Nov 3, 2002

The Power of Negative Thinking?

A recent article, in the paper of record, posits the latest challenge to the widely held belief in the "power of positive thinking." Survey findings from the European Society of Medical Oncology cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of cancer support groups in extending life. Further, the article, cites experts on the dark side of being cheery. Psychologist Barbara S. Held calls for an end to the "tyranny of a positive attitude in America."

The surfacing of fresh debate on beliefs that have long been a staple of "new age" thought, reminds me of discussions my friends and I were having in the early 90s. Having read all the books on overcoming negativity, healing through positive thought, and saying affirmations, a lot of us were pretty sure that we had the answers to, well, everything. At the time, I had a good friend who suffered from clinical depression. Try as she might, she was perpetually gloomy. "What is the difference," she asked, "between all this positive thinking and denial?" Good question.

In the ensuing years, I suffered some personal setbacks. A painful romantic split, the death of my best friend Raymond... these were things that did not lend themselves easily to the remedial effects of "positive affirmations." Of all the losses I had experienced in my life, these, with their heavy implications of unresolved past life issues and apparent injustice, were debilitating on a level I had never really experienced. The chipper assurances of many of my friends at healing groups and psychic fairs, sounded hollow and unsatisfying. I began to resent those who admonished me to "cancel, cancel" negative statements as intrusive "thought police."

I did not have a name for it then, but, I had begun a journey known as the "dark night of the soul." The phrase derives from the writings of 16th century Carmelite monk, St. John of the Cross. It speaks to a richer expression of spiritual growth that honors this experience as a sacred passage of transformation. In time I found resources that explained the terrain I was traveling. I laid aside my Louise Hay books and embraced, instead, the notions of Carl Jung who said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however is disagreeable, and therefore not popular."

The journey towards integrity, the state of being integral, isn't an entirely comfortable one, either for individuals or for society at large. Thinking only happy thoughts won't get us there. It is time to simply tell the truth.