Psychology – I Still Find Peale Appalling – 20 February 2013

I’d like to remind people what a crock positive thinking is.

Did that get your attention? I imagine it did for some of you, because the internet – and particularly social media like Facebook – is a haven for positive thinkers. All you have to do is say something positive, no matter how vapid, and a legion of fellow positive and heedlessly optimistic individuals click “Like”. If people have a problem with it, it’s because they’re negative. If the positive thinking is religious in nature, then they’re also heathens. Either way, if people turn them the cold shoulder for doubting the eternal value of this happy, chirpy up-with-people stuff, they had it coming.

A master of this kind of stuff was the religious self-helper Norman Vincent Peale. His book “The Power Of Positive Thinking” was required reading in the 1950s for those who wanted to stay positive and optimistic, and morally hector mercilessly anyone else who wasn’t.

Some of the comments made by critics of Peale, which are mentioned in passing on this Wikipedia page, are priceless. The one I like best is this comment from Donald Meyer: “The mastery Peale speaks of is not the mastery of skills or tasks, but the mastery of fleeing and avoiding one’s own ‘negative thoughts.'”

That’s an excellent way of putting it. I’d also add that Peale was a master of fleeing and avoiding the kind of negative realities that generate negative thoughts. Here’s another comment about Peale, this time from psychiatrist R. C. Murphy, who evidently also thought that was true about his writings: “With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning.”

Hmm. By now, I imagine some of you out there are going “Oh my goodness, who is being such a grumpy Gus? Turn that frown upside down, Mister!” But, of course, he’s right on the money. If we think about the meaning of this attitude, it _is_ unpleasant. When bad things happen to good people, the follower of Mr. Peale prefers to think about nice things. So that’s one person who won’t be pitching in to fix the problem. “Problem? _What_ problem?”

R. C. Murphy’s quote goes on, essentially making the argument that Peale’s ideas are nothing more than sticking his fingers in his ears so he can’t hear anything bad: “It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it. By doing so he affirms the evil to be absolute, he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it … The belief in pure evil, an area of experience beyond the possibility of help or redemption, is automatically a summons to action: ‘evil’ means ‘that which must be attacked … ‘ Between races for instance, this belief leads to prejudice. In child-rearing it drives parents into trying to obliterate rather than trying to nurture one or another area of the child’s emerging personality … In international relationships it leads to war. As soon as a religious authority endorses our capacity for hatred, either by refusing to recognize unpleasantness in the style of Mr Peale or in the more classical style of setting up a nice comfortable Satan to hate, it lulls our struggles for growth to a standstill … Thus Mr Peale’s book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth.”

I couldn’t agree more…and there’s a part of this I think especially hits the nail on the head. The premise of Peale’s let’s-not-be-negative crusade was, essentially, the assumption of boundless human depravity at the core of the Calvinist religion he practiced. People who look at the world differently than you are not just people with different ideas – they are moral strangers to be excommunicated. (Banishing the heathen was a sort of specialty for Peale, who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960 explicitly rejecting John Kennedy because he was Catholic.)

Probably a better way of explaining what I mean by that is to consider for a moment how even the mildest of our “positive thinking” junkies react to those who are, as I am, comfortable with the occasional negative thought. Is there the slightest concession made by these individuals that there could be anything _they_ could learn from the glass-is-half-empty set? Not at all. A pessimist is at best someone who’s always bringing everyone else down, and at worst is someone who psychically sucks the life out of you and is best avoided by right-thinking people.

By contrast, I think there _is_ something to be learned from the positive-thinking crowd…I just don’t want to go overboard and turn into the not-so-good Reverend Peale.

I have actually been, in recent years, far more self-motivating than ever used to be the case. Part of the reason for that is that I have adopted a modified form of the positive thinking oath. I say to myself “I’m going to get up and try, because even if there is no possibility for me to succeed, failure is so onerous that I simply would prefer to live with unrealistic expectations than accept what otherwise will happen without my attempting to fight it.”

That has actually proved a pretty useful way to live my life – I would even recommend that attitude to the general public. But my version of “positive thinking” doesn’t require me to pretend that horrible stuff is not going down all around me. The price of my well-being doesn’t have to be selling everyone else out.

It doesn’t have to be yours, either.

Look, I get it – you want to believe in yourself. Who doesn’t? I certainly do. But even “positive thoughts” should be exercised in moderation, or they lose their potency to motivate us.

I don’t begrudge you your Daily Affirmations. But there’s a big wide ugly world out there. It doesn’t really help to ignore it.

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