Prayer indeed is good, but while calling on the gods a man should himself lend a hand.


I know accentuate is not spelled "act-centuate." I just wanted to stress the need for act-ion. Some say, "To do is to be." Others say, "To be is to do." I tend to agree with Francis Albert Sinatra: "Do, be, do, be, do." I'll even stoop to jokes stolen from coffee mugs to emphasize the need for action.

I'll pull out songs from the forties, too--such as "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," a song written by Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and Harold Arlen (music) during the darkest days of World War II. It became a theme song for an entire country actively involved in doing something. (Winning a war.) They did it.

And so can you.

The Case against "Positive Thinking" (Part One)

The apprehension of the good Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.


As you may have gathered from what you've read thus far, I am obviously against negative thinking. So, if I'm against negative thinking, I must therefore be in favor of positive thinking.




Positive thinking, as taught and practiced by many people, is not as dangerous as negative thinking, but it has its downside.

Thoughts are powerful, more powerful than most people give them credit for being. They are not, however, all-powerful. There is more to reality than just thoughts.

For example, try to turn a page in this book without doing anything physical. Don't touch it ormove it; just hold the book still and try to turnapage with your thoughts. Or try to think a glass of water to your mouth, or pick up the phoneand think-dial a number. You see what I mean? Thoughts are powerful, but not all-powerful. There's a lot of power in our physical abilities, too.

When some people first discover how powerful thoughts are, they begin worshiping the mind. They deny the truth of what's actually happening for a mental image they find more pleasant. This creates a separation between the positive thinker and reality. This separation can be the cause of disorientation, confusion and, eventually, illness.

I am not a pessimist; to perceive evil where it exists is, in my opinion, a form of optimism.


As an example, suppose you had a small cut on your forehead. The positive thinker might say, "Your head is fine. The cut is only an illusion. Think of your forehead as healed. Imagine your forehead perfect."

I would probably say, "Oh, you cut your forehead. Let's wipe the blood off, put on some antiseptic, and bandage it." While I was physically taking care of what needed to be done, I might suggest you hold a positive image of the cut healing quickly. But most likely I'd ask, "What happened?" because there's a certain therapeutic quality in talking about the incident. Also, I'd be curious to know.

And, there may be a lesson in the accident--if nothing else, the way to keep it from happening again.

If I'm not in favor of positive thinking, what am I in favor of? If I'm not in favor of negative thinking, I must be in favor of something positive.

I am.

I recommend focusing on the positive.

Focusing on the Positive

In any given moment, there is ample evidence to prove that life is a bed of thorns or a garden of roses. How we feel about life depends on where we place our attention, that is, what we focus upon.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it's always just my luck to get One perfect rose.


Did you ever notice that every time you are given a rose, the stem is covered with thorns? (If you take the thorns off, the flower wilts more quickly. Florists know this, which is why they leave the thorns on.) Do you say, "Why are you giving me this stick with thorns on it?" Of course not. You admire the beauty of the rose. Even if you prick yourself in your enthusiasm, it never seems to hurt--you are too engrossed in appreciating the rose and the person who gave it to you.

Right now, in this moment, without moving from where you are, you can find ample evidence to prove your life is a miserable, depressing, terrible burden, or you can find evidence to prove your life is an abundant, joyful, exciting adventure.

Let's start with the negative. Look at all the imperfections around you. No matter how good anything is, it could be better, couldn't it? Look for dirt, disorder, and dust. See all the things that need cleaning, repairing, and replacing? An endless array of clutter, chaos, and catastrophe assaulting your senses. And all those damn alliterations in this paragraph. Dis-gusting.

Now, explore the same environment with an attitude of gratitude and appreciation.

Look around the same area you just surveyed and find the good. You can start with whatever you're sitting or lying on. It's probably softer than aconcrete floor. Look at all the other objects you use but take for granted--glasses (both seeing and drinking), tables, windows, the walls and ceiling sheltering you from the elements. Consider the wonder of the electric light. A hundred years ago, you would have to have been very rich or very lucky to have had even one. And you probably have more than one--and a TV and a radio and many other electronic marvels.

What around you do you find aesthetically pleasing? A painting you haven't really looked at in years? The detail work on the clothes you're wearing? A flower? A vase? Wallpaper? Carpet? When was the last time you took a moment to appreciate colors?

One should sympathize with the joy, the beauty, the color of life-- the less said about life's sores the better.


Did you notice that you tended to feel better when you focused on the positive things in your surroundings? The process of focusing on the positive to produce more positive feelings works the same with things even more intimate than your surroundings--your body, for example.

If you look for all the things wrong with the body, boy, are you going to find them. Pains here, bumps there, rough spots here, too much fat there--the list goes on and on (and, as we get older, goes on and on and on and on).

But take a look at all that's right with your body. Even if you have a pain in your left foot, you can be thankful there's not one in your right. How about all those processes we take for granted? Digestion, circulation, respiration, assimilation, thinking-- yes, we think without having to even think about it. And let's not forget the five senses. Some people take them so much for granted they can't name all five without thinking, "Let's see, what's the fifth one?"

It's as though there were two attorneys in your mind, one gathering evidence for "Life is Awful" and the other gathering evidence for "Life is Wonderful." You're the judge and can rule out any evidence you choose. Your decision is final. Which judicial ruling do you suppose would lead to more joy, happiness, peace, ease, and health?

Try thinking of love or something.


To focus on the positive is not to disregard certain warning signals of a negative nature that, if ignored, eventually lead to inconveniences at best and disaster at worst. (If we use these "negative" signals to avoid disaster, then they're not so negative after all. Some even call them guardian angels.)

Let's say you're driving down the freeway and the little light goes on, telling you you're running out of gas. I do not suggest ignoring that bit of "negativity" and focusing on how wonderful it is that none of the other warning lights is on. I suggest you get some gas.

Here, by the way, is where negative thinking comes in. The negative reality is that you're low on gas. Negative thinking begins the litany, "I wonder if I'm going to run out of gas before I reach the next station. What will I do if that happens? I'm in the middle of nowhere. What if some highway robbers get me? If I do get to a gas station, will it be the kind I have credit cards for? I bet it will be more expensive than in town. I bet it will be self-service and the pump will be dirty and my hands will smell funny after. I knew I should have filled up in town. Why am I so lazy and stupid?" Etc., etc., etc.

During this inner tirade (which, for accomplished negative thinkers, takes place in under five seconds) the driver, in his or her anxiety, usually speeds up, which only wastes gas.

We are wide-eyed in contemplating the possibility that life may exist elsewhere in the universe, but we wear blinders when contemplating the possibilities of life on earth.


What I suggest is this: take note of the negative information, decide what to do about it (whatever corrective action seems to be in order) and return to focusing on the positive (in this case the music, the scenery, the passengers) while working on eliminating the negative.

With medical conditions, it's good to keep track of symptoms, but it does no good to dwell on them. The positive thinker might deny the early symptoms of a disease, making a cure more difficult. The negative thinker might turn every mosquito bite into a killer bee sting.

Positive focusers take a middle road. They note symptoms accurately so they can be reported to their health-care provider. They make an appointment. Beyond that, there's no point in dwelling on the symptoms, so they turn their attention to things more positive.

While we're considering the idea that there is sufficient evidence in any given moment to prove that life is wonderful or that life is terrible, let's take a look at how this works even closer to home: in our memories of the past and our anticipation of the future.

Here, too, we can muddle in the negative: "Tommy wouldn't play with me when I was six." "I have to go to the dentist next week, and I hate the dentist."

Or, we can do positive thinking: "I'm winning the Oscar this year," when we've never been in a movie. "I'm going hiking and camping next week," when we've just had major surgery. "I have so many wonderful friends," when the phone hasn't rung in two weeks.

Or, we could try focusing on the good memories that actually happened and on realistic plans we look forward to with pleasure. "That movie on TV last night was so good." "Helen's coming to visit tomorrow; that will be nice." "The book I ordered should be arriving any day."

Yes, it's good to "live in the moment," but who does that all the time? As long as you're living in memories of the past and projections of the future, you might as well make them happy memories and joyful projections.

I will be giving some techniques later in which you can let your imagination run positively wild. There can be great value in this. What I'm talking about here is day-to-day, ordinary thinking. In my view, negative thinkers need to get their minds out of the sewer and positive thinkers need to get their heads out of the clouds.

Have I made a clear distinction between positive thinking and focusing on the positive? It's a subtle but important difference. Positive thinking imagines any wonderful thing at all, no matter how unrelated it is to the actual events of one's life. Focusing on the positive starts with what's real, what's actually taking place, and moves from there in a joyful direction.

If you spend all your time in a positive future, when will you appreciate the present? The present is the future you dreamed of long ago. Enjoy it.

The Case against "Positive Thinking" (Part Two)

"Optimism," said Candide, "is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly.".


There is a story told of a Master who saw a dead dog decaying in the road. His disciples tried to keep the unsightly animal from him, but the Master saw the unfortunate animal and said, "What pearly white teeth." Even amid stench and decay, there was still something beautiful to behold.

The Master did not--as some positive thinkers might--say the dog was "only sleeping." The Master did not throw a stick and say, "Here, Rover, fetch!" The Master first perceived the reality and then found something good about it.

Positive thinkers sometimes use positive thinking to justify their inability to accept the moment. They have a long list of "shoulds," and, unless reality measures up to their imagined state of perfection (which it almost never does), they retreat into positive thoughts, affirming that, thanks to their thoughts, the future conditions of the world will be better for everyone.

In other words, some people use positive thinking as a holier-than-thou-sounding form of denial.

An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?.


A major problem with positive thinking and illness--especially life-threatening illness--is: what about the illness? If you are told to positively think yourself healthy and then get sicker, you may add personal blame to the worsening illness. "If I had only thought more positively, I would be well by now. Where did I fail?"

This is especially true of positive thinkers who tell stories of miracle cures. "If only you think positively, and believe, you, too, can have a miracle cure." Well, maybe, or maybe not.

It took a lot of negative thinking--decades in some cases--to bring on a life-threatening illness. Why should a week or two of positive thinking get rid of it?

Now, I'm all for miracles, and I've seen my share, but miracles can't be counted on. If they could, by definition, they wouldn't be miracles. I tend to follow the Pragmatic Creed: "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and shoot down the middle."

If you have a miraculous healing, wonderful! Take all the credit for it. If you have a slow, progressive recovery, great! If you have the usual series of ups and downs that life-threatening illnesses often go through, find something to be grateful for every day, every hour, every minute. Each time you find something, it will make you smile in your heart.

Positive thinking only puts a gap between where you are physically and where you think you "should" be. There are no "shoulds" to a life-threatening illness. You'll be happier, and probably heal faster, if you let go of as many "shoulds" as you can. (More on this later.)

Now I'd like to explore an area in which I take fundamental issue with positive thinkers--how to respond to loss. Positive thinkers might say, "There is no loss, only the opportunity for new experiences. Rejoice!" I say: loss hurts. It also infuriates. That's natural. That's human. To deny the pain and anger with an attitude of platitudes may do more harm than good.

Learn to Mourn

This is a lifetime of good-byes. As the years go on, you'll say good-bye to both people (through moving, change, or death) and things (youth, that semi-tight body you once had, hair, prized possessions). Eventually, you'll say good-bye to it all with your own death.

Learning to mourn, to grieve, to say a good good-bye, is an invaluable tool.

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped. On the marble pavement dust grows. Her empty room is cold and still. Fallen leaves are piled against the doors. Longing for that lovely lady How can I bring my aching heart to rest?.

187-57 B.C.

When a loss takes place, the mind, body, and emotions go through a process of healing as natural as the healing of a physical injury. Know that feeling lost, sad, angry, hurt, fearful, and tearful at good-byes is a natural part of the healing process.

We recover from loss in three distinct but overlapping phases. The first phase of recovery is shock/ denial/numbness; the second, fear/anger/depression; the third, understanding/acceptance/moving on.

No matter what the loss--from a missed phone call to the death of a loved one--the body goes through the same three phases of recovery. The only difference is the time it takes to go through each stage and the intensity of the feelings at each point along the way.

When we first hear of a loss, our initial reaction is shock/denial/numbness. Often we say, "Oh, no!" We can't believe what we've heard. We go numb.

This ability to deny and go numb is a blessing. Catastrophic losses are too hard to take all at once. It has been suggested that the reason some people have slow, terminal illnesses as their method of dying is because it's going to take them a long time to say good-bye, and they want to do it right.

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here; Warm northern wind, blow softly here; Green sod above, lie light, lie light Good-night, dear heart, good-night, good-night.


The next phase, fear/anger/depression, is the one most commonly associated with loss. We think we'll never love or be loved again (fear). We wail against the situations, people, things, and unkind fates that "caused" the loss (anger). We cry, we feel sad, we hurt, we don't want to go on (depression).

One of the toughest feelings to accept is anger at the one who is dying (even if it's yourself). "Why are you leaving me?!" a voice inside wants to know. To feel angry at someone for dying, or angry at yourself over your own death, is perfectly normal. It's a natural stage of recovery that one must pass through. (Pass through--not remain in.)

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.


Finally we come to understanding/acceptance/ moving on.

We understand that loss is part of life. We accept the loss we suffered, and begin to heal. When healing is well under way, we move on to our next experiences.How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D., and me explains theprocess of healing in detail. Available at bookstores or call 1-800-LIFE-101.

I put this information on grieving in the section "Act-centuate the Positive" because mourning is a positive human ability. It allows us the flexibility to adapt to change. It is not "negative" to feel pain, fear, and anger at loss. It's a natural, human response. The negativity enters when the process of healing is suppressed, glossed over, and denied.

Accept the process. Accept the numbness, the fear, the pain, the anger, the sadness, the tears, and, eventually, accept the healing.

Accepting the healing can be difficult. People may expect you to mourn longer than you find necessary, or they may want your mourning to "hurry up." People often offer comfort to ease their own discomfort. "There, there," they say, "everything's all right," when, in fact, everything is not all right.

Grieving must be done in its own time.

To deny the reality that pain hurts only delays the healing process. Take the time to grieve, to mourn, to say a good good-bye. At the point of genuine understanding and acceptance of your own death (not just a mentally constructed understanding and acceptance) lies the ability to understand and accept the magnificence of life.

Is there a "cure" for a broken heart? Only time can heal your broken heart, just as only time can heal his broken arms and legs.



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Copyright © 1988-1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press, Inc.

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