Sunday, October 11, 2009

not so bright

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, is her pay-back to all the blundering friends, medical professionals and clinicians, and well-meaning strangers who thought they were helping her deal with breast cancer by telling her to cheer up.

The unrelenting message was “that you had to be cheerful and accepting and that you would not recover unless you were.” Most infuriating, she added, was the advice to “consider your cancer a gift.”

Can't blame her a bit for finding that "mass-delusional" advice unhelpful and insensitive. But she is very sloppy here when she lumps that kind of unreflective, facile, smiley-face foolishness, and New Age/New Thought spirituality, and whatever gospel it is exactly that Joel Osteen has been peddling in his Texas mega-temple, with the more serious and circumspect contributions of Positive Psychology and its long trail back to Emerson and James.

She traces the roots of the nation’s blithe sunniness to a reaction against Calvinist gloom and the limits of medical science in the first half of the 19th century. Starting with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, perhaps one of the first American New Age faith healers, she draws a line to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; the psychologist William James; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Norman Vincent Peale, who published “The Power of Positive Thinking” in 1952; and the toothy television minister Joel Osteen, who preaches the gospel of prosperity.

But I'm glad she got better.

Now, contrast Ehrenreich's reaction to her cancer with Winifred Gallagher's to hers, in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

"Walking away from the hospital after the biopsy from hell-- not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind-- I had an intuition... This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead...

Through many months of chemo, surgery, more chemo, and daily radiation, I mostly stayed focused on taking care of business in the present-- suddenly all I could count on-- and on the things that matter most and make me feel best: big ones like my family and friends, spiritual life, and work, and smaller ones like movies, walks, and a 6:30 p.m. martini. As a result, I spent very little time and energy on the past or future, or on the suddenly very many things that seemed unimportant or negative...

That's not to say that cancer was the proverbial 'best thing that ever happened to me,' or that I'm glad I had it... [But] whenever possible, I looked toward whatever seemed meaningful, productive, or energizing and away from the destructive, or dispiriting...

She got better too, and felt better doing it. William James's concept of focused attention as the decisive element in shaping one's quality of life was her inspiration. She verified it, pragmatically, quite impressively.

She took courage from Emerson, too. "To fill the hour-- that is happiness."

And that, finally, is what I want to say to my friend whose little girl was diagnosed with diabetes.

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