Positive thinking is not always good enough, apparently. I read this oped piece in the NY Times today, challenging our pop spirituality notion that our best intentions will cure us.
…Such beliefs have implications for how we regard people who are ill. If people are insufficiently upbeat after a cancer diagnosis or inadequately “spiritual” after a diagnosis of AIDS, are we to assume they have willfully placed their health at risk? And if they fail to recover, is it really their fault? The incessant pressure to be positive imposes an enormous burden on patients whose course of treatment doesn’t go as planned.
Very early in my career, I participated in a study of young women who were hospitalized and awaiting the results of biopsies to determine if they had cervical cancer. While I was interviewing one of my patients, the biopsy results of the woman in the next bed came back to her — negative. The fortunate woman’s father, who was there with her, said in relief: “We’re good people. We deserve this.” It was a perfectly understandable response, but what should my patient have said to herself when her biopsy came back positive? That she got cancer because she wasn’t a good person?
It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one’s illness is unconscionable. Linking health to personal virtue and vice not only is bad science, it’s bad medicine.
Augustine would have had a response to this, because of how he dealt with Manicheans and Pelagians.
The Manicheans were a fad pop culture spirituality rubbish group. They taught a bunch of contradictory stuff, telling you to challenge the blind faith of the Catholic Church, while simultaneously demanding blind faith in their own doctrine. They would have given you a lot of easy stuff you could have done to ensure your salvation (Like eating more mango, to ward off darkness, and welcome light or whatever vague nonsense they felt like telling you that day).
The Pelagians… Well I should say followers of the doctrine of Pelagius, who was an monk. I get the sense that Pelagius as an individual was probably incredibly rugged and independent, and saw our salvation very much in our own hands. We were capable of doing good, that is how God made us, and we must carry out the whole act.
Augustine responded to Pelagius, simply that our salvation is really a gift of God’s love. Because we all fail, we all don’t measure up that good, and God not only makes up for it by Grace, but actually makes us worthy because of his love. Salvation is a gift, it doesn’t only go to those who are worthy. The Church sided with Augustine, because it meant more mercy for the sinner, while Pelagius’ assertion meant damnation for the sinner.
I think Richard Sloan summarizes the problem very well. If we really do have all the power and responsibility in our will to heal and cure ourselves, or manage our health, then its really ALL our own individual fault for all our health. The more we focus our health exclusively in our will, the more guilt and shame we deserve for failing to actually heal ourselves.
So yes, I think the Secret is lame. It is a terrible excuse to exploit the self obsesses and superstitious yuppies who feel ready to pat themselves on their back for their new super powers. Health and happiness are not a secret reserved exclusively for the small initiated.
Probably the best response to health or suffering is really gratitude. Grace is the root of the word gratitude. Whether for good or bad, we can accept our state as is. That would challenge us to actually seek out the competent help we need, whether it is through prayer, or through a competent medical authority.