

Or, I could sit around and kick myself on how I am not married and don’t have kids, over how I am still shaking out my writing career in difficult and frustrating ways. As if those states were permanent even though, for anyone and everyone, the tide could turn tomorrow, for good or ill. For ill or good.

The practice of gratitude and hoping for the best is not a technique that uses the mind’s untapped psychic power to play the strings of fate and bring you millions of dollars, a dream job and the person of your dreams, and anyone who tells you that it is is either deluded or a money-grubbing shyster or a little of both. I know it’s not an easy habit for some to think on good outcomes as well as bad. I’d say it’s taken me close to ten years to get the hang of it myself — and the practice of it was and is made far easier by the healing of family rifts and by the presence of a new group of friends who are slowly showing me what friendship really is. I take these advantages as my due for years of growth and change, and no matter when they arrive or how hard you must work to find them, a loving family and a group of true friends makes life and happiness far, far easier. I suppose I am grateful even and especially for ever learning to be grateful at all.

So that’s my “secret.” That’s what the bleep I know. That in many ways we truly do create our own reality — through the very natural agencies of trying to believe in ourselves and in the possibility of things going our way, in seeking help and believing that we have and deserve help, in trying to cultivate strong ties with deserving friends and loving family, and by reality-checking ourselves with a sense of gratitude for the good things we have — things that are so ridiculously easy to discount and forget! Having a good attitude helps you to be more persistent and energetic when working towards your goals, and it really makes you more fun to be around. Especially when you have to be around yourself. Which is all the time.

It’s not magic, but it is a very sane and practical way to live.

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