Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking on the Bright Side

An author I love, Barbara Ehrenreich, was on The Daily Show last week, talking about her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but based on the interview and a few preview articles Ehrenreich put out while writing it, I think the narrative goes something like this:

Ehrenreich got breast cancer, and went to some online support/info groups. From those groups, especially, she received messages that encouraged her to "think positive" about the disease. Some, it seems, also suggested that she was somehow responsible for the cancer, maybe because of actions or--and here's where she's pretty upset--because of her thoughts. There are lots of people out there, Ehrenreich says, who believe you can control the world with their thinking. They even think they can draw wealth to themselves.

Maybe even...sewing machines.

It was an odd experience watching her talk about all of this. On the one hand, I think, yeah, no shit. In some ways, the popularization of the New Thought movement in the form of books like The Secret or The Law of Attraction have had some problematic effects. They can strip the spiritual, the divinity, from New Thought tenets and become overly focused on material gathering and consumption.

On the other hand, every spiritual movement has folks who stay on the surface of things. Every movement has folks who say things that might bother someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and shouldn't have to deal with anything remotely Pollyanna-ish or facile or condescending, and who can blame that person, because really, who the fuck needs it? Every spiritual movement has folks who might even blame someone--or that person's sin, or diet, or geographical location, or emotions--for a disease they get. All of this might feel pretty annoying. Grating. Symptomatic of some hideous cultural malaise.

The problem is, I don't really recognize my faith in Ehrenreich's description of "positive thinking." It seems to me she's cherry picking, though I'm aware the same could be said of me, since I haven't read the book.

My faith, a New Thought faith, has the divine at the center. Yes, many of us refer to it as the "universe," simply because we have weird associations with the word "God" (and, in my case, even with the word "church"). But the divine spirit is still at the center of it, no question. Because we emerge from divine spirit, are one with it, many of us do believe that the way we move through the world is determined by our thoughts, creative manifestations of the divine. I don't think I can bring breast cancer upon myself, but I do believe that if I get it or any other disease, I do have some choice about how I react to it. For me, this realization (that I'm not a victim of circumstance but have agency) was hugely revelatory and liberating. And I owe that to New Thought.

I know there are quacks out there. I know you can pull quotes that make me and my spirit-traveling peeps looks like nutjobs. And some of us are. But I'm very clear on the fact that the spiritual world I move in is not all about happy-happy and smiley-faces. It's deeply human, flawed, and tragic; it's also beautiful, and full of grace and freedom and choice, regardless.

Ehrenreich says, at one point in the interview, that she came out of breast cancer "much nastier" than she went in. I love this about her--her feistiness, her rawness, her relentless desire to call things as she sees them. I don't expect her to come out of breast cancer any differently than she wants to. But I do think it's possible she's choosing that nastiness, and that others may choose other responses.

Happiness and positive thinking undermining America? Jeez, I doubt it. If you have twenty minutes, and want to spend them on a raw, wicked, gorgeous, funny story, please, please go here. Because there's the America I identify with, and love, and the role that seeking out happiness and choosing peace can play in saving our asses every minute of our lives.

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