Sunday, February 26, 2012


Sailboat by Natalya Goncharova
by Mikhail Lermontov, 1832-1834  
translated from the Russian by Alfia Wallace, 2011
The lonely sail whitely widens
in the fog of the deep blue sea!
What is it seeking in a land so distant?
What has it left in its native city?..
The waves are playful, the wind it whistles,
The mast it bends and bends and squeaks..
Alas, it seeks not joy, nor fortune
Nor from joy and chance retreats. 
Above it shines a sun so golden,
The brightest lapis streams beneath,
And he, a rebel, invites the tempest,
As if in storms he will find peace.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee 
by Rembrandt van Rijn 1633
Белеет парус одинокий
В тумане моря голубом!
Что ищет он в стране далекой?
Что кинул он в краю родном?..
Играют волны - ветер свищет,
И мачта гнется и скрипит...
Увы, - он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит!
Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой...
А он, мятежный,
просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


"How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America"
by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009)

Right makes might.  This could be the motto of the positive thinking movement, whose history and impact Barbara Ehrenreich examines in Brightsided.   If we are convinced that all is right with the world, with ourselves, that we contain a divine spark which renders us potentially omnipotent, well, what road is not open to us, what great achievement unattainable?  What banal, self-serving desire, what exploitative scheme, what atrocity is not justified with impunity?  What don't we have a right to attain?

Like in The Giver, one considers the removal of human suffering to be for the putative greater good, and like in The Giver, we see that this impulse can and is taken way too far by some people, and movements.  As a transplanted New Yawka who has felt both tremendous relief at no longer being surrounded by jaded, hostile crowds every day, and some Californian pressure to appear chirpier than I really am, I can see both sides of the picture.  Being negative in the face of adversity is only useful up to the point that it helps you cope with or solve the problem.  Being positive or negative is not what necessarily determines the outcome of a problem though, and that's where the Brightsiders tend to miss the point.

Barbara Ehrenreich became especially pissed off when she was being treated for breast cancer and found that many "support groups" insisted that participants only express hope and "positive" thoughts.  Anger and indignation were not acceptable, and bogus studies were bandied about which purported to link positive attitude with positive medical outcomes.  When Ehrenreich pointed out that people were dying who had tried having a positive attitude and others survived while being grumpy and angry, she was told she was a downer and banned from the group.

The early history of "New Thought"/"right thinking" movements in the United States is full of well-meaning people trying to improve their lives and the lives of others.  Christian Science developed in large part as a response to an unregulated domestic drug policy which allowed the marketing of all manner of drugs and even poisons as medicines.  The self-actualization ideologies of the Unity movement and Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking were responses to the dour message of self-abnegating Calvinist Protestantism, an ideology which no longer served a world in which the possibilities for humanity seemed to be expanding along with the industrial revolution and improved human rights. The common idea in New Thought was that individuals are the masters of their destinies, that God wants us all to be happy and prosperous, and to attain this, we just have to reach out and grab it.  We have to be the positive change, reflect it, project it, be it. Sounds good to me.. up to a point.

Positive thinking becomes pathological when it leads to delusional, irresponsible behaviors, such as fiscal policies based on what people would like to happen, rather than what would logically happen as a result of one's actions.  Pyramid schemes, real estate bubbles, going into massive debt to finance an untenable dream that's been sold you by positive-think hucksters - we have seen the disastrous effects of the dark side of positive thinking this past decade and Ehrenreich gives plenty of convincing examples of positive thinking in the service of greed.  That said, it is unfair to characterize positive thinking as being responsible for the downfall of America, as suggested in the title of Ehrenreich's book. Positive thinking while struggling for progress against the odds, has helped Americans to attain great things. Consider the successes of struggling immigrants, the  Horatio Alger stories, single moms who manage to start businesses or send kids to college, and anyone with an idea and the passion and energy to make it happen.

Despite Ehrenreich's misgivings, and the potential for abuse in any ideology which demands absolute adherence, there's a lot to like in the positive thinking philosophy.  Fatalism is a drag, it is regressive, and I would generally rather deal with an honest, can-do optimist than with someone who is a defeatist downer. On the other side of the cookie, wish therapy's no good unless you're going to be methodical and work hard to make your wishes come true.  Also, just because you want something, doesn't make it right.  Whether you are entitled to it, have a right to it, is a whole other question which some "positive thinkers" might do well to consider.