Acknowledging the limits of positive thinking

Peter Greste

By

06/10/2017

OPINION | We have all heard the exhortations about the power of positive thinking: the glass is always half full; no negative thoughts allowed; train your mind to see the good in every situation; and my personal favourite, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Well, no matter how hard I looked at them, the concrete walls and steel bars of my cell in Cairo’s Torah Prison were still just walls and bars, and I struggled to ‘see the good’ in the list of terrorism charges that my interrogator had just read out.

Solitary confinement in an Egyptian prison is a solid place to test the utility of positive thinking, and after two weeks in the cells, I was beginning to discover that it doesn’t always work as well as its exponents claim.

In recent decades, a whole industry has developed around the power of positive thinking, along with rows of bookshelves groaning with titles like You Can if You Think You Can, and Think and Grow Rich.

Those books have their place, but they can look a little hollow when they bump up against the brutally harsh realities that life just happens to lob in our faces from time to time.

The cult of agency

One of the features of Western thinking – and an assumption that underpins the ideas behind positive thinking – is the cult of agency. This is the notion that we are in complete control of our lives, and we have the power to do whatever we want as long as we work hard enough.

Winston Churchill encapsulated it nicely when he said, “A positive thinker sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.”

Implicit in Churchill’s quote is the idea that his own remarkable success was because of his capacity to see the bright side of things. This idea neatly brushes aside the accident of his birth.

Undoubtedly, Churchill had an extraordinary mind, but the former British prime minister was also born in the incredibly opulent Blenheim Palace as the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, himself a former chancellor of the exchequer, and a member of the aristocratic Spencer family. If anyone ever had a silver spoon in his mouth from the get-go, it was him.

A danger with much of the literature about positive thinking is that it implies it is our own fault if we have not achieved the impossible – and let’s face it, generally most of us haven’t. It often suggests we have not been positive enough, and that if only we could squeeze a little more cheeriness out of our souls, all would be perfect.

This denies the fact that if things are lousy, it might just be because the economy has gone south, or a few of our cells have gone rogue and given us cancer, or a storm has just wiped out our crops.

‘Abandon hope’

The Buddhist nun and writer Pema Chodron offers an alternative idea. She says we should toss out all the blithe affirmations stuck on our fridges and replace them with just one: abandon hope.

Chodron is not arguing that we simply give up and dump our ambitions. Rather, she is advocating for a clear-eyed look at what is really going on in our lives, without living for some non-existent future that we might hope for but never attain. She is suggesting we recognise the role that chance plays in both success and failure, and understand the limits of our own power to control things.

For me in prison, that was an unexpectedly and profoundly comforting notion. My colleagues and I were not responsible for being stuck in the cells, and thinking our way out was a fool’s errand.

Instead of denying the walls, we turned them into canvases, plastered them with the strips of foil that our food often came wrapped in, and created big, glistening murals. If we were going to be stuck there for a while, we thought, we might as well accept it and make life a little less bleak.

Peter Greste is an internationally acclaimed Australian-born journalist who spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on false terrorism charges. He is an advocate for press freedom. Greste was a guest speaker at the Conexus Financial-Investment Magazine Group Insurance Summit 2017, held in Sydney on August 29, where he shared his perspectives on the topic of resilience and mental health. His new book First Casualty: a memoir from the frontlines of the global war on journalism is out now.