Positive Thinking Will Not Solve Every Problem

1970s yellow smiley face, but with a sad face and tears.

It’s time to stop diminishing people’s suffering by advising them to rethink their situation

Some people are going through hell. They have a loved one diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or injury. They are financially destitute. They are barely surviving in a cave of depression. Telling these people that their misery is due to negative thinking is both cruel and inaccurate.

According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is. There is the situation or the fact, and here are my thoughts about it. Instead of making up stories, stay with the facts. For example, ‘I am ruined’ is a story. It limits you and prevents you from taking effective action. ‘I have 50 cents left in my bank account’ is a fact. Facing facts is always empowering.”

To be fair, I have not read this book or any book written by Mr. Tolle, although I have heard of him.

I have been in dark places and desperate situations: depression, poverty, and having my child diagnosed with a brain tumor. The problem was not my negative thinking, it was the reality of a terrible situation that I was forced to navigate through.

Depression is a complicated subject, as there are numerous causes and degrees of suffering. Hearing that you need to snap out of it or that the situation you are experiencing is not so bad falls on empty ears and can lead to tragic consequences. Depression is not a neutral situation that you can easily talk yourself out of. In most cases of severe depression, it takes meds and/or a qualified therapist to get you back on even ground.

Poverty can make people take desperate actions or give up entirely. In my younger life as a single mother with a pittance for child support and very limited help from my family, I struggled. There were many months where I juggled my bills, survived on a diet of beans and rice, and had to stop at a gas station every day to put air in my worn-out tires that I could not afford to replace. I know people who have passed bad checks – back in the day – to put food on the table. I know women who became strippers or prostitutes to support themselves and their kids. Other people turn to major crime or a life on the streets. Luckily, I was never forced to pursue any of those options. I returned to college thanks to Pell Grants and took out student loans to supplement my meager earnings. Money may not always bring happiness, but poverty will always make you miserable.

Family illness is always the worst. I will never forget the call from the neurologist telling me that my daughter’s MRI showed a brain tumor. It took my breath away. For over a year, every morning when I woke up, my brain screamed at me, “Your daughter has a brain tumor.” Two surgeries and 17 years later, she is alive, but disabled. I have friends and relatives whose kids have severe illnesses or drug addictions. They are not telling themselves a “story” as Mr. Tolle would suggest, they are struggling to function.

Life is tough

Nobody makes it through life unscathed. We all face challenges, and some are considerably worse than others. Many people overreact to situations, making mountains out of molehills, and those people absolutely do need to properly evaluate the situation in order to take the appropriate actions, rather than being caught up in a “woe is me” mindset over a temporary problem. It is all about putting the situation in perspective.

To achieve that perspective, I developed a line of questioning that I use when family, friends, colleagues, and students approach me in a frantic state with a problem.

  • Is anyone dead?
  • Will anyone end up dead?
  • Could anyone end up in jail?
  • Is anyone pregnant?
  • Will this situation matter in a year, in a month, or even tomorrow?

This scenario always settles things down and helps the individual determine a good solution for their problem.

Try kindness instead of judgement or misplaced optimism

Instead of telling people who are dealing with extreme hardship or tragedy to separate their story from the situation, give them grace and acknowledge their pain. It is real. When I encounter unfamiliar people who are unpleasant, I give them the benefit of the doubt. You never know what bad news they received that day or what struggles they endure on a daily basis. I have faked enough smiles and replied “fine” too many times to the checkout lady at the grocery store who asked how my day is going, rather than sharing the hard truth.

Eckhard Tolle is wrong on this topic. Don’t tell me that a fatal car accident, a critical illness, or a drug overdose is neutral – or that your thinking on the subject is the problem. Poverty is not neutral when your kids are sleeping in the back seat of the car. Depression is not neutral when you don’t think your life is worth living.

We will all face challenges in life, which are ultimately learning experiences for better or worse. Rather than advocating for a change in attitude or advising someone to separate their “story” of the situation from the “facts” of their situation, express genuine sympathy, be available for a talk and a hug, and acknowledge the pain the person is experiencing. How would you want to be treated under similar circumstances?

© Joyce O’Day 2023. All Right Reserved.

AI was NOT used in the creation of this article.

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