The Power of Negative Thinking

Positive thinking is all the rage in America these days, especially in alternative spiritual circles. As Atul Gawande states in a recent New York Times article, “the prevailing wisdom is that thinking positive is the key—The Secret, even—to success.” Gawande goes on, however, to say that at least at some times and in some areas of life, “Negative thinking may be exactly what we need.” I think A Course in Miracles would agree.

The topic of Gawande’s article is the recent patient-care scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He poses the question: How could a hospital that is so excellent at saving the lives of wounded soldiers be so terrible at providing care for them afterward? Gawande’s answer is that when it comes to saving lives, medical staff members at Walter Reed are “encouraged by leaders to think negative”: to look for mistakes and problems and face them squarely so they can be corrected. They have carefully examined problems such as soldiers not wearing their Kevlar and protective goggles, miscommunication, transport issues, unexpected infections and the like, and made changes to solve these problems. As a result, their success rate at saving wounded soldiers is the highest in history.

But the military’s recent independent review of conditions at Walter Reed indicated that when it came to aftercare for recovering soldiers, things were appallingly different. There were moldy and rodent-infested rooms, staff shortages, soldiers in wheelchairs stranded without food, brain-injured soldiers left to haplessly navigate the military bureaucracy on their own-the list goes on and on. The difference, Gawande says, is that on the aftercare side of things, the leadership at Walter Reed was not thinking negative, not actively looking for problems. In fact, there was no effort whatsoever to track how soldiers were doing in their rehabilitation. And sadly, even when the problems were exposed, Army medical chief Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley tried to put a positive spin on the situation: “It was a one-sided representation. While we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure.” Gawande concludes that while negative thinking may not be appropriate for every aspect of life-for instance, you wouldn’t want to constantly point out your children’s faults-when it comes to something like caring for recovering soldiers, a healthy dose of negative thinking is just what the doctor ordered.

As I said, I think A Course in Miracles would agree that negative thinking in the sense of facing problems squarely is essential. True, the Course does have a major component of positive thinking as well: It wants us to focus on the good efforts of others, acknowledge our genuine progress with the Course, see attacks as calls for love, see trials as opportunities to forgive, etc. But while the Course encourages positive thinking that is an affirmation of the truth, it warns us against putting a positive spin on truly negative things-what I’ve heard colorfully referred to as “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Indeed, dressing up its ugliness and hatred in “pleasant” disguises is one of the ego’s primary ways of staying in business. For instance, we try to make our bodies look good, which the Course calls painting “rosy lips upon a skeleton” (T-23.II.18:8). (Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like putting lipstick on a pig.) We put on a face of innocence to cover our attacks. We engage in special love relationships that hide the hatred underneath. This is a major obstacle to our progress, because as long as we keep putting a positive spin on the negative, we’ll do nothing to correct it.

Therefore, the Course material gives us a strong dose of “negative thinking”; again and again, it asks us to “look upon the problem as it is” (T-27.VII.2:2) instead of sugarcoating it. Here are just a few examples:

You cannot dismiss [the ego] lightly, and must realize how much of your thinking is ego-directed. (T-4.VI.1:4)

We have repeatedly emphasized the need to recognize fear and face it without disguise as a crucial step in the undoing of the ego. (T-12.I.8:5)

It is so crucial that you look upon your hatred and realize its full extent. (T-13.III.1:1)

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. (T-16.IV.6:1)

What is important is only the recognition of a mistake as a mistake. (M-7.5:8)

Conflict must be resolved. It cannot be evaded, set aside, denied, disguised, seen somewhere else, called by another name, or hidden by deceit of any kind, if it would be escaped. It must be seen exactly as it is, where it is thought to be, in the reality which has been given it, and with the purpose that the mind accorded it. For only then are its defenses lifted, and the truth can shine upon it as it disappears. (W-pII.333.1:1-4)

A great example of both the need to look squarely at the ego’s negativity and our tendency to dress it up in pleasant disguises is in the Urtext, the original typescript of the Course. Notice how Jesus both praises Sigmund Freud’s “clear-sighted” negative thinking about the ego and disagrees with the “confused” positive thinking of Freud’s successors, who tried to make it look spiritual:

The ego is as frail as Freud perceived it. The later theorists have tried to introduce a less pessimistic view, but have looked in the wrong direction for their hope. Any attempt to endow the ego with the attributes of the Soul, is merely confused thinking. Freud was more clear-sighted about this, because he knew a bad thing when he perceived it. (Urtext).

The Course wants us to engage in this kind of negative thinking for the same reason it wants us to engage in its form of positive thinking: because (according to the Course) it is the truth. We need to pull off the pretty masks and see the true nature of our illusions, for “how else can one dispel illusions except by looking at them directly, without protecting them?” (T-11.V.2:2). Only when we stop obscuring our illusions in a “positive” cloud of denial can the light of truth shine them away.

Therefore, let’s recognize that the right kind of negative thinking is a good thing—let’s think positively about thinking negatively. Just as the Walter Reed medical staff looking honestly at the problems of wounded soldiers has led to a great deal of healing, so looking honestly at the ego’s illusions leads to our healing. That’s the power of negative thinking.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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