Barbara Ehrenreich is mad, and won't be jollied out of it. The author of Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: the (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream is obviously no Mary Sunshine, but it took a bout with breast cancer to truly tick her off. After the diagnosis, she found herself battling on two fronts: the disease itself and the jarringly upbeat cancer culture that bombarded her with pink ribbons and teddy bears and perky messages about finding meaning in the struggle. Enough! she cries in her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
Judging by her previous titles, Ehrenreich already finds America well undermined. But now she's found the cause-our preoccupation with the upbeat keeps us from grappling with real-world problems. In seeking how we got this way, she turns her gimlet eye on colonial Calvinism, described as "dour," "harsh," and "self-loathing."
It's not the first time Calvinism stands in for the devil when analyzing the American psyche. According to Ehrenreich, it was such a destructive doctrine somebody had to deliver an antidote or the Republic was doomed. To the rescue came Phineas Quimby, colleague of Mary Baker Eddy and proponent of "New Thought," an amalgam of early 19th-century pantheistic doctrines that packed away sin and guilt. And not a minute too soon. The Harvard philosopher William James credited New Thought with curing America of "morbidness" due to "the old hell-fire theology."
But interestingly, New Thought and its subsequent help-yourself-to-the-universe manifestations (endorsed by Oprah) are as rigorous in their call for self-examination as any hellfire preacher. True believers are supposed to banish negative thoughts and negative people; failure to do so dims their prospects for the future. Such single-mindedness (in Ehrenreich's view) keeps America "bright-sided" in a deteriorating world-and some of the worst offenders are professing Christians. Thus John Calvin makes way for Joel Osteen.
There is some truth in this, as any scan of the Trinity Broadcasting Network will show. But what's the proper Christian attitude toward "positive thinking"? Are we glum fatalists or namers-and-claimers?
John the Apostle says that believers have "overcome the world" by faith (1 John 5:5), as concise a definition of positive thinking as Phineas Quimby would wish for. But back up: Earlier John says we are "born of God," a concept almost invisible in its profundity. What are we born of originally? The stuff and stress of the world, into which we emerge kicking, struggling, and self-asserting even before we have any sense of self. John says that by faith we overcome the struggle. Is this overcoming some kind of serene Buddhist indifference, or a spiritualized form of positive thinking?
Neither, because it's based not on what we think of God, but on what He thinks of us. In my darkest moments, which are also my most honest moments, I must admit I am impossible to love, even impossible to know. And yet God both knows and loves. To believe that "Jesus is the Christ" (5:1) encompasses the good news that God sent His only Son on a massive rescue mission, not because He thought positively of us but because He loved us enough to pay an incalculable price.
The world promises a free lunch that costs us our souls. God promises an eternal banquet that cost His Son. But when the price was paid, He swept the shoddy meal aside and reset the table. To sit down with other sickly souls and enjoy food previously unknown (John 4:32) is to overcome the world. We never envisioned it, as positive-thinking novitiates are exhorted to do. Rather, God envisioned us at His table and made it happen.
At the moment, the prospects for civilization are not bright. As another recently published book puts it, We Are Doomed. And so we are-civilization, that is-sooner or later. "But take heart; I have overcome the world." And so shall we.
If you have a question or comment Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.