To Wish Upon A Star
Hardly one in ten thousand will have the strength of mind to ask himself seriously and earnestly--is that true?
--Arthur Schopenhauer, “Religion: A Dialogue”
I have never thought positively by nature. Growing up in the 1970s, I used to suffer bouts of stomach cramps on Sunday nights in anticipation of school the next day. Hostile teachers, threatening classmates, botched assignments: my mind saw phantoms everywhere.
In hope of guidance, I sometimes gazed up at an inspirational poem on a backlight poster hanging in my big sister’s bedroom. The words, etched in velour, glowed three-dimensionally under the luminescence of a colored bulb (and sometimes with the aid of pot smoke). I memorized each one:
I am where I am.
I know where I could have been,
had I done what I did not do.
Tell me, Friend, what I can do Today,
to be where I want to be
I could never track down the poet, identified only by the tagline “Sigrad.” The furthest I got was determining that the Nordic-sounding name was, ironically, an Icelandic word for defeated.
The poem couldn’t prepare me for what was immediately ahead. In the late 1970s, my family made an ill-fated move from our bungalow-sized home in Queens to a bigger house on Long Island. It was a place we could never quite afford. After moving in, my father lost his job and we took to warming the house with kerosene heaters and wearing secondhand clothing. One night I overheard my mother saying that we might qualify for food stamps. When the financial strains drove my parents to divorce, we were in danger of losing our home. Walking back from a friend’s house at night, I used to wish upon stars, just like in the nursery rhyme. Since any disaster seemed possible, any solution seemed plausible.
Seeking a deeper form of guidance, I expanded my adolescent reading tastes from head-shop posters to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Talmud. Each seemed to affirm that our outlook counted for something. “Nerve us with incessant affirmatives,” Emerson wrote. “Be of good countenance,” the great rabbis intoned. I clung to the hope that one’s internal attitude and perspective mattered; that holding the mental ideal of a better reality could help make it so.
I prayed, visualized better tomorrows, and became a determined self-improver. I threw myself into attempts to earn money delivering newspapers and hauling junk to a local recycling plant. I divided my time between high school in the morning and drama classes in the afternoon. I handwrote college applications and sent letters to financial aid officers. We managed to piece together our finances and keep our home.
Positive thinking did not miraculously solve all of our problems. Decisive help, which I’ll never forget, came from my mother’s labor union, the 1199 hospital workers, which provided medical benefits that kept our family from disaster. But, still, I emerged from the period believing that a set of interior guideposts and principles had contributed to the solution. If my thoughts didn’t change reality, they helped navigate it. And maybe something more.
Later on in life, I grew intrigued by the example of my mother-in-law, Theresa Orr. At times she seemed to gain an additional, almost magical-seeming fortitude from affirmative-thinking philosophies. The daughter of an Italian-immigrant barber, Terri received a scholarship in 1959 to Brandeis University, becoming the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. In the years ahead, she became an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. While pursuing her academic career, she raised two daughters as a divorced and single parent, cared for an elderly mother, and sponsored members of a twelve-step recovery program, all from under the roof of a two-family home in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Terri devoured works of positive thinking, from the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . .”) to affirmations from the channeled text A Course in Miracles to pointers in positivity from Guideposts magazine. She papered the surfaces of her home--literally, from the refrigerator to the medicine chest--with business-sized cards on which she penned aphorisms such as “I can choose to be right or to be happy”; “My helping hand is needed. I will do something today to encourage another person”; and (my personal favorite) “When am I going to stop going to the hardware store for milk?” When it came to positivity, Terri could make Anthony Robbins look like a goth kid. There was no question in her mind, or in my own, that injunctions to sinewy thoughts had made a difference in her life.
From my late twenties through midforties, my personal search took me down many spiritual paths, and into serious esoteric teachings and traditions. But positive thinking always reasserted its pull on me. The principle of positive thinking is simplicity itself. Picture an outcome, dwell on it in your thoughts and feelings, and unseen agencies--whether metaphysical or psychological--will supposedly come to your aid. Seen in this way, the mind is a causative force.
As I began my adult explorations into the roots and methods of positive thinking--many of which are considered in these pages--I experienced some kind of difference in my life as Terri had experienced in hers. Was I imagining things? The practice of determined thought could seem so naive and simplistic. Most serious people regard positive thinking as a cotton-candy theology or a philosophy for dummies.
But I like “rejected stones”--they often hold neglected truths. Some of the leading voices in positive thinking, especially in its formative days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had, like me, pursued many avenues of thought and religion but returned to the concept that the greatest truths can sometimes be found in practices and ideas that are very simple, often so much so that they are easy to dismiss. I do not believe in the ultimate power of any single principle. But if the premise of positive thinking is defensible, something that I consider in these pages, it seems to rest upon, and be measurable through, the degree of an individual’s hunger for self-change.
Positive thinking, more properly known as New Thought, is the most enduring effort in modern history to forge a truly practical metaphysical approach to the needs and urgencies of daily life. Millions use its methods. Yet as a philosophy, positive thinking is also woefully underdeveloped and incomplete. It is shot through with ethical shortcomings and internal contradictions. For this thought system to reach its maturity, its followers and critics must take fuller stock of its flaws and possibilities, its deficiencies and avenues for growth. This requires understanding the positive-thinking movement’s unseen history, unfinished promise, and extraordinary potential.
Countless people hope, as my adolescent self did, that our thoughts possess some kind of power, both on ourselves and on events around us. They tell themselves that life is not just a merciless roulette wheel or the result of impossibly large forces or happenstance; but, rather, that the content of our thoughts influences the nature of our experience, in concrete terms.
For generations, people have wanted to believe that a good attitude not only makes us better people but makes better things happen to us. In the cold light of day, this seems an impossible dream.
But is it?
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a determinedly modern group of American men and women decided to find out. Immersed in new ideas in religion and psychology, a loosely knit band of psychical researchers and religious philosophers, mental-healers and hypnotists, Mesmerists and Spiritualists, Unitarians and Transcendentalists, suffragists and free-love advocates, black liberationists and Christian socialists, animal-rights activists and Biblical communists, occultists and Freemasons, artists and freethinkers, embarked upon a grand and sprawling project to investigate the parameters of the human mind. These experimenters, sometimes working together and other times in private, resolved to determine whether some mental force--divine, psychological, or otherwise--exerts an invisible pull on a person’s daily life. Was there, they wondered, a “mind-power” that could be harnessed to manifest outcomes?
For them, like many Americans, the latter half of the nineteenth century was a time when hidden forces seemed to abound in daily life. From telegraph signals and electrical currents, to stories of spirit raps and Mesmerism, the power of the unseen seemed to beckon everywhere. For a time, mainstream science and avant-garde spirituality could appear united in a search to unveil the mysteries of life. Indeed, people with mystical beliefs often considered themselves in league with social reform and the march of progress. They felt that their theories and ideas, such as the mind’s influence over health, produced observable results and could help lift spirituality to a new perch of rationalism.
At the start of the twentieth century, philosopher William James believed that the thought system that emerged from these experiments, which he called “the religion of healthy-mindedness,” held such promise, and hovered so mightily over modern religious life, that it amounted to the equivalent of a Reformation on the American spiritual scene. As James saw it, the positive-thinking movements,1 variously known to him as New Thought, Christian Science, or Metaphysical Healing, held the potential to morph into a liberal, universal faith, one that simultaneously confirmed the deepest yearnings of mysticism and the rationalist rigor of pragmatism. “It is quite obvious,” James wrote in 1907, “that a wave of religious activity, analogous in some respects to the spread of early Christianity, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism, is passing over our American world.”
Predicting the destiny of religious movements is a tricky business. Thomas Jefferson wrote that every young man alive during his lifetime would likely “die an Unitarian.” In the early twentieth century Mark Twain envisaged a future America dominated by Christian Science. Yet James’s predictions struck closer to the mark. If the philosopher’s foresights were exaggerated, it had to do only with the kind of institutional structure that this healthy-minded religion would take. No high church of positive thought extends across the American scene today. But the influence of positive thinking is greater than that of any one established religion.
In my previous book, Occult America, I considered the history of mystical movements in the United States, including the careers of some of the early positive thinkers. I came to realize, however, that those positive-thinking pioneers--and their many counterparts who populate these pages--could not be understood merely through their influence on American religion. Rather, positive thinking entered the groundwater of American life. It became the unifying element of all aspects of the American search for meaning. The shapers of positive thinking fundamentally altered how we see ourselves today--psychologically, religiously, commercially, and politically. Their story is the backstory of modern America.
Peer into any corner of current American life, and you’ll find the positive-thinking outlook. From the mass-media ministries of evangelists such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and T.D. Jakes to the millions-strong audiences of Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Mehmet Oz, from the motivational bestsellers and seminars of the self-help movement to myriad twelve-step programs and support groups, from the rise of positive psychology, mind-body therapies, and stress-reduction programs to the self-affirmative posters and pamphlets found on walls and racks in churches, human-resources offices, medical suites, and corporate corridors, this one idea--to think positively--is metaphysics morphed into mass belief. It is the ever-present, every-man-and-woman wisdom of our time. It forms the foundation of business motivation, self-help, and therapeutic spirituality, including within the world of evangelism. Its influence has remade American religion from being a salvational force to also being a healing one.
Positive thinking is an indelible part of our political climate, as well. When Ronald Reagan used to routinely announce in his speeches that “nothing is impossible,” his listeners were able to make sense of his sentiments due to decades of motivational psychology. Reagan’s America-can-do anything philosophy, for good or ill, reshaped the nation’s political landscape (and, not incidentally, sounded a lot like the mail-order self-improvement courses to which the president’s father subscribed during the Great Depression). Reagan’s oratory compelled every president who came after him, whether Republican or Democrat, to sing praises to the limitless potential of the American public. In this sense, positive thinking is our national creed.
“It’s All Such Bullshit!”
Most sensitive, educated people are taught to believe that positive thinking is a foolish quirk of modern culture. Barbara Ehrenreich has chronicled the dreary, dystopian experience of being told to think sunny thoughts as a cancer patient. The social critic Richard Hofstadter observed in the early 1960s that hearty thinking was a pitiable substitute for a careful understanding of the social forces that weigh on people’s economic lives. The punk band X, my high-school heroes, agreed with Ehrenreich and Hofstadter when they sang sardonically: “I MUST NOT THINK BAD THOUGHTS . . .”
I once found myself explaining to a media executive the manner in which evangelist Pat Robertson had reworked the so-called Law of Attraction into his more acceptable-sounding Law of Reciprocity--but before I could continue, I was cut off. “It’s all such bullshit!” my host exclaimed, pointing out how such a system was, in effect, used to blame the poor or ill for their plights. “I hope I haven’t insulted your belief system,” she said. No, I told her, she hadn’t. The fact is, she was right. But, like most critics, only partly so. And only about those people who see such metaphysical “laws” as an overarching, cause-and-effect rule of life. Or those who believe in the popular New Age precept “there are no accidents”--a bromide that forms the Achilles’ heel of the positive-thinking philosophy and has kept it from attaining greater moral seriousness, a topic I will consider.
Other critics have rightly observed how prohibitions against “negative thinking” can amount to blaming a patient or injured person, or to setting up the expectation that the absence of recovery will be the patient’s fault. Being told how to think is the kind of wearying and dubious advice that no sick person should ever have to endure. Indeed, the human proclivity for dispensing advice (rather than concrete assistance, in time or money) is rarely anything more than the vanity of cheap talk, and often causes more anxiety than relief. Once in a maternity ward I overheard the distraught mother of an ill newborn being urged by a relative to “think positive.” It is difficult to imagine crueler or more impotent words at such a moment.
1 When referencing the overall mind-power culture, I often employ the term positive-thinking movement (in which I do not include Christian Science, which, as will be seen, branched into a specific denomination of its own). At various points I use terms such as mind-cure and mental healing to connote the early days of the movement. Historically, these terms—mind-cure, mental healing, and positive thinking—have taken on connotations, sometimes pleasing and sometimes displeasing, to those inside the various movements to which they refer. I use them only as historical appellations; they indicate no judgment toward one school or another.
Excerpted from One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz. Copyright © 2014 by Mitch Horowitz. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.