A belief that what you get out of life depends on how you think about life.
It seems straightforward enough. Empowering, even. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple.
Have you ever found yourself wondering if there’s too much ego attached to this trendy philosophy? Or what to make of its logical inverse: that victims are self victimizing?
It’s no surprise, really. Those who are successful seek out a self-affirming explanation for their success. A successful individual may look around and see plenty of people with great potential who nonetheless never seemed to get it right. So what was the deciding factor? Talent? Persistence? Intellect? Good looks? A great attitude? Good timing? The right set of parents? Birthplace? A superior education? Friends in high places?
Out of all the possible explanations — perhaps luck (destiny), preparedness (talent), or persistence (dedication) — how many times does it seem even modestly successful individuals adopt seemingly self-congratulatory explanations, concluding, “I maintained a positive (better) attitude”, or “God has blessed me because I have been faithful”, or “I sent good karma out into the world, and it returned to me in spades”?
Whereas ancient man comprehended his own frailty in the face of a brutal natural world, modern man believes in choice over fate, and self confidence over faith. Insulated within the relative safety of our man-made environments, we feel largely invincible. Going from a victim of the whims of the gods to a victorious Creator certainly holds a certain attraction. We are no longer helpless in the hand of fate, for the only destiny is the one we create.
Over the past 40-some years, however, a darker side to the man-as-god mythology has emerged. The same perception of control that inspires a successful individual, forms a motivation to assign blame. “Negative” and “lazy” become character descriptions for those who do not validate another’s perceived sense of order in the universe (control). This attitude doesn’t merely trickle from the top down, either. An unsuccessful individual may brand him- or herself as one’s own worst enemy — the primary cause of one’s adversity. Such an individual may spend years in therapy attempting to negate the innate genetic, biochemical and personality characteristics that make him or her unique.
In a world that holds there are no victims, only self saboteurs, it is easy to embark on a path of self doubt and criticism for one’s perceived lack of willpower (control). This negative self-determination carries weight because it implies the power of choice. If we made some aspect of our lives go wrong via wrong thinking or wrong choices, we can make all right with the world through right thinking and right decision making. We prefer this viewpoint because if circumstances are deemed outside our control, we are forced to confront unvarnished reality: Control is largely illusory.
At one time, American culture tempered emerging New Age assumptions with levelheaded reminders that we are not captains of destiny. The Serenity Prayer, which became a fixture in the 12-step recovery movement, reminds us that we need a higher power to show us the difference between that which we can influence, and that which is beyond our control. Scripture, likewise, deals with this same question, for it is an age-old concern:
“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life,'” (John 9:1-3).
Here we see an example of Jesus teaching that in our frailty, God’s glory, grace and power shines. But in New Age parlance — and, tellingly, even from prominent megachurch pulpits — we learn to measure God’s love with a yardstick that is almost entirely dependent on outward measures of success (abundance — physical, financial and social). Year after year, these false promises are repackaged and re-branded by one talk show guest and bestselling author after another, who in so doing profits handsomely from this self-as-center-of-universe ideology. It is, after all, what the narcissist within each of us wants to hear.
What gives these half-truths such staying power in American culture?
As someone who spent a number of years in the book business, I can venture an educated guess: Books that postulate that there is less order and more chaos fail in the marketplace. After all, the type of people who are likely to seek out and read self help books are typically those who believe that the truth is “out there”. They believe they can find answers in a book, a religion, a philosophy. When at last they connect with an articulate author’s prose, the crowing revelation is that of self as judge, jury and, ultimately, God. Readers aren’t looking to be reminded that the answers to life’s biggest questions are rarely contained in a $15 paperback, or that cultivating a mentality of control may lead to more suffering than success.
Revered author Ralph Waldo Emerson — perhaps because of his success — also advanced this half-baked philosophy:
“Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances — it was somebody’s name, or he happened to be there at the time, or it was so then, and another day would have been otherwise. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”
While the principle of cause-and-effect is by no means entirely false, it is most often observed within the confines of a scientific laboratory. Boiling complex social, spiritual and interpersonal realities down to a question of input vs. output is an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age, not the real-world complexities that humans have been grappling with on this planet for millions of years. The child receiving cancer treatment didn’t “choose” his or her illness. The parents who agonize over a drug- or alcohol-abusing child are not necessarily the cause. The fellow who was injured on the job and struggled to get himself back together cannot be written off as someone lacking in ambition or a solid work ethic. The doctor who is sued for malpractice is not necessarily an incompetent practitioner. The overweight woman at church may not be a couch potato.
A desire to project ourselves into circumstances where others are neither to blame nor congratulate seems innate. But ancient sources of wisdom paint a more restrained picture. A biblical proverb states “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Pr 19:21). Another says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Pr 16:9).
Scripture confirms the idea that life is not fair, and may never be fair no matter how much we struggle to maintain the idea that the universe merely reflects our own intentions. Rather, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (MT 5:45).
An odd anecdote from the life of the late trance-medium Edgar Cayce backs the biblical concept of fate.
“One day in a large city I entered a department store to do some shopping. I was on the sixth floor and rang for the elevator. While I was waiting for it I noticed some bright red sweaters, and thought I would like to look at them. However, I had signaled for the elevator, and when it came I stepped forward to enter it. It was almost filled with people, but suddenly I was repelled. The interior of the car, although well-lighted, seemed dark to me.
“Something was wrong. Before I could analyze my action I said, ‘Go ahead,’ to the operator, and stepped back. I went over to look at the sweaters, and then I realized what had made me uneasy. The people in the elevator had no auras. While I was examining the sweaters, which had attracted me by their bright red hues—the color of vigor and energy—the elevator cable snapped, the car fell to the basement, and all the occupants were killed.”
Does this sound like a simple case of cause-and-effect? Were the people trapped in that elevator any more deserving or selective of their tragic destiny than the blind man in Jesus’ day whose friends and neighbors presumed a sin on the part of his parents?
Perhaps the strongest “cause” for any form of success is persistence. But persistence doesn’t necessarily correlate with greater intellect, greater talent, better looks or a better attitude that somehow entitles one individual to more “open doors” than another. So rather than allowing popular philosophy to create an insalubrious expectation that one can or should be able control outcomes — an assumption that parallels the meteoric rise in antidepressants, ADHD medications and all manner of costly prescription and illicit coping aids alike — it is time we make our peace with the counterintuitive.
The idea that we can or should live a charmed life if only we project the right set of intentions backed by the appropriate thought process is insidiously toxic. It breeds arrogance among the elite and self doubt among those who have applied such principles only to realize that the Universe does not revolve around, nor faithfully reflect, them. Accepting the reality that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people may not seem all that comforting, and it certainly won’t sell any books or self-help seminars. Yet acknowledging that the mysteries of life are more numerous than the answers is strangely liberating. Letting go allows us to make peace with an awe-inspiring aspect of life that might otherwise tear at our morale. Only when we remain humble — but for the grace of God there go I — do we allow gratitude, awe, contentment and compassion to heal our relationship with God, ourselves and others. For unlike Eastern philosophies born of gurus who retreated to the solitude of the wilderness, humility will stand beside us amidst our hectic, distracting, and unpredictable contemporary lives.