Monday, March 29, 2010

Positive Thinking Need Not Be Blind

Last week, I wrote a post postulating that a person's outlook on life is the primary determinant of their experience of life. Recently, Talleyrand wrote a post voicing his opposing opinion. Rather than nitpicking over a few unsupported assertations elsewhere in his post, I'm simply going to focus on his primary contentions with such a mindset. Fundamentally, he objects to the idea that a person's outlook on life determines the quality of their life. His first objection to such a view is that magical thinking, as he calls it, necessarily entails an ignorance or denial of reality. He refers to this way of perceiving events and situations as blind optimism.

While I am a firm believer in positive thinking, I do believe that there is a major danger in ignoring reality or denying unpleasant truths. Blind optimism and blind pessmism are equally deadly. In one case, one blindly believes that nothing can or will go wrong--this unswervingly leads to taking foolish risks and crashing up against unexpected and unanticipated negative consequences. In the other case, one blindly believes that nothing can or will go right--this leads directly to hopelessness, despair and unfounded cynicism. If magical thinking truly is inescapably tied to a blindly optimistic paradigm, then Talleyrand's objection would be the silver bullet that soundly vanquishes such false hope.

However, there is no necessity that one live in denial or ignorance to adopt a positive attitude towards life. It is difficult, though certainly not impossible, to embrace painful events and ruinous situations with both eyes wide open, recognizing the reality of the pain and yet not succumbing to resignation, cynicism or despair. It is blindness to foolishly believe that nothing bad will happen. Yet, it takes bold faith and courage to face suffering with a smile. It takes a transcendent perspective to realize that often trials and suffering are helpful occasions to reveals weaknesses of character and bring greater strength. It takes a lion-hearted individual to be undeterred and undaunted even in the face of torture or death. This precise attitude is one that is repeatedly encouraged by the pages of Scripture and exemplified by the apostles and countless Christian martyrs.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)

I have a recent example from my own life about how positive thinking need not be blind. Last September, my apartment was robbed, and the theives stole over $2500 worth of stuff that I owned. While I could have been bitter about the whole affair, I honestly wasn't especially set back by the occurrence. Objectively, the robbery cost me a lot of money and time, as well as being a major inconvenience. However, in adopting the view advocated by Scripture, I chose to be grateful for what I still had, and to use the incident as a springboard for character-growth. Since my happiness is not rooted in my possessions, I could honestly say, "All things considered, I think the whole robbery might have been a win-win scenario." I penned those words just six days after the robbery. Positive thinking means that one must take in suffering and loss with a broad-angle perspective. When you simply realize that the very worst things that can happen to you aren't that bad, then your soul is free to embrace even the painful parts of life with joy and gratitude. Of course, my example is but a frail and pitiful one compared to someone who has truly suffered.

Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was brutally tortured for his faith, was a shining example of holiness, positive thinking, courage and faith in God. Regarding his time in chains, he writes: "It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners, as it is in captive nations today. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their terms. It was a deal: we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching; they were happy beating us—so everyone was happy." What a bold and fearless statement that is! If you but read a fraction of the stories of his imprisonment and torture under the Romanian Communist regime, you will see how much he suffered, and how he consciously and willingly suffered it all. Richard Wurmbrand undeniably demonstrated positive thinking and an incredible faith in God, yet never was he in denial of the very real persecution that he endured.

To believe that everything will turn out well, one must have a clear criteria for what it means for things to turn out well. If, for everything to be good, one must continually be blessed with material wealth, bodily health and a lifestyle of comfort, then denial of reality or discontentment is certain to result. However, if one adopts a posture of humility and gratefulness, then even with nothing but dry herbs and tattered rags there can be near infinite joy. If one's affections are fixed upon the pleasures the world offers, then happiness will ever be elusive. However, if one follows Jesus' advice to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal," (Matthew 6:19) then it does not matter how little or much one has, how wealthy or poor one is, how blessed or how tortured one is. When Christ is your surpassing treasure, the promise of God given to us by Paul will never fail, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28)

The real question that must be asked is, "What is your foundation for happiness?" If your joy rests on that which is transitory and temporal, then your emotional state will be as chaotic as the situations and circumstances of your life. Trying to put on a smiley face with such a foundation necessitates a blind ignorance or a willful denial of that which is unpleasant. However, with a transcendent perspective that welcomes trials and suffering as opportunities for character growth, no such blindness is needed. When one values spiritual freedom, integrity, patience and perseverence more than happiness, then even disastrous incidents and cataclysmic events cannot effectively dampen one's joy. Emotional security and freedom come through valuing that which is most valuable and most intransitory. Cynical resignation, emotional numbness and denial of reality are all equally unhealthy ways to try to maintain emotional equilibrium. Only those who accept and embrace life as it is, with all its pleasures and pains, with all its ecstasy and agony, are able to maintain a consistently positive perspective while remaining fully conscious of all that is.

Therefore, while I agree with Talleyrand that blind optimism is a deadly perspective, to be avoided at all costs, I also would like to point out that blind pessism is equally deadly, since it paints the entire world as darker and more soul-crushing than it truly is. I have to wonder whether his lack of recognition that a positive perspective need not be mere blind optimism is simply a mental oversight, or whether it illustrates a blind pessism and a lack of emotional security. To deny the darkness of life or to deny the goodness in life are both forms of willful blindness. A balanced individual will always recognize and accept the good and bad in everything. A spiritually mature person is able to fully feel and experience both pain and pleasure without becoming numb to either and without becoming either overly cynical or adopting a false facade of happiness.


  1. I'm an eternal optimist, as well.

    It's really the only way to be truly happy or experience joy in life. I've suffered more than most, I think, both at my own hand and from external forces, but that hasn't made me at all bitter. I've learned a lot, though, so I feel like it has all been to my benefit.

    Who was it who said that his greatest victory over the Nazis was surviving a concentration camp without forgetting how to laugh.

  2. Positive thinking is very misunderstood. People seem to think of it as a kind of willful ignorance of reality, like a woman trying to hypnotize herself into believing she's skinny when she's obese.

    It's more of a vibration sort of thing: notice that you'll never "be on a roll" or "in the zone" when you're depressed. When you're happy, your performance in every area will go up. That's what it's all about.

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