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Positive Thinking

The Sins of Positive Thinkers

I’m not alone as someone who— in search of spiritual growth— walked away from organized religion. The sermons repeated in my church seemed tired and not terribly relevant to me (though, in fairness, I stopped going at age 16). Words like lord and salvation seemed to be used as givens, above inquiry.
I got in to positive thinking less than a decade after leaving the church. Since then I’ve come to see that the goals of positive thinking share a lot in common with those of spirituality seekers. Indeed, it may be that positive thinking is a science-ized version of what religion hopes to be.
It may be that positive thinking leads towards salvation.

My sister-in-law remarked recently that so many self-proclaimed positive thinkers say so many insensitive things to her. It got me thinking: she’s right. I know I have fallen in to that trap too, though hopefully now less than I used to. She asked me why was it that so many positive thinkers  spoke insensitively to her. I offered that these people are amateurs and they know just enough to be dangerous.
Not satisfied with my own answer, I sat with the question. Not long thereafter, happenstance had me re-reading Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross (widely available as a free ebook). In it, St. John addresses the “imperfections” that many people beginning their journey in to spirituality encounter. It is a remarkable treatise, and any summation I put forth will lack the depth of his work (so I recommend you read it!). To quote St. John, “The imperfections are examined one by one, following the order of the seven deadly sins.”
What struck me was how much his list of imperfections of seekers of union with God are also the same imperfections (what a compassionate word!) that positive thinkers may encounter in themselves (and their friends get to be on the receiving end of). Here are a few (this list is my own, not St. John’s):

imperfection can show up as
excess of pride
  • “I’ve achieved uncommon insight into life”
righteousness
  • “if only you were more like me”
  • certainty – from a little knowledge may arise too much certainty: “I’m certain person x is inferior because he/she said y”
insensitivity
  • in the face of emotional hardship, offering facile, tired advice rather than sympathy: “buck up”, “things always work out”, “look on the bright side”
hubris
  • “there are no significant gaps in my understanding of the nature of (God/positive thinking)”
preachiness
  • unsolicited advice, in the form of profound life lessons
narcissism
  • keeps changing the subject to oneself, not to deepen the conversation, but because “I am the most interesting topic of conversation to me”
jealousy
  • “let me tell you how my stories trump yours”

That’s just a few, I’m sure you can think of more. We’ve all encountered these, even in ourselves. To the extent they are true for you, beginning a path of internal growth (spiritual or otherwise) can cause cause them to flair up. Of course, the goal of such growth is to cleanse oneself (or at least diminish the effects) of such imperfections, so it’s ironic that starting down the path may worsen them. Like when cleaning your car, you buff a tiny spot, and in doing so reveal a rusty hole underneath. Sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better.