Monday, August 8, 2011


I've been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, which is essentially a well-researched rant against the uniquely American "positive thinking" movement. And even though I have been immersed in, and even believed in, many of the ideas of the writers who she lambasts, I totally understand where she's coming from, and understand her frustration. Her viewpoint is worth a listen.

The title of the book is clever enough. One readily sees the tie-in to being blind-sided. Blind-siding is unexpected, and in some ways the negative facets of positive thinking mindset of our culture are unforeseen. Whereas I agree that attitude is an important aspect of success in life, the notion that everything can be fixed by simply adjusting our attitudes is a very inadequate way to solve the worlds problems. Wearing a happy face will hardly feed the hungry or resolve political injustices.

Ehrenreich's argument is that sometimes there is a place for anger. The right response is not always a smile and a handshake.

America is famous for it's smiley faces. You see them on billboards everywhere. Hence the cover of this book features a blue smiley-faced balloon against a bright yellow background. The smiley culture has turned Ms. Ehrenreich blue indeed.

Not everyone likes her outlook, and some of the review were harsh, criticizing her generalizations. One reviewer wrote,"As a first draft of a theory this volume might have passed for a discussion icebreaker. I am however shocked that it made it passed a competent editor."

And Olga B. of Illinois made these thought-provoking comments:

Ehrenreich believes that human beings are nothing more than tiny little objects at the mercy of blind forces beyond our comprehension. She is a fierce materialist who believes that our circumstances are the only thing that defines our lives. She is consequently very annoyed by any worldview that believes in the possible victory of spirit over matter. In her opinion, thinking that you can achieve anything you want if you work really hard at it and want it really badly is wrong because it obscures reality. Apparently, she cannot accept that everybody's version of reality is very different and that some people might be justified in shaping their own reality.

Ehrenreich's one-dimensional materialism seems boring and overly aggressive. She insists that your happiness depends on your income, an idea that is profoundly alien to me. I accept her right to be an atheist and a materialist. I don't think that any one deserves scorn and ridicule for possessing this worldview. It would be nice to see Ehrenreich respond in kind to people who are religious and/or seek other explanations than the purely materialistic type that she promotes.

My take is that the book, while a bit heavy-handed, does express sentiments I have occasionally felt about the whole "positive thinking" gospel, especially when it is blended with mega-churches and the gospel of prosperity, which makes no sense when preached in places like Zimbabwe or a pre-1990's Soviet prison camp.

I do believe attitude is important and that the things we allow our minds to dwell on will impact us in positive or negative ways. But these are only half truths and can be quite misleading with misapplied. I was once in a Bible study group in which we were all encouraged to declare our deepest desires for our lives. I hardly recall my own, but one fellow who had been in delinquent home and seemed barely equipped for a MacDonald's counter job declared that he believed God would help him one day become a brain surgeon.

These kinds of false hopes are what put the ire in Barbara Ehrenreich's aggressive demeanor. Having once attended a three hour "workshop/seminar" with the cheery dupe-meister Mark Victor Hansen I knew exactly where she was coming from. My experience with this b.s. artist was recorded in an article that appeared in our local Reader Weekly titled Chicken Soup for the Ripped-Off Person's Soul. The article was re-printed here at Ennyman's Territory in 2008 as Mark David Hansen: The Flim-Flam Man.

A book like this has value even if you do not agree with it because it helps you understand the mindset of people who are at odds with your own mindset. Her overview of the history of "positive thinking" is insightful, and I buy into some of her criticism of the fads that sweep over our pop-driven culture.

Nevertheless, having a optimistic attitude has been useful over the course of my personal career. Why try anything if it's doomed to failure? Optimism has its place, but realism is likewise needful as well. Most world-changers began with a hope and a dream rooted in some form of optimism.

To quote one such world-changer: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." ~Ghandi

To quote another.... "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing."~Socrates

Once you've sorted that, you might be ready to make a difference somewhere. Meantime, keep pressing on.

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