Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, exposes, among other things, the hidden ideology of the ‘positive’ thinking culture.  As she states,

positive thinking has made itself useful as an apologbright-sidedy for the crueller aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

 This is one of the more salient points and I wonder if she’s had the joy of reading Athusser or Zizek.

When Ehrenreich spoke at Powell’s Books a few weeks ago, she noted how this study began.  When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she entered, on an extremely personal level, the positive thinking industry and its attendant “mandatory optimism.”  She talked about the book recommendations she received.  Books with titles like, The Gift of Cancer to which she answered that Cancer is no gift; it’s simply a disease.  There is nothing, she stressed, about the positive nature of a disease.

It was at this point that my thoughts ran to David Bentley Hart’s essays on the Tsunami and the old and forgotten notion of the Privatio boni.  As he states, “there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel…than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”  It is liberating because “when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy.”  For Hart, Christianity is a faith that sets us free from optimism and teaches us to hope instead.

It’s easy to note how this prevailing ideologies infiltrates our world (e.g. Mega churches, self-help book culture, etc.); more difficult still to imagine differently. Hart’s reviving of the ancient philosophical traditions helps us to do this; that is, thinking through Hope rather than mere optimism. 

But the Christian form of Hope and Charity which might be able to sustain us is far from easy – in fact, it’s the surest way to seek an early death.  As only Herbert McCabe could put the matter:

The Gospels insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed.  If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live.  If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed.”

And this most surely is our hope.

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