Now that Barbara Ehrenreich’s whirlwind UK book tour has long gone from Albion shores it might be worth taking stock of what happened. The investigative author’s “Smile or die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World” criticises such thinking as being damaging to individuals and society. The book received a unanimous thumbs up from her peers in the UK press for its thumbs down to positivity. The prevalent attitude is indicated in the opening line of Lucy Ellman’s Guardian review: “Vindicated at last!”
Such gleeful denunciations of optimism as a wolf in sheep’s clothing might seem to suggest an either/or scenario in regard to the application of thinking to well-being. Either you are gullible enough to believe that positive thinking will make you better and/or rich or else you are sensible enough to know it won’t.
Like most polarities, this can be frustrating for those who feel a more nuanced approach might be in order.
Those who find it only human to respond to life-threatening illness with “grief, gloom, disappointment or whatever negative emotion comes naturally”, as Jenni Murray honestly described her own preferred way to face such a situation in her Observer review of the book, should be free to do so. They should not be subjected to peer-enforced optimism. However, neither should the naturally optimistic be castigated for being “bright-minded” (the American title of Ehrenreich’s book). And somewhere between these opposite poles many of us reserve a right to nurture and share a heartfelt hope in something more substantial than either blind faith or “pink ribbon” optimism.
The way the Bible puts it – and people of many faiths will identify with this idea – is that believers should “be ready always to give an answer to everyone that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.”
The reason for the hope in many of us comes down to this: we’ve experienced the love of God in the midst of a crisis and it has changed our thought in concrete ways, from fear or despair to calm and confidence. And with that change comes practical relief (including physical healing). Christians in many denominations are increasingly noting and honouring the Gospel call of Christianity’s founder to “heal the sick” through prayer alone as one of the graces of a spiritual life. On my travels I have also spoken to Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others who respond to stories of healings I have had by telling of similar experiences.
Such healing takes more than positive thinking. It involves more than optimism. It is a change of thought at the deepest level brought about by a spiritual influence, that I would describe as the action and power of God. It takes prayer. It takes humility. Often it takes persistence.
In my twenties, for instance, I was introduced to Christian Science, a form of Christianity that highlights the Bible’s ongoing promise of healing. Soon afterwards I came down with another of my regular bouts of sinusitis, which I had been told could be with me for life. A doctor’s prescription of antibiotics during a prior bout had no obvious effect except side effects lasting for months, so the idea of an alternative to the medicine was quite a relief and I did not seek a prescription this time.
Christian Science isn’t about not taking medicine, though, it is about seeking spiritual insight that brings about practical change. And after three weeks of prayer and growing in my spiritual understanding of God’s nature as a loving Parent of all a remarkable change did occur. As the youngest son in a Jewish family, I had an intense fear and hatred of extremist nationalists active locally, that I was very disturbed by. That dissolved in an instance of the awareness of God’s presence and love. Two days later the sinusitis lifted, and it has never returned. (Those extremist activities also failed to amount to much in the long run, although there is a constant need to watch for – and, I would say, pray about – such threats to democracy, civility and safety.)
A more in-depth account of this healing is just one of tens of thousands available to the public in the back catalogue of weekly and monthly magazines available in most Christian Science Reading Rooms.
Ehrenreich’s book makes many heartfelt and illuminating points about the spread of positive thinking from a rarefied New England philosophy to a globe-straddling mass market commodity. However, its commentary on Mary Baker Eddy – the founder of Christian Science – is mistaken in the way that it places the founder of Christian Science in this trajectory.
Eddy’s ideas are not a philosophy rooted in the approach of Maine mesmerist Phineas Quimby, even though she spent a significant amount of time with him in the early 1860s. Nor are her teachings properly identified with the work of the New Thought movement which developed around the same time and in the same part of the world – which is a misperception from “Smile Or Die” echoed by almost all the national newspapers. (See http://tinyurl.com/ycy3rev for further clarification.)
Eddy’s ideas, laid out in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” form a healing theology rooted squarely in the life and teachings of Jesus, who evidenced the nature of God’s love for all by his own unparalleled healing record. More open-minded scrutiny of Mary Baker Eddy’s record reveals a deeply religious woman whose overarching goal was to bring back to the fore the legitimacy of a God-centered hope as illustrated throughout the Bible, particularly in the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his early followers.
As I have found time and time again in my own life, grasping even a little of the reason for the hope in God that Jesus promoted and proved can bring healing, by shedding a spiritual light that disperses shadows from both the negative and positive thinking of the human mind.