What if you always believed in yourself and your power to do good, if you succeeded at everything and never doubted yourself again, if you dispelled the fear of death in the certainty that your spirit would never die?
Sounds great, right?
Come now, you know there can never be such certainty. You may be a devout believer, but that’s different thing from certainty. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have to believe, would you?
The idea of always-on, positive thinking has timeless appeal. It promises to dispel those inescapable fears that we all share: of meaninglessness, futility, failure and death. Anyone who comes up with answers to those four has stitched together the ultimate sales pitch. That should raise a red flag.
Instead, it sells innumerable self-help books, tapes and lectures. Positive thinking is a thriving business. It’s the virtual snake-oil of the twenty-first century. Of course, to dwell in constant negativity is a bad thing, but the only way to dwell entirely in positivity is through an act of denial that, even if you can manage it, can’t possibly last.
What we need far more urgently than positive thinking is critical thinking. It starts with hesitation — a step back or a deep breath. Instead of just gulping down things that feel good or convenient, question your motives. Once you can do that the sales pitch becomes subject to scrutiny. This doesn’t mean you no longer experience positivity, but that when you do it’s grounded and substantial.
When we experience negativity we want it to go away and never come back. We’re sometimes willing to believe anything in an effort to feel better. In our hearts lurks the unwelcome knowledge that it’s not so simple: that’s the seed of critical thinking. In our gut lurks the urge to shut down the unpleasantness and pretend that everything’s just fine.
Fear is part of our DNA. It’s never pleasant, even when it’s healthy. Facing death doesn’t stop the fear of death. Brushing it under the carpet leaves it free to burrow though our subconscious and wreak havoc, but facing it is sobering. It reminds us to cherish each moment, to make life purposeful. It keeps our priorities realistic. Ultimately, it’s what enables us to love.
Positive thinking presents itself as the modern successor to spirituality, the source of ‘true’ happiness. It looks like it and it sounds like it, but it’s a confidence trick. Instead of taking a little time each day to withdraw from the bustle of life, we’re encouraged to put aside fear and negativity and believe in what we crave most from life. It’s the ultimate consumerism: rather than buying mere stuff that will never make us happy, we’re sold timeless truths that never decay and always satisfy.
The flaw of this approach is that our thoughts are not under our control. They arise in patterns that start to form the moment we open our infant eyes and start making neural connections. We learn to think in much the same way as we learn to walk and talk, through repetition and habit. That’s why thoughts seem to have a mind of their own.
And then there are raw emotions. We all experience them. Unrequited love, the blow of a medical diagnosis and the grief of loss populate all human stories. The feelings they trigger take us over, firmly resisting easy solutions. The momentum of emotional patterns overwhelms even the most convincing logic. Even everyday emotions can take us down. Worry and guilt are rarely reasonable, but we go there routinely — usually against our better judgement.
Critical thinking can’t solve our emotional crises, but it can stop us from compounding our confusion and burying our real feelings by believing in impossible promises. By accepting our negativity and fears we come to terms with them. Believing they can be ‘solved’ is just another form of denial.
So when you hear exactly what you’re hoping to hear, just remember that most things presented to us in these days of mass consumption have been skilfully moulded to our deepest wishes. You’d think with ‘spiritual’ solutions that this would be extremely delicate, subtle stuff, but you’d be wrong. Nothing could be easier.
Beware of anyone with unambiguous answers to those questions that humankind has always found unanswerable. They may be sincere, but that doesn’t make them right.