positive thinking: handle with care

For a number of years I've been trying to land on my own understanding of the "think positively" philosophy. It became a thing to question after I realized there were people who scoffed at the notion that positive thinking could do any good--instead, some insist that positive thinking can lead to negative outcomes because, they say, it denies the suffering of reality.

My experience has been that positive thinking is like a rope in a high-walled well. It offers the opportunity to pull ourselves to the surface when encouragement or a break from suffering is needed. The surface being the place where we have perspective and can breathe. The surface is also the place where we can choose the next steps of a path forward rather than in a circle as the well would require. 

I don't practice delusional thinking (often mistaken for positive thinking). Instead, I use positive thinking to bring innovation into my mind. To see a wall and build a door. Choosing positive thoughts is the consideration of possibilities. I suspect that some critics have been turned off by the term "positive thinking" because it is misused and abused far too commonly. People say "think positively" when they struggle to be present with someone else as they suffer. "Cheer up," "look on the bright side" and "think positively" are forms of silencing, NOT empathy. 

Positive thinking is a personal practice and is best not given as unsolicited advice. For instance, I have been in a funk for a couple weeks. I let myself be present with all the feelings that come up for me. I don't try to escape the experience no matter how uncomfortable and, I know it will be okay. I also know that I can't overstay my welcome in this space and I use positive thoughts to soothe me up to the surface so I can catch my breath. But, if someone else were to say to me "look on the bright side," I'd probably want to pinch them or I'd get even more grumpy as a way to rebel. When we give positive thinking advice to others, we're essentially saying that their pain and suffering makes us uncomfortable so if they could kindly get chipper we'd really appreciate it. 

Positive thinking is a tool and like all tools, needs to be used appropriately for it to work. So to the critics of positive thinking I would like to say, don't blame the tool. Not all people misuse positive thinking and those who do, while they can be terribly annoying, are likely well-intentioned. People want to feel happy. It is programmed into us as the ultimate goal and we haven't, as a society, recognized that happiness is a fleeting emotion and cannot be sustained. What can be sustained and nurtured is contentment. A content life is one that experiences all feelings without denial and without pacification. A content life can be in the middle of Hell and know that it is temporary and that relief will come. A content life can navigate conflict and end up even more connected to the person with whom we had the conflict. Happy, on the other hand, knows itself as the opposite of sad and can't manage to hold all of life's experiences with a smile. 

In the toolbox of life, positive thinking is a critical tool.