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The Farce of Positive Thinking

Western culture is obsessed with notions of good and bad, negative thinking and positive thinking, winning and losing. For us this is what it’s all about! We never seem to tire of saying how important it is to be positive rather than negative. We are exhorted on all sides to think positively and have no time for the negative.  There is a type of heady intoxication that goes with this – a type of fervour that doesn’t actually make a hell of a lot of sense when we look into it. An example of this is the slick motivational speaker so beloved of the corporate world who tells us that we can achieve anything we put our minds to and then charges us handsomely for imparting this valuable information. Contemplating the possibility of failure is simply not allowed and the more fervently we deny this possibility the more elated (the more intoxicated) we get as a result! The elation of ‘asserting the positive’ is like the sweetest honey to us.

 

 

What a great and heroic thing it is – our goal-orientated culture would have us believe – to see failure as ‘not being an option’. And the flip-side of this is of course that if we find ourselves suspecting that we are not going to be able to get it to work (that we aren’t going to be able to attain our goals) then the elation turns to the blackest despair. This ‘negative’ attitude – when we come across it in others – becomes something to be feared, something to be condemned, something to be shunned. It becomes something to be warded off at any cost. Negative thinking is synonymous with abject moral failure – it is a sign of weakness, a sign that we’re just not trying hard enough. We have to pull our socks up and stop making such a fuss. Failure is after all something that we can’t accept. The fault is seen as being ours for ‘letting the side down’ – nobody wants to know if we can’t do it. Failure is synonymous with shame and blame. The failure has ‘negative kudos’. We cannot bring ourselves to look him in the eye. We avoid him in the street…

 

 

On another level – the level of regular work-a-day folk rather than the jargon-talking suit-wearing corporate types – it could be said that we are consumed with a fascination of ‘good luck versus bad luck’. This is the traditional fascination of mankind across the world, throughout the ages, irrespective of culture. This fascination is like gambling – it’s common to all mankind. The desirability of attracting of this thing we call ‘good luck’ is like a magnet to us – our thoughts keep coming back to it. Good luck is the thing we keep holding out for. But the thing about the ‘obsession with the positive’ – in whichever form it takes – is that it is entirely absurd, entirely nonsensical. It is transparently absurd, transparently nonsensical.  The wonder is though that we just don’t see it!

 

 

If I am preoccupied with the need to see things in a positive light the whole time, obsessed with the need to be a ‘positive person’ rather than a negative one, the need to be lucky rather than unlucky, what does this say about me? What exactly is going on here with this obsession? What am I at?

 

 

When I say that something is good or bad, positive or negative, I am making a judgment. It’s all about what I think. It’s all about me, in other words. I am saying that it is good or bad, positive or negative. What I really mean therefore is that it is “good or bad according to the way I am choosing to look at it”. “Good and bad” don’t exist in the world independently of me after of me after all, even though my thinking very much leads me to believe that they do. They exist in relation to me. When I say that something is “good” (or “bad”) I mean that it is “good” (or “bad”) according to me. It’s me I’m talking about here, nothing else.

 

 

My evaluations of <positive> and <negative> are my way of bring myself into the picture, in other words. I bring myself into the picture i.e. I make everything about me) but I do not in any way acknowledge that this is what I am doing. I project my own viewpoint, my own value system onto the world but I don’t admit for a second that this is what I am doing. I’m oblivious to the fact that this is what I am doing. I say that things are “good” or “bad” without any reference to me, without any reference to my own framework of reference. I use the words as if they are absolutes, as if they have actual existence out there in the world at large.

 

 

What I am doing with my judgements of good and bad is that I am personalizing the world without admitting that I am doing so. I am making everything ‘all about me’ without admitting that I am. I am imposing my own self-centred framework on the world as if nothing else matters, as if nothing else exists. To me, nothing else does matter, nothing else does exist! This is what it means to be continually obsessed about “good” and “bad”, “positive” and “negative”. This is what it means to be continually harping on about this wretched thing called ‘positive thinking’ – I am harping on about myself without admitting that I am harping on about myself. I’m making out the whole time that I am harping on about something outside of myself…

 

 

We can also look at this in terms of projections. “Good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “desirable” and “undesirable”, “negative” and “positive” are all my own projections. All evaluations, all judgements (without exception) are of course my own projections – they belong to me. So what I’m doing when I evaluate everything in sight is that I am enthusiastically populating the world with my own projections whilst at the same time being a very long way indeed from recognizing them as my own projections! When I spend all of my time in a world made up of my own unrecognized projections then this means that I am asleep. It means that I’m unconscious. I’m stuck in a solipsistic, self-referential loop that goes around and around and around in a perfectly sterile fashion. I’m not ‘in reality’ at all – I’m existing only as a figment of my own imagination!

 

 

Jung points out that when I don’t see that what I am relating to (or rather reacting helplessly to) are my own projections then this effectively isolates me. I’m playing a solitary game that I don’t see to be a solitary game. As Heraclitus says,

 

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.

 

The sleeper withdraws to a private world of his own, as if in aversion to reality. He or she is lost in a private (and therefore sterile) dream that is not known by the dreamer to be a dream. When we enthuse endlessly (and tiresomely) about the virtues of thinking positively rather than negatively what we are really enthusing about is the virtue of remaining asleep, the virtue of remaining profoundly unconscious, the virtue of being lost in a private world. We can’t get enough of it! We don’t know what we’re doing and we don’t want to know! We’re hanging up the ‘Do not disturb’ sign around our necks big time!

 

 

Our obsession with good and bad is our obsession with ourselves. It is, after all, as we have said, only what is ‘good or bad with regard to me’. If I am preoccupied with notions of good luck and bad luck and am continually trying to chase after the former and avoid the latter then this simply indicates that I am preoccupied with myself. If I am always talking about the importance of being a winner rather than a loser, a success rather than a failure, then what this clearly shows is that I am totally absorbed in ‘the game of the self’. Everything is orientated towards the self – the self is the only things that matters, the self is the only thing that exists…

 

 

When we state matters as baldly as this then naturally it doesn’t sound very good. It doesn’t sound in any way as heroic as we make it out to be. That’s why we don’t state matters as baldly as this! Not ever, not under any circumstances. It would after all be severely deflating for me to see things as clearly as this – it would take all the fun out of it. It would spoil the game. So what we do instead of saying how great we are is to say how great our goals are and how important it is that we should realize them. We enthuse about how commendable it is to always believe that we can achieve what we set out to achieve. We salute the flag of ‘positive thinking’ on a daily basis. We sing the national anthem at the top of our voices…

 

 

If we are superficial enough (dumb enough, really) then this sort of thing truly does sound good to us. We feel that we deserve a medal for having such a marvelously positive attitude. It looks great to us in the same way that fervent flag-saluting looks good to a red-blooded All-American patriot! We are proudly asserting our right to strive for our cherished goals, for our right to believe that nothing can stop us attaining them, and for our right to believe that they are every bit as meaningful as we ridiculously claim them to be!

 

 

All this positivity on the outside (the way we so fervently assert that we can and will succeed) shouts a different message entirely for anyone with ears to hear (for anyone who isn’t totally asleep, that is). What we’re talking about here is a very basic psychological insight – it’s like a religious fanatic who goes around screaming that his way is the only right way. What else is this showing us other than the fact that he himself does not believe a single world that he is saying? The fanatic is motivated by his own profound lack of faith in whatever he is so vigorously espousing – deep-down he knows very well that what he is shouting so loudly is a lie, and this denied knowledge only goes to make him shout all the louder. What a truly farcical situation this is!

 

 

The positive thinker, the goal-setter, the success-chaser is in exactly the same boat as the religious fanatic. When we are super-enthusiastic about thinking positively, achieving our goals, achieving success, and all this sort of stuff then this is – we have said – all about promoting the self, aggrandizing the self, glorifying the self. The self is our god. We salute it every day. But what all this fervent self-promotion clearly shows is that – underneath all this noisy bluster – we don’t believe in this self at all!  

 

 

We’re all about glorifying the self but this is not because we have any actual faith in it. Quite the reverse is true – we’re glorifying the self as much as we are because deep down we know that it doesn’t exist…

Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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