On Positivity

“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters.  One represents  danger and the other opportunity.”         —John F. Kennedy

“When the world is running down, Make the best of what’s still around”       —Sting (Gordon Sumner)

“Outlook determines outcome”       —Warren W. Wiersbe

This post needed to wait until I finished reading a book my grandson Gavin gave me for Christmas, You Can’t Afford a Negative Thought.  He had read it first himself, so it came with his recommendation, saying that it changed his outlook on life.  I was happy not only for that but for his discovery, like mine years ago, that a personal philosophy is a great tool in navigating life.  Plus, it never hurts to have another philosopher in the family, so all is good.   It adds to the extensive literature of books on positive thinking, dating back to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which my mother (similarly) read and then gave to me, and others I will discuss in this post.

To set the scene, I will ask some questions.  Is there such a thing as positivity, and, if there is, how does it operate?  May we trust in it?  Does it achieve results?  How may we apply its values in a practical way?  Do you consider yourself a positive person?  Why?   There, that will get us started.

Are we just whistling in a graveyard or is there something to it here?  One thing for sure: positivity, as can be demonstrated by its results, is more than just wishful thinking.  The basis of positivity is a focus upon a beneficial outcome for present and future action.  It is realistic, not imaginary.  It seeks to salvage whatever good may be obtained from the events of present and past, both positive and negative.  Finally, it seeks to possess a positive attitude in the environment of the present to optimize the possibility of reaping good results.  It validates Warren Wiersbe’s quotation which opened this post.  It produces real “fruit”, for as Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” 

Positivity is a recurring topic in many applied psychology, or “self-help” books, but it is much older than that.  It is expressed in the Dayeynu, the ancient Jewish prayer used during the Seder, or Passover meal.  Its meaning is, “for that alone we should have been grateful”: “If God had brought us out of Egypt,  But had not split the sea for us, Dayeynu.  If God had given us the Shabbat,  But had not brought us to Mount Sinai, Dayeynu. If God had given us the Torah, But had not brought us into Eretz Yisrael, Dayeynu. If God had brought us into Eretz Yisrael,  But had not built the holy Temple, Dayeynu.”

Positivity builds a bridge over circumstance and may well mark the difference between success and failure.  Even in times of struggle, the discipline of positivity is a blessing, for in it we remain attached to the emotional core through the desire of a transcendent purpose.  The ability of the “heart” to rise above circumstances is a subject of wonder for me.  This may not be passed off as wishful thinking—it is an innate part of human nature.

Positivity is a dynamic mechanism which requires constant awareness of changeability.  Just as geologic forces never reach stasis (though rocks appear to exist in an unchanged state), conscious reality is in a constant process of change as well.  At times we may perceive a sameness, but it is never truly so.  Our self-image should not be drawn from where we are, but by asking Quo vadis? (Where are you going?)  The overweight person decides to wisely choose food and to supplement eating with exercise to reach and maintain his or her desired weight.  The lazy and disorganized person becomes motivated to organize and direct attention toward achievement.  The intellectual who becomes dissatisfied with spiritual dryness may replace this with immersion into moods of mysticism (including the mysticism of nature).  All life is movement, and should move forward in a positive direction.

It should be remembered that positives are never permanent, but neither are negatives.  One can change to the other, and can change back again.  This means that the present reality is not the final one.  If you find yourself drifting to the negative side, the aim is to not be drawn down by fear, rejection, failure, depression, and a host of other negative forces, but, rather, to leave these behind as new, positive, elements of value are sought and acquired.  In the season of football during which this post is being written, this method of dynamic, active choice calls to mind the successful quarterback looking to connect a touchdown pass amid a changing field of offensive and defensive action.  The game of life is like that.  It involves a similar strategy of willingness to change and adapt.  In Hindu mythology Shiva is the destroyer. Vishnu is the preserver and protector of the universe.  Each one completes the other’s existence.  Both are necessary.  And so it is with the dynamic process of our lives.

The power of organization—re-thinking, re-planning, and re-stating objectives—is a key to directing our life path to achieve optimal life results.  No matter how strong our resolve, plans may become impacted by the crush of circumstances and require a restructuring of effort.  This is a cue to re-imagine.  New pathways may be revealed.  Adjustments may be made for difficulties which may be resolved by using new methods, and, by doing this, momentum is gained.  Momentum is an important factor, the feeling that you are moving forward, that you are reducing resistance, that you are accomplishing something.

Sooner or later, all of us are haunted by failure to reach a goal, something lost, an opportunity either wasted or denied, perhaps a debilitating accident or illness.  An insurmountable void may be felt, especially in the first few hours or days.  The passage of time has a healing power.  A further antidote is our internal ability to adjust, re-direct, and self-motivate.  The strength to get up and once more to content is gained.  Rough edges become smooth.  Resources are found and gathered.  Mental/emotional/spiritual/physical integration takes place.  Though we may move in a different direction than the one we originally intended, we are once again moving.  The message here is that life is full of the gains to come if we refuse to be chained to the pain of the past.

Positivity has what may be called a winnowing effect.  Religious imagery commonly addresses the subject of separating elements of value from those have little or no value.  Biblical images of  the wheat and the chaff, the best wine and the merely good wine, the sheep and the goats come to mind.  Our orientation toward affirmative value is the operating factor here.  Our response to life is given a much more positive turn if value may be sought, even from situations involving negativity and pain.  As with all recovery from negativity, this process may be a slow one, as our  memories and emotional reactions may continue to haunt us, but these may also lessen over time.  They may be supplanted by the precious and the beautiful, the experience of healing, and an orientation to possibility.  It may even be possible to obliterate useful or harmful parts of life, as Maurice Nicoll says in his book Living Time, by growing into them.

There is a relationship between positivity and Thanksgiving.  Henry Thoreau writes, “I am grateful for what I am and have.  My thanksgiving is perpetual.  It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.  My breath is sweet to me.  O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches.  No run on my bank can drain it, for wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

I will now mention three important works which shed their light on this subject.  First is Norman Vincent Peale’s classic, The Power of Positive Thinking [Prentice Hall, 1952].  Described as a “simple, workable philosophy of living”, it covers believing in oneself, receiving the power which can be generated by a peaceful mind, creating a harmonious flow of constant energy, creating one’s own happiness, breaking the worry habit, solving personal problems, solving certain health problems linked to emotions, expecting the best and getting it, and more, all made possible through faith in oneself and in a good outcome.  This dynamic and readable book, while dismissed by some, has (evidenced by its fruits) revitalized the lives of millions and has proven the worth of its ideas.  Yet even good ideas may be misused.  Subsequent writers and speakers have twisted its humble, hopeful ideals of a well-lived life into what can be called “the Gospel of Success”, with an inordinate emphasis on one’s own achievement and enrichment, often with no regard for the exploitation of others.  The danger of a misapplied philosophy are always present, and this is one of them.

In a book reaped from the tragedy of the Holocaust comes Victor E. Frankl’s testament of perseverance, Man’s Search for Meaning [English edition, Beacon Press, 1959] which the Los Angeles Times has called “the most important contribution to psychiatry since the writings of Freud”.  The crystallization of his theories in the crucible of war, death, and destruction has a name, Logotherapy, also known as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, following those of Freud and Adler.  This moving document is a testimony of Frankl’s personal suffering in the death camps, reaping the lasting value of meaning in the face of meaninglessness and death.  Out of apparently endless suffering come strategies to preserve the remnants of one’s life, even though there is little chance of survival.  Guarded images of love ones, religion, humor, and the beauties of nature survive and make one’s degradation tolerable.  In order to survive, however, the existential task is to find meaning in the suffering.  And this meaning is individual, for no one can tell another what this purpose is.  He writes, “Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes.  If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.”  Frankl describes clinging to the image of his wife, not knowing if she were alive or dead, but realizing that love goes beyond the physical person, “finding its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self”.  He states, surprisingly, “Whether she was alive at all ceased somehow to be of importance.”  Such was the power of his apprehension of meaning.

The whole structure of Frankl’s inner life was changed.  It could be described by the Latin word finis, which has two meanings, one “the end” or “the finish”, and the other, “a goal to reach”.  The person who cannot live beyond his or her “provisional existence” ceases to live for the future, and thus is not able to reach this ultimate goal of meaning.  Using this method, Frankl was somehow able to rise above his present circumstances.  He observed them “as if they were already of the past”.  In a telling statistic, the death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944 and New Years, 1945 increased dramatically.  Why?  According to the chief doctor at the camp, it did not lie in decreased food supplies, harder working conditions, bad weather, or a new epidemic.  It was simply because the majority of the prisoners held the naïve hope that they would be home by Christmas.  After that date, their powers of resistance declined and many died.  One prisoner had a dream that for him the war would be over (in other words, that he would be released) on March 31.  On that day he became delirious, lost consciousness, and died.  This shows how “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect”.

What conclusions can we draw from this harrowing account of suffering?  Out of the wreckage of death and destruction, the shining conclusion that “man’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life and not a a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.  This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then will it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.” 

By focusing on finis, the end result, one’s universe of meaning even transcends time.  It is a powerful drive which is instinctive, which is different, according to Frankl, from trying to live a moral or a religious life, which, by distinction, is a choice, not a drive.  This relates, I believe, to the work of Abraham Maslow, who wrote during the same time period.  His contribution involves a five-tier pyramid of “hierarchy of needs”, from the survival essentials of food and clothing, to safety (which could include job security), to love and belonging (friendship or relations within the family structure), to esteem, leading at last to the full functioning which he calls “self-actualization”.  In this process, needs further down the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. 

The will to meaning resonates deeply with me.  From an early age I have struggled, and still struggle, to formulate a satisfying, meaningful philosophy as a guide to positive action and a defense against the stresses which life by its nature brings to all beings.  This pursuit has been infinitely worthwhile and rewarding.  Albert Schweitzer has concluded that while the world is “inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering”, cosmic reality is on the side of harmony (versus conflict) and meaning (versus meaninglessness) [quoted in W.H. Clark, The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer, p. 141].

The third and last work is Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind [Simon and Schuster, 1946].  Written in the days following the end of World War II, it served as a beacon of hope to many still suffering from the traumatic stresses of the wr and extending into the tumultuous postwar period.  Rabbi Liebman recounts how, as a young man, he compiled a list of all of the “goods” of life he could identify: health, love, power, riches, fame, etc.  He then showed it to a wise elder who, with a look of amusement, said, “You have forgotten the one ingredient lacking which each possession becomes a hideous torment, and your whole list an intolerable burden.”  Then, with a pencil stub he crossed out the list and wrote peace of mind.  If asked for our inventory of desires for this life we, too, might omit it, yet this inner tranquility can and does flourish without the support of prosperity or even physical health.  It is a deeply spiritual process and reality.  The teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and others reveal the foundation of a deep underlying spiritual serenity.  The holy syllable Om (Aum, Amen, Amin) is used as a benediction of peace, and, when intoned as a powerful mantra, represents the end of our search and striving to understand both the origin and the destiny of our life.  To do so, one must be still and look within, but this is no easy matter.  Until recently, this has been the purview of religion, but in the modern era has been adopted by psychology as well.  It does not need to be a matter of one’s faith alone—it is not an either/or proposition.  Liebman writes that both can provide comfort and spiritual release using their own unique methodologies.  Peace of moind will aid us in achieving our real goals, rather than wasting time and energy in neurotic combat, which includes secondary or false goals which are not real, such as making enough money to show others up, or fulfilling the wish of a dominant member of one’s family, which he calls a “borrowed goal”.  On the religious side, one’s faith must assist in dealing with metaphysical fears, providing comfort and courage in the face of death.  All religions have developed sacraments for dealing with this challenge.  This includes the expression of grief in the face of loss. 

One of the greatest illusions about human nature is that the expression of grief will lead to a breakdown.  This has never been so.  Conversely, we should express as much grief as we can feel  Why do we fear this?  Because, as Liebman writes, “Modern man has made a god out of comfort, and has grown afraid of facing reality in all its depths.”  This, there is wisdom in grief, and going through it is not only natural but essential.  He quotes the words of Jewish theologian Mordecai Kaplan, who says that we should think of God as “the unity of all that is; the mystic flame; the inner drive and purpose; the faith by which we overcome; the light of hope which breaks through the darkness; the love which creates, protects, and forgives; and the spirit which stirs a new and better world into life”.  From the wellsprings of this deep spiritual peace emerges the promise of renewal, healing, and potentiality.

In conclusion, we can agree with Thoreau, who, invoking his characteristic use of natural imagery, writes, “In the spring I burned over a hundred acres till the earth was sere and black, and by mid-summer this space was clad in a fresher and more luxuriant green than the surrounding even.  Shall man then despair?  Is he not a sproutland too, after never so many searings and witherings?”

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