How embracing life’s ugly side can help you find meaning and fulfillment
In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking. In contrast to psychoanalysis, with its obsession with disorder and neurosis, Peale’s work advocated relentless optimism.
“When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.”
Peale’s message was well-meaning — His work has been highly influential. Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, and Jim Carrey are all advocates of the “law of attraction” — the belief that positive thinking in itself brings about positive events.
In 2005, Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret brought Peale’s ideas to a massive audience. Byrne’s take on the law of attraction suggests a three-stage method for achieving material success: ask, receive and believe. It certainly seems to have worked for Byrne — the book and the film of The Secret together grossed over $350 million.
There are many people who attribute their material success to positive thinking. But there are surely many more who, despite visualizing their dream penthouse apartment and luxury yacht really hard, never actually receive them.
Rhonda Byrne or Oprah Winfrey may say — well, these people simply didn’t truly believe in themselves. And there’s really no way to prove them wrong about this. But this cheery insistence on drowning out negative thoughts sometimes feels coercive.
In his book The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman describes his experience going deep into self-help culture. He attended stadium-sized conferences where participants screamed positive mantras and renounced negativity. He found people who were taught to systematically cleanse their minds of negative thoughts.
But there’s a problem with being told not to think about something. I’ve tried it myself — when I try not thinking about a polar bear, a polar bear instantaneously appears in my thoughts. That’s just how the mind works.
Fantasizing about the best-case scenario, to exclusion of any rational assessment of whether or not it is likely to occur, is potentially a dangerous psychological strategy. Burkeman argues that by paying attention to negative thinking and at least countenancing the worst-case scenario, we can remove some of its power over us.
It feels risky. Don’t you dare — the positive thinkers say. If I let those thoughts creep in, I’ll lose my positive energy. If I accept that I might never make that first million, even for a moment, I’m engaging in self-sabotage
But things don’t always go as planned. I have less control over life than I might feel I do. And, as anyone who has attempted to “clear their mind” during meditation will say, I actually have little control over my thoughts.
If I focus on my thoughts, I notice that they just happen. It takes most people hundreds of hours of meditation practice to stop that flow of thoughts for even a few seconds. Robert Wright, in his 2017 book Why Buddhism is True explores this phenomenon, claiming that:
“the mind doesn’t create conscious thoughts; it receives them.”
Given that I apparently have little control over what goes on in my brain, perhaps the best approach is not to strangle negative thoughts the instant they arise; but to observe them, explore them, and accept them. This gives me a chance to assess the validity of such thoughts — am I being presented with something that should truly concern me? Or is some part of my brain just being hysterical?
Give Up Hope
Realism, as opposed to unequivocal optimism, is not a new idea. Stoics have been thinking in these terms for thousands of years. Roman philosopher Seneca argued that hope and fear were inextricably linked:
“cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.”
Giving up hope sounds inherently bad. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. Hope is supposed to be the anchor of the soul, the last thing to die when all else is lost. It’s Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign poster. It’s Nelson Mandela’s “powerful weapon”.
But there is something liberating about accepting things as they are. Our constant yearning for positive change is addictive. Imagining that things might be better provides a rush of excitement. But it can also distract us from appreciating life as it actually is.
As much as the Stoics reject optimism, they do not advocate pessimism. Things may change, they may not. All I can truly control, the Stoics say, is my reaction to events.
What if I imagine that I’ll never make it? Perhaps something bad happens, or perhaps things just never really take off for me. Some people get along just fine in these circumstances. It can be quite liberating to remind myself of this. If my whole existence orients around my determination to be extremely successful, it’s only going to be more painful if I don’t meet those high expectations.
There are advantages to staying grounded, trying to think clearly, and checking that my hopes and expectations are realistic. Maybe that luxury yacht will always remain outside of my price range? Maybe my band won’t go triple platinum? What then? I can keep working incredibly hard towards my goals, whilst also having an eye on a contingency plan.
Whether I think positively or not, there’s no getting away from it: I am going to die. Some people pretend it’s not true. Some pretend they don’t care. But it comes to us all.
A key tenet of the existentialist school of philosophy is that accepting death is essential to fully live life. Martin Heidegger said:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life — and only then will I be free to become myself.”
For Heidegger, accepting the briefness of existence and the reality of death is essential to living an authentic life. We need a sense of angst, or dread, about what awaits us in order to properly engage with the realities of life.
Angst and dread sound awfully gloomy. But the existentialist message is all about freedom and choice. Accepting the realities of existence allows us to carve out our own meaning in life. Constantly applying a positive gloss to nature’s ugly and unpleasant aspects is stifling. Can we truly live freely and authentically if we’re ignoring so much about the world?
Find a Balance
Embrace negativity; give up hope; accept death — I’ll admit it sounds pretty grim. But this is not a doctrine of cynicism. Acknowledging and sitting with negativity doesn’t mean being glum or depressed. It can mean thriving.
Many people who have experienced serious illness, who have come close to death, will report a new-found appreciation of life. This isn’t because they pretended everything was fine. It’s because they experienced suffering, and they fully recognized the finite nature of their existence.
Life can be beautiful. But my ability to appreciate this beauty requires me to acknowledge that it can also be ugly. I can be grateful, excited, and happy. I just won’t get mad at myself if I’m sad sometimes, too.
By: Robert Bateman