Those of you with memories that go a couple of posts back may recall that I had embarked on a discussion of what William James called the “healthy minded” and “sick soul” approaches to religion and life. My blog post was based on an article by experimental psychologist Richard Beck, “The Two Families of God,” and I confidently promised to come back and lay out my own views on the subject.
James, you remember, described healthy-mindedness as producing happiness that rests on an optimistic ignoring of evil and the dark side of existence.” The approach, James said, manifests a “blindness and insensibility to opposing facts given as its instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance.” In Beck’s words, “This protection is accomplished through repression and denial. It is an intentional form of blindness in the face of life to produce positive affect and existential equanimity.”
In other words, the sunny, happy results of healthy mindedness depend on denial of evil and suffering.
By contrast, what James called “sick souls” remain existentially aware, individuals “who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil…and are fated to suffer from its presence.” As Beck puts it, “James describes the sick soul as more profound than healthy-mindedness; the sick soul experience is ‘a more complicated key’ to the meaning of pain, fear and human helplessness.”
James said of the existential resiliency of the two types:
“The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. . . . But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; as even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”
It will probably come as no surprise that what struck me so sharply about Beck’s article is the apparent similarity of James’s healthy-mindedness to the principles of the Law of Attraction, which has overflowed its original New Thought banks, spilled into Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” and Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Gospel, to become an immensely popular new parallel to contemporary religion.
And that is where I—or more specifically this blog post–got bogged down. The more I have tried to analyze the response of Law of Attraction thinking to distressing near-death experiences, the more difficult I have found it to talk about it all coherently. Maybe I’m simply too close to the subject. Maybe I’m just bored by the ideology.
I am certainly aware of the aura of disapproval and fear, along with a kind of moral condescension, projected by Law of Attraction followers toward the whole subject of these types of experience and the people who report them. Ironically, I do not for a moment deny the utility of much LoA psychology nor the possibility that some of its scientific claims are plausible. (I have in fact bent a couple of spoons without physical force; I have a cellular memory of that “action at a distance.”)
What bogs me down is akin to theologian Walter Brueggemann’s claim that “we have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith.” It is the same model, says Beck, “that creates the sense that James’s sick soul or the experience of Mother Teresa is paradoxical. In the bipolar model, faith and complaint exist at the expense of the other. They cannot occupy the same experiential space. However, as we have seen in the psalms and in the empirical psychological literature regarding relationship with God, it appears that high complaint can coexist with faith.”
Similarly, I contend, acceptance of the existential burden of recognizing the dark side of existence, whether physical or spiritual, is not necessarily negativity as the Law of Attraction would have it. It can coexist with joy and success, and with a deep spirituality.
So, I am throwing this discussion out to you all. You’ve had some great comments about the former post. Do you think distressing NDEs can be accommodated within Law of Attraction thought? What are your thoughts about LoA thinking and human suffering on a global scale? (But please do not tell me that very young children attract their leukemias and blastomas to themselves, nor that the millions of individuals who died in the Holocaust invited the experience; that would be ideology talking, not common sense.) Is LoA simply a different kind of fundamentalism, brooking no disagreement?