Positive Thinking or Self Delusion?

September 2, 2009 — Marvi Sirmed

The phrase “Positive Thinking” has always been intriguing to me, for the misconceptions and myths it has been carrying from time to time, from culture to culture. In modern world, this beautiful concept is being excessively used politically for its deceptive nature and the intent deeper than one could think. So, I have been trying to find resources to understand the concept in as deeper a manner as possible, and about how it has been used by the movers and shakers of societies since long. But this particular piece is triggered by a Facebook link uploaded by a friend. The link asks for being positive in all situations and in fact gaming with ourselves in trying to find a positive aspect of every happening around us. It also termed our mind as a sacred enclosure in which nothing harmful should enter except by our permission. Now that’s where my problem starts.
Let me take you to the journey this concept has been through, before indulging in an uncomfortable discussion! The concept of ‘positive thinking’ is probably as old as human civilization. But it emerged in an organized form, from Christian religious dissertations in early 1920 s. When Joseph Murphy(1898–1981) wrote his famous “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind”, he probably did not know how this psychological concept would be turned to a sociological phenomenon and resultantly, would be used politically. It did not take very long for the Vatican to base its texts and lectures by a host of religious figures, on the concept of ‘No Negative thinking’ and ‘positive attitude’. These were the years of great depression in a democratic America. It seemed a very effective strategy to put a permanent stop on questions. See all positive. That was the potent message of that era.
And then there was Second World War. It was again surprising for me to realize that father of the modern concept of Positive Thinking (PT), Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993) came up with his best seller “The Power of Positive Thinking” in a troubled post WWII era. He, like Murphy, had come from a religious background and made himself conspicuous for his religious works like “In God We Trust: The Positive Faith for Troubled Times” and “Faith is the Answer”. The state has made optimal use of clergy for manipulating people’s collective thought. With love terrorism, so peculiar of religious elite of the time, Peale refuses to allow his reader to hear, speak and see an evil, and looking for only positivity in whatever they feel and see. This was, by the way, the era when budding women liberation feminist movement was seen as villain among religious quarters in America. So much so, that the wise and the mature of that time called these women Feminatzi (Femina + Natzi). Positivity was selective it seemed!
In recent times, this term took a new turn after 9/11. In almost all corporate training programmes, self development courses and even in school curricula in few states of USA, the concept of PT became prominent. Bush administration wanted people to see everything positive on ground zero as much as Musharraf led Pakistani establishment became too worried about Pakistan’s negative image because of the fact that people of Pakistan “. . . think negatively and are overly obsessed with their faults rather than achievements”. In every paper, programme, adverts, official interviews, everybody got stuck in PT. Our self-righteous lot of “learned” TV anchors and columnists regurgitated the PT propaganda with such vigour that otherwise reasonable thinkers went into the hands of few opinion leaders. Popularizing Pakistan’s soft image through making positive statements internationally and through looking at every phenomena with a closed mind (lest anything negative might not enter it) and an eye blinded by the overly emphasized Positive Thinking, became the key propaganda points.
It would be unfair to give all the credit for this bankruptcy of vision to Bush and Musharraf duo, though. In Pakistan, for example, this has been done since at least five decades through a very organized campaign of killing every germ that could germinate into self criticism. People have been made absolutely ready to fool themselves by not doing any exercise of trying to find the truth through examining situations with fair eye. People absolutely forgot that in order to value our selves, it is absolutely necessary to criticise ourselves, and not let this self-criticism become guilt and self-loath. So much so that after 62 years of our existence, if someone tries to indulge in self-criticism, s/he is termed as the one who is obsessed with failures, who is self-loathing and is against the collective wellbeing of the nation – in other words, is a traitor!
Blowing up small time achievements, as couple of kids who sing well, a sports team who wins the nation a sports event once in five years or a high achieving software engineer for example, is self destructive in a big way. It leads to self delusion, which does not let us concentrate on bigger problems we face as a nation – the problems that have their root cause in not recognizing them in initial juvenile stage, in not nipping the evil in the bud. It makes us insist on, “I’m looking good”. This self delusional positive thinking takes you where we are right now – abyss of oblivion. It compromises your readiness to acquire knowledge and being aware. It makes it difficult to come out of the cult of the “self”. It makes us believe that Positive Thinking is the route to success, whilst it is only intelligence, hard work and fairness.
I think the real test of positive thinking comes when we become centre of criticism from others. To deal with it positively, we need to understand where the criticism stems from. It has two scenarios, as far as I can think of. One: it comes from real friends who genuinely want us to change in a positive manner. Two: From those who have no interest in seeing you improve. They are doing it to probably make you look smaller than them. In either case, this is where positive thinking comes to operate.
In this way, positive attitude does not come in conflict with the self criticism. It, rather, complements later by being honest with ourselves and valuing ourselves by knowing true strengths and weaknesses.  If we can learn to be honest with ourselves our conscience will prevent us from undertaking regrettable actions, thus no negative image, no bashing from outside world. It’s just about recognizing the true us. But it requires guts. I’m sure we do have these guts as nation. Let’s discover us from within ourselves, lost since ages under the layers of falsehood and self righteousness.