The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



It was exactly ten years ago this month that I preached my first sermon to this congregation. It was called “Absolutely Everything I Know”. I assured you at the time that it wouldn’t take very long. It still wouldn’t. If I remember correctly, the first thing that I said I knew was that there was a universe outside of me, existing before my birth and sure to exist long after me, indifferent to my pain or pleasure, that impinged itself upon me whether I willed it or not. To many of us that seems like a foregone conclusion, unnecessary to be stated, and certainly I am still wholly convinced of it, but there is a very popular strain of thought that takes the opposite view, and is perhaps gaining ground. I just finished reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickled and Dimed, called Bright-Sided, in which she argued that that point of view was not only growing but taking over much of the corporate attitude toward business and was directly responsible for the financial meltdown that caused our on-going economic crisis. That was just part of her argument. She traces its influence in almost every aspect of our lives. It is, essentially, that we create our own outcomes through positive thinking, and if we don’t like what happens to us it’s because we have allowed negative thoughts to intrude.  

In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was called “New Thought” and its most famous proponent was Mary Baker Eddy who established the religion of Christian Science. Her contention was that God created a universe in which we were intended to be happy, that the bad things that happen are an illusion that we create for ourselves, and all we need to do is realize that and correct our thinking. She was the most successful in her time, but she was not alone, and although Christian Science has fallen out of favor, many others come and go in a more or less flourishing state, and the ideas are so pervasive that most of us are influenced by them to a greater or less extent. At the very least we are pretty certain that if we maintain a positive attitude we’re more likely to be healthy, wealthy and wise.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons that I carried around with me for many years was of a square peg looking down at a round hole and saying to itself, “Now if I just eat right, exercise right and think positive thoughts….” The reason I am so fond of the story that I told the kids this morning, of Clorinda the dancing cow, is that we imbue our children with the idea that they can do anything they want to do if they just try hard enough, and then if they fail they’re sure that it must have been their own fault. Clorinda learns that after doing everything right, even achieving her goal of becoming an accomplished dancer, that there were some things that simply made it impossible for her to succeed as a performer, things that she couldn’t overcome no matter how hard she tried. I think that is an important lesson to temper our cheerleading with. Not that we want to lower our children’s aspirations, but it helps to also give them a realistic view of the world that takes some of the burden of guilt for failure off their shoulders.  

One of the pervasive manifestations of this cult of optimism is the widespread feeling that we should all be smiling all the time to the degree that if you are not, perfect strangers feel justified in telling you to smile since things can’t be all that bad. One time when it happened to me I said, quite truthfully, that I wasn’t so sure of that since I was on my way to a funeral. Actually, it was a memorial service, but funeral has a more significant sound. I could have made it sound even worse if I had elaborated, since it was a memorial service for a young man who had died tragically of AIDS. The poor man was terribly ashamed and embarrassed and I’ve felt sorry to have done that to him, but one good outcome is that he will probably never tell another stranger to smile.

I’m not saying that we should go around with long faces, complaining about our fate to whoever will listen. People do and always will prefer the company of those who are cheerful and optimistic. It is even true that the expression of emotions increases the strength of the emotion. Expressing anger makes you more angry; expressing happiness increases the feeling of happiness. I don’t think though, that you can create feelings that are opposite to your perceived reality. Nevertheless, there is much to be said for the stiff upper lip, and “Fine” is still the right answer to “How are you?,” even if you’re not. But there is also a time to feel and be serious, and never a time to tell others how to feel.

Linked to that is the hugging phenomenon. I don’t remember how many hugs per day were prescribed, but it didn’t seem to matter whether you even knew the people, much less liked them, if you got in enough hugs in a day to keep you healthy and happy. Luckily for those of us who prefer our hugs unchoreographed, research soon showed that hugs didn’t even have a placebo effect and might even spread germs. The same thing happened to the prayer industry when more rigorous testing found that patients who were prayed for and those who were not had an identical recovery rate. I’m not saying that praying for someone doesn’t have meaning and even good effect, but the person who is better for it is the one doing the praying rather than the one being prayed for.

The worst effect of this relentless preaching that your attitude creates your world is the guilt that ensues when something awful happens. It clearly must be your own fault — you haven’t smiled enough, haven’t visualized good outcomes enough, because if you had you’d be perfectly happy and healthy. I had a colleague who broke her arm and was trying to figure out what it was in her life that made it necessary for her to decide to break her arm. I suggested to her the possibility that it might have been an accident caused by a slippery step or even a momentary clumsiness which can happen even to the most agile of us. It had never occurred to her that she might somehow not be responsible for her own pain. She was actually rather pleased at the idea of a possible lack of personal responsibility for breaking her arm, but I suspect that most people who believe in creating health and happiness through a positive attitude will reject the idea of ordinary bad luck.

Many years ago I read an essay by Susan Sontag in which she talked about her experience with breast cancer. Even then women with breast cancer (or I suppose anyone with any kind of cancer) were being urged to keep a positive attitude in order to facilitate recovery. Sontag was having none of it. She was furious about it and she let everyone know it. She was scared and outraged and her attitude was as unpositive as you can get, and she survived and continued surviving. That was, of course, merely anecdotal and proved only that some people can survive, or at least one can, with a really bad attitude. It was the same experience that triggered Barbara Ehrenreich’s interest in the positive thinking movement. She felt that she was almost being told that she should be thankful for her cancer, since it would lead her to transformation and make her a better person than she would have been without it. No amount of the most advanced treatment would do her any good without this positive attitude nurtured in the support groups which have become an almost necessary part of medical care. She found it difficult, even impossible, to keep a positive attitude, and began to fear that she would engineer her own death because she couldn’t be happy about having a life-threatening illness.

Being a researcher by trade she decided to research the matter and found herself going deeply into the whole question of the beneficial effects of a positive attitude. She learned that the more rigorous studies show that attitude has no measurable effect on survival rates from cancer, but she couldn’t stop there. She spent several years investigating the various purveyors of positive thinking, and her conclusion is that it is not only ubiquitous but downright dangerous.

The two most influential books, after, of course, The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, were A Course in Miracles and the more accessible, The Secret, that Oprah Winfrey was so fascinated by. They both taught that you could get what you wanted: health, wealth and happiness, simply by deciding that’s what you wanted and visualizing it. Both implied that if you didn’t create your own universe in a beneficial way it was because you weren’t doing it sufficiently or correctly. The Secret, however, added a new wrinkle: the Law of Attraction. You would attract to yourself whatever you concentrated on, and therefore, if you concentrated on negative things, that’s what you would attract. The answer is obvious: You’d better think positively, or else. The movie, What the (bleep) Do We Know, had the same message.

It is also rife in the mega-churches and among many of the televangelists. God loves you and wants you to be happy and rich. All you have to do is ask. One of them suggested that if you pray for a van you should specify the color. Should it not work it isn’t the message that is wrong but that you are either impatient or perhaps aren’t visualizing what you want quite as clearly or as passionately as needed.

Secular evangelists have sprung up for this new faith, writing books, making presentations, counseling for fairly vast sums. They go by different names, but they teach the same things. They may be life coaches, motivational speakers, or some other designation. Business started using them when the essential job of a corporation ceased being to produce something and became to make money for its stockholders. One quick way to do that was to downsize: to lay off people and have the remaining workers work more hours under more stress with the possibility of more downsizing hanging over their heads. I never quite understood why something that looked like failure caused immediate stock price increases, and please don’t try to explain it to me, because I will probably dislike the explanation as much as I dislike the phenomenon. They hired motivational speakers to soothe the angst of those who were laid off by telling them that it was a blessing in disguise giving them an opportunity for happiness and riches beyond their present dreams, and to turn what might logically have been rebellion among the remaining workers into increased workload. Ehrenreich argues that the CEOs who first were cynically using this for their company’s good were themselves converted and started making decisions not on familiar business practices but with faith in the law of attraction at the same time that consumers, with the same faith, began buying the houses and cars they had visualized expecting that somehow the means to pay for them would come. The inevitable followed and the economy crashed. Well, there may have been some other reasons for that, too, but her descriptions of some of the practices are as scary as believers in the rapture. And the believers are just as committed. When things go wrong; when they break their arms or when a child dies or when they lose their jobs through no fault of their own — sometimes even in a natural disaster — they blame the victim. They blame themselves instead of the fact that in the real universe bad things can happen to good people.

When those things happen people inevitably ask themselves why. Somehow they feel that they must have done something wrong or this — whatever it is — would not be happening to them. Sometimes, of course, that’s true, and it usually doesn’t take long to figure it out, but often, even when you can see where if you had done something differently (if you hadn’t worn those slippery soles or had watched for ice on the step) it wouldn’t have happened, there’s no guarantee, and we always make the best choices we can given our information at the time. And bad things still happen.

I stand by what I said ten years ago. There is a whole universe out there, independent of me and indifferent to my pain or pleasure, which impinges on my life whether I will it or not. It impinges on you, too, and none of us has any control over it. We cannot make the universe respond to our wishes by pasting a picture of the car we want on our mirror so we can visualize it constantly, nor by any other means. We are not responsible for accidents or luck. In a universe in which justice has no meaning, however, we are responsible for moral outcomes. We are called to create justice even in a universe in which good people suffer by relieving their suffering when we can and by doing the best we can to establish means to prevent it. We are called even beyond justice to compassion. Neither we nor others are wholly masters of our fate, and when harm comes, when loss occurs, not fixing blame, we hold one another in our arms and in our hearts.