Monday, August 28, 2006

Blown away by his positive mental attitude.

I come to you today from south Florida, where we await the arrival of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Ernesto tomorrow (tomorrow also being, providentially, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina). Naturally the newsfolk down here could find nothing else to talk about for the past week, even though the hurricane was still several hundred miles out to sea, and might not even be a hurricane by the time of its landfall (if, indeed, it falls on Floridian land at all, which remains uncertain as I write this). By late tonight, following the usual storm-coverage script, the news stations will have dutifully dispatched their intrepid reporters to various stretches of coastal terrain, each reporter's goal being to look more windblown than the next news station's.... Anyway, there is an actual point to this post, and it's this: As part of the wall-to-wall coverage of non-Hurricane Ernesto, we've also been treated to our share of person-in-the-street interviews. I was struck in particular by these words of wisdom from one shopkeeper: "The important thing is to keep a positive attitude." Meanwhile, clearly visible in the background were the windows of his store, which had not yet been boarded up.

Inasmuch as the hurricane, if it comes, won't give a rat's you-know-what about anyone's attitude--Ernesto is gonna do whatever it does or doesn't do, regardless of whether Floridians maintain a happy face throughout--I'd say that that guy's time is best spent taking out a hammer and some nails and boarding up his damn windows, rather than honing his upbeat mindset. But see, this is what a few generations of positive thinking have done to us...teaching us that somehow attitude trumps action, or is at least equally important. (Me, I'll take the guy down the street who has a terrible attitude--but had the presence of mind to construct his store out of reinforced concrete, with metal shutters on his windows.)

Just a thought....

P.S. On re-reading what I wrote above, I think it's just possible that I may have sacrificed clarity for snideness--a common foible of mine. My real point is that many of us today have been conditioned to fall back on PMA the way we used to (and still do) fall back on prayer--as if positive attitude alone can change the course of our lives (or the course of a hurricane, in this case). I'll grant you that yes, at some point this shopkeeper is going to get around to protecting his windows. But what else is he entrusting to attitude that--just maybe--he could take an active hand in achieving? How much energy is going into "hope" that could instead go into something more functional? Widening the lens a bit, how many of us are inclined to put our faith in someone with a "good attitude" when maybe what we really need is a more competent person who just happens to have a bad attitude? I think they're valid questions.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

GOOD point. Last night, HGTV was interviewing Katrina survivors and showing the wreckage of their former homes, and they were all cursing their insurance companies and lamenting the fact that they had no flood insurance. Hell, I live far inland beside a tiny seasonal stream, and even I have flood insurance! We could all stand to learn a little preparedness from our friendly neighborhood survivalists. For those of us who are unquenchably optimistic, "Hope for the best, expect the worst" gives you the attitude AND the metal shutters!

Anonymous said...

GOOD point. Last night, HGTV was interviewing Katrina survivors and showing the wreckage of their former homes, and they were all cursing their insurance companies and lamenting the fact that they had no flood insurance. Hell, I live far inland beside a tiny seasonal stream, and even I have flood insurance! We could all stand to learn a little preparedness from our friendly neighborhood survivalists. For those of us who are unquenchably optimistic, "Hope for the best, expect the worst" gives you the attitude AND the metal shutters!

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm all for maintaining a good attitude, stiff upper lip, and happy face, but at the risk of being labelled a terrorist sympathizer, I'll offer an old Islamic proverb:

Trust in Allah, but tie up the camels.

The flip side of that logic is clearly expressed in a verse from a hymn on Firesign Theater's Don't Crush That Dwarf; Hand ME The Pliers album. It goes:

"Oh, Blinding Light,
Oh Light that blinds,
I cannot see,
Look out for me"

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm all for maintaining a good attitude, stiff upper lip, and happy face, but at the risk of being labelled a terrorist sympathizer, I'll offer an old Islamic proverb:

Trust in Allah, but tie up the camels.

The flip side of that logic is clearly expressed in a verse from a hymn on Firesign Theater's Don't Crush That Dwarf; Hand ME The Pliers album. It goes:

"Oh, Blinding Light,
Oh Light that blinds,
I cannot see,
Look out for me"

Cosmic Connie said...

Of course a mere PMA isn't enough to stop a hurricane! Fortunately, a group of new agers, led by a woman who calls herself Phoenix, are doing a mass meditation to stop Ernesto in his tracks. You can call the woman on the phone to participate in a live meditation (it's a toll call, by the way) or you can just meditate on your own. Highlights from her suggested meditation:

"When you meditate, think of Ernesto or see his picture on in the media consider these simple and powerful steps:

"-- See and feel a huge, brilliant radiating sun of golden white light extending from your heart center sending 10 Billion Mhz of green love energy to Ernesto's eye, the window to his soul and center of his being, his heart.
-- See and feel this love energy extending throughout his being, filling him with love, peace and gratitude
-- See him spinning in a clockwise direction (Hurricane's spin counterclockwise), decreasing and neutralizing his intensity..."

..And so on. I can get you more info if you are interested. :-)

Meanwhile, just remember this rule of thumb: Run from the water, hide from the wind. And if you're hiding, board up your hiding place, like the Rev and I did during Rita last year. Stay safe, Steve!

Cal said...

Steve,

First off I enjoyed your "Truly Inspirational Story." I think it epitomizes the fact that when something needs to be done, one must simply rise to the occasion and get that job done. The motivation can only come with wanting to win, wanting to be the best and that is that. No uplifting words of wisdom, or as you allude to here "positive mental attitude" can change the fact that a job must be done.

I also find this post very interesting because of where I have been in the last year; corporate America. In this land of "boundless opportunity," "upward mobility," and other business motivational jargon the realist is the only winner. That realist may have, as you call it a "bad attitude," or s/he may be pessimistic, but at the end of the day the person that pitches the extra innings, runs the last leg, makes the last phone call is the one that is going to make it because they know that's all that matters. And you know what, they may ticked off and angry and not want to talk to everybody that walks by there office, but that person works. The person that doesn't do that is the one that spends there life in the bullpen, or cubby, moaning the blues and going home and watching Dr. Phil and Oprah, and listening to Tony Robbins.

Gerard Sorme said...

Steve, I love your blog. You clearly put the shysters in their place. However, I have to disagree with you on the PMA. I think it works. I heard a brain scientist give a wonderful analogy about how thoughts truly change chemistry and can change mood and behavior. I'll try to keep this scientific - as he did. But it's the male penis and mental imagery and thoughts of nude women. The simple THOUGHT can change chemistry enough to send blood to the penis and bring on an erection. What a perfect example of mind-body connection. In the same way, PMA and mental imagery of positive outcomes can bring about chemical changes that provide the adrenaline, and whatever chemical release, that can keep a person from falling into despair and overcome the challenge. Just a thought. Once again, I love your blog!

johnpaul said...

Hello SHAMmers,
I am posting some comments at Steve's suggestion. They relate more directly to a previous post, but I'm putting them on the current one, in the hope that more people might read them.

On free will:
We both do and do not have free will, depending on what we focus on. What determines how deterministic [?] our lives appear is scope. From a big-bang-to-now scope we have no choice. If we lived in some giant observation lab, watching the universe unfold, the question of free will would be silly. And so would every human concern.

Since we are on the ground, both in space and time, we are stuck with what we might understand as the illusion of choices. We could regress mentally into some now-extinct history, but we don't live in that infinite regression. We live in a trembling immediacy.

I read a wonderful piece you wrote about a student's attempt to seduce you. I liked it because I could care about the uncertain outcome, and play along with you as protagonist, making a "choice." And the piece put out a point of view, one that assumed readers could be swayed in their opinions and perhaps their choices as well. If I had read from the so-what-who-cares universal determinist view, the piece would just be an unfortunate waste of time.

So while we may be intellectually convinced that we have no choices, we are somewhat forced to live as if we did. We are also forced to make political decisions as if our part in them mattered.

On choosing our destinies: [paraphrasing my friend Bill Saunders]
We can only hope to make the best of the choices we are presented with. We don't have unlimited choices, and thank god we don't. If we did, we'd be paralyzed; we'd do nothing but contemplate our options. We can only live and feel effective, creative, through working within our limitations.

Steve Salerno said...

Gerard, well, I knew the topic of erections would eventually arise, so to speak, and at the risk of taking a brief detour into PENISblog, I'll try to address what you've written. First off, I never intended to say that thoughts have no effect on the body. That is obviously not the case--and we don't have to look at erections (I keep feeling the need to say "so to speak") in order to prove it. I can simply sit here and conjure thoughts of a peaceful day on the beach--and my blood pressure might drop five or 10 points. Or, I can think about a writing assignment that's hopelessly bogged down--though it's due Monday--and the opposite will occur. But those actions and reactions take place within an existing physical loop, if you will, that has already been accounted for by biology, and set to take place within certain fixed parameters. In other words, the body is pre-wired to respond to certain mental or emotional cues: You look at an attractive woman and a certain thing happens; you close your eyes on a stressful day and take a few deep breaths, and your neck muscles begin to relax. That is not the same as exercising conscious control over physical functions that were not specifically designed to respond to such stimuli. Keeping things, for a moment, within Gerard's realm, while it is true that you can sit there and think of your beloved and get an erection, you are only going to get YOUR erection--the erection that was programmed into you and connected up to your overall neuro/biophysical network. I defy you, Gerard, to sit there and think of your beloved and thereby get John Holmes' erection--in other words, to will yourself, by sheer din of positive thought alone, to suddenly add another five or six inches. (And Gerard, since I know nothing about you, if you're already endowed in Holmesian fashion, I apologize for the slight.) THAT is my gripe with the gurus of PMA: They imply that it enables you to outdo what you can do. And I continue to insist that there is no scientifically documented evidence for that. You cannot do what you cannot do. It is that simple, to me. Now, I agree that we don't always KNOW what we can do until one day it magically appears. But that's the point: We don't know in advance. And we don't know when it's going to happen, or what circumstances are apt to make it happen. And we certainly can't just sit there and conjure it through positive thinking. Life is not like those TV ads focused around the "easy button." Lord knows I wish it were--when it comes to erections and a host of other things!

Steve Salerno said...

To address John Paul's elegantly made points, yes, I agree that in the end, much of this discussion falls into the realm of "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Even if our lives are predetermined, we are equally predetermined to live them as if we DO have choice, which means that determinism does NOT--as some critics allege--strip daily life of its meaning and consequence (to our myopic eyes, at any rate). We may be computers, programmed to do what our hardware/software tells us to do, but since we don't know what that is--and, at least at present, we have no means of gaining access to the mechanics of the process--we are left with...living life. In a philosophical sense, however, I do believe that we're better served by understanding that life is preordained (regardless of whether we feel that way or not). Such an understanding promotes empathy and compassion--as well as humility. After all, if the next 50 presidents have already, in a sense, been "picked"--obviously including those who haven't been born yet--then they might consider tempering their pride in that achievement, once they get there. I believe that it is possible to enjoy life without making those kinds of egocentric value judgments. The hamburger I may already be destined to eat at 1:12 p.m. on November 10, 2014 (if I'm still around), will taste just as good....

Cosmic Connie said...

Good food for thought here, as usual. And good to see Steve back!

Playing devil's advocate for a moment...it is entirely possible that the shopkeeper Steve cited was merely trying to say that it is important to maintain a positive attitude no matter what the outcome, because such an attitude can be helpful when one is trying to deal with any damage the hurricane might do. This of course does not exclude taking the necessary precautions, such as boarding up the windows, or preparing to evacuate should that become necessary.

But in regard to attitude, let's face it: it is far easier for some people to cultivate or maintain a positive attitude than it is for others. Whether it's their upbringing or their biochemical makeup or a combination of factors, it seems clear to me that a positive or negative attitude is not purely a matter of conscious choice. And even the "conscious" choice may be a result of factors quite beyond our control. Which, I think, is precisely what Steve has been arguing.

Further (getting back to the basic SHAM theme), the degree of "positivity" in one's mental attitude is certainly not a matter of how many self-help books a person reads, or how many motivational seminars s/he attends. Although it is true that one can get a momentary high from the right book or seminar, the lasting effects are negligible for most folks, and some of the gloomiest people I've known have been self-help junkies.

Besides (getting back to my alternative interpretation of the shopkeeper's words), none of us can actually predict what kind of attitude we'll have in the face of the devastation wrought by a storm. That's one reason I'm willing to cut a lot of the Katrina victims some slack.

Of course there is always the chance that the store owner literally believes that positive thoughts can somehow influence the hurricane's "behavior," much the way many people believe prayer can influence external events. I'm not arguing for or against the effectiveness of prayer here, just noting that many people do try to use prayer to influence God or the universe or whatever. I think it's fine to believe in the power of prayer, meditation or positive thinking, as long as you "tie up the camels," as the Rev said.

BTW, now that Ernesto has been downgraded once again, I imagine those new age meditators I mentioned will be crediting their efforts. But with John building up, it looks as if they have their work cut out for them again. :-)