When I was a child, I felt the presence of something that felt like potential. That’s a human word and one that doesn’t quite express the great, big, beautiful simplicity of what I felt, but it comes close. I felt all the “could-be’s” and possibilities in the world. I knew, in my child’s heart, how very easy it could be to change the world . . . to better all the lives in that world. All we had to do was Stop and Start. Stop arguing, stop lying, stop being mean, greedy, illogical, unjust and unfair. Start agreeing, telling the truth, start being authentically kind, generous, rational, just and fair. I could hardly wait to grow up and meet the thousands of people I was convinced must feel the same way. I mean, my world was small and unpleasant — my mother was full of rage, her husband wasn’t loving, my sisters and I were fairly disconnected — but then there was the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon every year and how loving and generous was that? There were all those thousands of people who packed television churches on Sunday, looking for kindness and agreement, and there was the soul-stirring speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was played over and over again until, by the age of 12, I nearly had it memorized.
My child’s heart felt that the source of my mother’s bitter anger was her lies. If only she’d tell the truth, I thought — if only she didn’t have to keep running from it, hiding it, denying it, making up more lies to cover the original ones — she might feel lighter. She’d have more space in her heart for the good things in life, like happiness and love. (I spent years trying to convince my mother of this, in sideways fashion as a child and head-on as an adult, but she clung to her lies until the end, as if they were life preservers).
I grew up determined to be a truth-teller. I didn’t want ugly things in my life. Most of all, I didn’t want to do anything to perpetuate ugliness. I wanted to be the highest “could-be” I sensed within myself. I really wanted it more than I wanted anything else.
When I left home at 16, I was scarred and frightened, but also filled with hope. I won’t repeat my life story here — I wrote a book about it already and touched on this subject there — but as a teenager I was hungry for guidance. I read self-help book after self-help book, not only to heal my wounds but to help me carve out the kind of happy, authentic, loving future I envisioned. I was willing to try anything, from Dale Carnegie’s enthusiastic positivity to the self-emptying premises of Buddhist philosophy. At various times, I fasted, prayed, meditated, chanted and screamed. I kept journals, created life plans and visualized my dreams coming true.
And then life hit. I discovered that many of my “could-be’s” needed other people. I couldn’t go to college, for instance, without the consent of my parents or the college system. I couldn’t create the feeling of safety and security I wanted without a job that paid decent wages, which meant that I needed someone, somewhere to give me a chance to prove myself. I couldn’t bring about or foster a mutual love without someone else’s consent or desire. I couldn’t be the writer I dreamed of being if there was no accessible ladder for me to climb. I could only keep hoping for any of it — trying to make myself the most improved person I could be, a person that other people might want to help — while trying to keep my head above water.
Without any real guidance, though — only my own naïve mind and the bromides of self-help books — I made a lot of mistakes, some of them critical. I made poor decisions with long-term consequences and then spent desperate years trying to mitigate the damages. Yet, on some level, I was still invested in what the spiritual gurus of self-help had all but promised me: Your thoughts create your reality. If you can dream it, you can become it. If you believe in yourself, other people will believe in you. Even in the worst and most desperate of times, I stoked these beliefs. I filled my mind and heart with the happiest dreams I could conceive of and convinced myself that there was something beautiful, perhaps even miraculous, waiting for me in the wings.
Flash forward 30+ years later to a deflated mess of a woman who had learned too many lessons the hard way. We live in a shared reality. You can dream all you want, but you’re going to need talent, tools, and other people to bring your dreams to life. Believing in yourself is crucial, but unless you have something to offer that other people want, belief isn’t going to pay the bills.
Hundreds of hardscrabble life experiences and empty hopes later, here’s what I wish, in a nutshell, the self-help experts had told me: It’s just not going to be that easy, kid.
Today, I have a strong appreciation for the battles I’ve fought, the lessons I’ve learned and a healthy skepticism of spiritual gurus — those who make their living telling others what to think, what to believe, how to feel and how to succeed. My skepticism isn’t so much for my benefit anymore, but because I know that people who are seeking answers are often wounded, in pain, confused and looking for answers that will leave them hopeful. I don’t want others to slip on the same snake oil that I did.
Spiritual gurus are not always wrong, but it pays to keep in mind that even the worst guessers are right sometimes. Besides, it’s hard to argue with a tenet like, “thinking positive thoughts will make you happier.” Of course they will, but like anything else, there’s a flip side. Thinking about what upsets you can give you the motivation to change a situation. Thinking about what makes you sad can help you define what’s missing in your life. There’s a reason for the diversity of feelings that human beings have and they all have their place and purpose. I think it’s a natural part of the human spirit to reach for the best within us, even if getting there is sometimes a winding, rocky, frustrating road.
I don’t know anyone that strives for negativity as a lifestyle, but I do know quite a few who feel obligated to force positivity into every situation, and who suffer guilt when they can’t or don’t. They feel like they’re not being the compliant, “good”, uncomplaining people they’ve been taught they’re supposed to be in order to be accepted, loved and valued. Many of these same people, under the imagined gun of positivity, begin to fear not just the expanse of their own emotions, but those of others. Coming face-to-face with someone who’s upset, frustrated, sad or hurt, they tend to take it personally. After all, if they repressed their own emotions in the name of positivity — if they cared that much about being a “better person” — one who’s accepted, loved and valued — then this person should, too. Maybe this upset-frustrated-sad-hurt person isn’t such a good person after all, they begin to think, at least not as good as I am.
I’ve seen this behavior up close and personal. I’ve witnessed a few newly knighted “positive thinkers” cut a swath through their relationships, refusing to have a thing to do with friends going through the crisis of a divorce, cancer or other trauma — unless those friends were willing to put a happy, positive spin on events. It seems to me that the positive thinker’s lack of empathy stemmed from a fear that they would lose their own superimposed but heavily enforced emotional bearings. Their positivity was so weak that it could not stand up in the real world, yet they promoted it to others as if it truly did make them better, kinder, wiser people.
Life can be hard. I think we make it harder for ourselves and each other when we impose or try to abide by unnecessary “rules” that attempt to dismiss or subvert large parts of the human experience, including our own natures and the realties we face everyday. And this is at the heart of my complaint about spiritual gurus in general. They create and promote unnecessary “rules” that don’t keep the wholeness of human beings and their experiences in mind. They divide too much. They seek to remove intellect from soul and spirituality from reality. They give false and unequal weight to the power of Self, while ignoring the power and impact of Others.
So why do we need spiritual gurus? Why do we listen to their programs, buy their books and tell all of our friends?
It’s obvious that we want answers . . . but do we even ask the right questions? Is it possible that perhaps we already know what the answers are — that we’ve always known — yet we just feel too powerless to bring about change on our own?