Month: May 2015

“Good Thoughts Lead to Good Things,” and Other Lies

my latest over at The Mirror!

Last Saturday, in a fit of DIY fervor, I decided on an impulse to drive to an unfamiliar part of town in search of a particular fabric store. Half a mile down the road, suddenly I realized that the blinking gas tank light I had been responsibly ignoring the last couple of days was sinking to abysmal predictions: “Three miles to empty.”

Already locked into rapid traffic on a strange street in a suburban city, I decided to take a chance. Surely, I thought, there would be a gas station in a couple miles—surely before I have to turn onto the highway and start going at high speeds, anyway.

At first, quarter mile by quarter mile, I wasn’t too concerned. But as the ticker sank lower and my chances were running out, I began to scan the road ahead for the slightest glimpse of a gas station sign.

Then, I saw a sign that was meant to give me hope. Not for a gas station—for a church. The “Chapel of Metaphysical Thought,” in fact. Below it, on a billboard, black and white letters proclaimed this little church’s message to the busy city drivers: “Good thoughts lead to good things.”

It’s a popular—if somewhat empty—sentiment, and it didn’t surprise me to see it plastered on the billboard of a startup church in a bustling city of modern Americans.

Now, the sign itself was sufficiently vague that it could have applied validly to any number of things. Positive thinking is popular in America, and it has been since the 50s when Norman Vincent Peale wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. And certainly the idea has an appealing premise: think “good” thoughts, and generate “good” results. Who wouldn’t find that appealing? It leaves the definition of “good,” on both ends, entirely up to the thinker.

But beyond that veneer of positivity, the sentiment had little to offer. Thinking good thoughts could lead to good things: if, for instance, everyone in this country started thinking rightly along the lines of “Marital fidelity is good. Pornography is bad. As a society we should encourage chastity,” then undoubtedly an abundance of wholesome sociological changes would result. If people would stop thinking the objectively bad thoughts all too prevalent in the modern mind—that porn is harmless, or that materialism will make us happy—then, indeed, surely good things would happen.

But I’m not sure that that is what is meant by the concept “good thoughts.” If we are to take our cue from the title of this optimistic church, then the sentiment is meant in a more metaphysical way—that is, that positive and optimistic thoughts can bring in to being a whole order of good things—make them happen, make life be a certain way—sort of the way Luke Skywalker just has to think and feel the force hard enough to lift a battleship or mind-trick a storm trooper.

And this, indeed, is where the real seduction of this coquettish sentiment lies. Everyone would like, by merely thinking and willing hard enough, to make “good things” happen. To find a job or spouse or good school. To smooth over longstanding family feuds; to erase mistakes and their consequences. To conquer a major project, or make our life plans sort themselves out in the best possible way with a wave of our positive-will-power wand.

This is the stuff of office motivational posters—and it is the temptation of the worrier. Of the scrupulous. Of the controlling, over-planning type: that if you wish for something hard enough, if you think about it the right way, you can make it happen. And in the end, this is just another form of the whisper of the tempter—”You shall be like gods.”

It is hard and humbling for human beings to accept that much in life is simply out of our control. Both pernicious anxiety and “positive thinking” are, effectively, our grasping attempts to be in real control—as if our mere thinking or stressing could bring about happy resolutions. And it is harder still for us to accept that we may be mistaken about what is good right now or as part of God’s grander plan.

So, perhaps, in some sense, good thoughts will indeed lead to good things—inasmuch as we may change our lives or our actions if we begin to think rightly about them. And this is not, of course, to say that positive attitudes are a bad thing. It is a lie, however, if we tell ourselves that we can change the world merely by willing it to be a certain way.

But that day, when I was driving by the little chapel, I really, really wished that the sign was actually right—that in a vague metaphysical sense good thoughts would miraculously lead to good things—like a gas station in front of me. But alas, no matter how positively I thought about finding a gas station, none materialized merely by my willpower; and no matter how much positive energy I put into finding fabric at the fabric store, the perfect swatch of cotton didn’t manifest during my shopping trip.

Good things, I’m afraid, don’t come to those who merely think.

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