The Tyranny of Optimism
Tip of the hat here – I was moved to write the following piece after I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s marvelous book, “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America“. It is highly recommended.
This post carries on the argument of my previous entry, named, The Shape of our Thinking, in which I looked at how the shape of our thinking affects how we function in the world.
The following graph is a visual picture of my argument.
Briefly, astrology conceives of reality in terms of repeating cycles of growth and change – alternating opposites like light and dark, summer and winter and so on – and of ongoing cycles through time, of birth, growth, flourishing, decline, death and decay, followed in a collective sense by a rebirth, and so on. that is represented by the sine wave.
The straight line is our modern view of reality as conforming to Progress, where we just keep going up and up, getting better and better, always moving forward. The straight line and the wave are pretty much in sync on the upward slope, but on the downward slope they increasingly diverge.
On the downward slope, if you are used to thinking in terms of that upward straight line, you are likely to find yourself running into an increasing number of situations where things just don’t seem to be working quite the way they should.
This is where modern Positive Thinking gets us in big trouble.
Staying with this metaphor, positive thinking basically says, visualize upward slanting straight lines – admit nothing else into your consciousness – refuse to consider than the line might flatten out – and whatever you do, never entertain the idea that it might incline downward!
In America the belief is that you can achieve anything you want if you can conceive of it and just keep yourself focused on that positive goal. A positive attitude works wonders. Don’t let negative thinking get in your way. If you fail it’s your own fault.
Our American culture is very much based on the assumption of perpetual straight line progress. We assume that the normal state of affairs is for things to be perpetually continuing to improve, and that if there is any deviation from this something has gone wrong.
A straight line model of the world is, by definition, Optimistic. Optimism and Positive Thinking are very close to being the popular American religion at this point in time, and have been for quite awhile, at least since approximately the start of the 1900’s. The problem is, a philosophy of optimism and positive thinking doesn’t work very well when you are dealing with issues of economic contraction, unstable economy, stressed ecosystem with increasingly erratic symptoms, and so on. The philosophy of positive thinking is showing its weaknesses and blind spots, and more people are noticing this.
I want to mention a couple of incidents where I think I spotted the religion of Positive Thinking at work in the news.
Example one – I remember that, when Mitt Romney was defeated by Obama back in 2012, his reaction to that defeat struck me as kind of odd. He seemed to be in shock, as if the whole possibility that he could be defeated had never occurred to him. Well, if he was using Positive Thinking regarding the election, then he would not let himself entertain the notion of defeat – that would literally be unthinkable to him. If he could work himself into an emotional state where he “just knew” he would be elected, that was evidence enough. It took the shock of the TV sanctioned reality around him announcing Obama’s victory, to wake him up out of his bubble.
Romney likely kept himself in that positive thinking bubble, because he was convinced that thinking like that was necessary for him to “manifest” his winning the presidency. Only think positively enough, and anything is possible.
Example two – did anyone else find it strikingly strange that, during his speech when he dropped out of the race, Ted Cruz needed to talk about his “boundless optimism” for America’s future? Despite the little rough spot he was going through, he could see nothing but good ahead. That is the religion of Positive Thinking at work, and it is a deliberate and consciously chosen mental strategy.
I want to flesh this out a bit.
Let’s take a fictional scenario here. Take a successful and growing business – or take, say, a country that has been in an unprecedented period of massive growth and expansion for over a century – and during this same period the Positive Thinking belief system takes hold.
Why do we prosper? We think positive! We don’t let defeat enter our minds! We just keep our eyes on the positive – and watch, it works! We proved it! (Exclamation points deliberately over-used here – we’re talking emphatic, folks!)
This works just fine provided we are in the growth and expansion phase of a cycle – remember how the straight line pretty much matches the up slope on our wave graph.
Okay – now you hit the peak phase in the cycle, and start to cycle down the other side of the slope, the path of decline, loss of power, loss of wealth. Things slow down, some things start to fall apart. The business hits a decline in sales – or a country hits a bad recession that just doesn’t seem to want to go away.
How would you likely react? Easy – you double down on the positive thinking. Remember, you’ve just demonstrated to yourself how well it works, right?
Decline? Don’t let the word even enter your mind! Continue focusing on the positive goal, on continued growth – it worked before and it will work again. This is just a test of your resolve.
Many, if not most Americans alive today, still find the notion of anything about America being in decline as completely unthinkable. Banish the thought! Look on the bright side! Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative! How dare you talk about our country being in decline – that’s un-American!
Now here is the dangerous, and the critical part.
There are ways of dealing realistically and gracefully with the down slope part of a cycle – but only if you can perceive it, only if you have a way of thinking about it. The kind of actions that work on the growth part of the cycle – strategies for new growth, for expansion – are reckless and counter-productive on the downward cycle, and aggravate the problem. This is setting you up for a really rude awakening, when the evidence of decline becomes so drastic and extreme that it can no longer be ignored.
The stance of Positive Thinking, by definition, sets you up to scan only for positive feedback, and dismiss all negative feedback from your mind – after all, negative thought is only stopping you from harvesting the powerful result of your positive thought. It filters out the information needed to recognize the situation and to take useful steps to deal with it.
Folks, that is dangerous.
And folks – when we tell ourselves that our astrology must always be positive, that we cannot mention anything negative, that we must dismiss any signs of trouble and focus on a positive outcome – we are making exactly the same perceptual mistake.
This is where I want to talk about Positive Thinking and practicing astrology.
A lot of the assumptions that are sometimes made in some types of modern astrology about how to approach a chart are actually cliches borrowed from positive thinking.
Consider if you have ever heard, or read, or used, any of these phrases.
– There is nothing negative in the chart.
– All things can be used for good.
– We should look at the chart and only find what is good about it.
– A chart is nothing but potential, and it is your choice as to what to make of it.
– Whether or not you have a positive life depends on you.
– Some people view Saturn (or the 12th house, or the 8th house…) as negative – but we’re going to take a new approach and view it Positively!
That language assumes a positive, perpetual growth oriented attitude towards living. With where our world is now, I really don’t think that is a useful and realistic way of thinking about the world.
I’ve seen writing by modern astrologers where they argue that we should set aside those evil, negative traditional concepts of dignity and debility, of rulership and detriment, exaltation and fall – oh, and especially those horrible notions of malefic and benefic. We should never interpret anything in the chart negatively, we should always allow for and encourage a positive expression.
That’s positive thinking, folks. In some situations it works really well, and in others it is self-deluding and disastrous.
Reality is a lot more complex than a simple positive thinking kind of mental model can handle. Also, far more of our experience is out of our control than most people in our culture would care to think.
A lot of the most important evaluative concepts in traditional astrology are geared towards measuring how favorable or unfavorable a planet’s action will be. Experiences in life run the gamut from the heights of fortune to the depths of misfortune, and our astrology needs to be big enough to include both.
Concepts like dignity and debility, benefic and malefic, rulership and detriment, exaltation and fall, all describe parts of the human experience. Sometimes we are right at home, in control, respected, on top of things – and sometimes we are on the way down, or thrown off the bus, or worse yet, thrown under the bus – and neither situation is necessarily due to any virtue or fault of our own.
It helps to have a way of doing astrology – and, a way of thinking about our world – that makes sense of the whole gamut of human experience, that can help us acknowledge and deal with the best, and the worst, that life has to offer.