#13. Positive Thinking

When you’ve been with someone for a while, you develop little routines. Habits and such that, to the outside eye, might seem odd. Or ridiculous. Mostly because they’re odd and ridiculous. After my bath each night, as Chris watches, I try to toss my towel so that it lands on the hook on the back of the bathroom door. And Chris offers me ridiculous prizes if I do it, as I am not very good at it. One time, it was giant inflatable pandas. He bought me three. Now, it’s turtles. I get a turtle for every time the towel lands on the hooks. It’s been weeks now and I’m up to five or six. One night last week, after my bath, towel in hand, I closed my eyes and concentrated really hard before making my toss.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked.

“I’m doing The Secret on it,” I said. He asked what the hell I was talking about. “You know, The Secret. That book-slash-movie-slash cult from years ago? About how if you think and envision things they’ll come true? It was huge. It was on Oprah.”

He looked at me funny. “Go for it,” he said.

I did, reader. I went for it. First, I closed my eyes and I did The Secret. Now, to be honest, I really have no idea what the hell The Secret entails. I think I read about it in People once and, either rightly or wrongly, formed the vague impression that it was all about harnessing the power of the mind to envision the things you want in life and get them just by thinking positively. It’s my understanding that if you do it right, you will be a billionaire in about 15 minutes. I might have some of the particulars wrong, but that’s what I was going with.

Regardless, that night I closed my eyes and I visualized my towel landing neatly on the hook. I visualized what it would feel like, the thrill and surprise. I visualized the look on Chris’ face when I amazed and astounded him with my skill. I opened my eyes and I told myself that I believed with every fiber of my being that I would land this sucker.

And…I did. The towel flew out of my hands and went straight to the hook as if drawn there like a magnet.

That was it. The week’s change was set. If positive thinking could get me a turtle, who knows what else it would get me? I couldn’t wait to find out. I kind of want to be a billionaire.

I told anyone who would listen that I was doing The Secret. Of course, I don’t know if I was or I wasn’t. I tried to Google it, but the web site creeped me out so much I just decided to do my own version of it. And I have to say that, of all the changes I’ve undertaken – with the possible exception of exercising – none has been so alien to my natural state of being as positive thinking.

I don’t like to quote Bill Maher, mostly because he’s a douche and partly because he’s not really that quotable, but in this month’s Vanity Fair, he described himself as “cautiously pessimistic.” I can relate, but I’m not as cautious about my pessimism as I like to think I am. I’m also not sure whether I’m a pessimist or a cynic, but I’m too discouraged to try to figure it out. The worst-case scenario is my go-to. I worry about everything. On some level, I fear it’s all going to be a huge disaster and nothing good will ever happen, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Part of this, I think, is a protective measure. I’d rather prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised than hope for the best and be disappointed. It’s just how I roll.

My husband, however, is the opposite. He’s just sort of convinced that things are going to work out for the best, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Where positive thinking ends and delusion begins I’m not sure, but I think I have a fairly good idea – and it’s sleeping next to me.

So of course I needed to figure out what the hell it was going to mean for me to think positively, especially when my default setting tends to skew in the other direction. Did it mean that I had to be Little Mary Sunshine, gleefully presuming the positive in all matters? Should I abandon all pragmatism and measured response? Or did it just mean that when my natural tendency towards the negative kicked in, I would try my best to retrain my thinking and focus on the positive?

I have a friend who says that every time you think or say something negative, you have to think or say three positive things to counter it. I see the wisdom behind that line of thinking, sort of like drowning negativity with love. But it’s also the sort of idea meant for someone who isn’t perhaps as relentlessly negative as I can be. Do the math. If being negative already takes up most of my day, how on earth would I fit in all those positive thoughts? Who has time for all that? I’d never get anything else done. I have TV to watch, people.

Instead, I picked some very specific things about which I wanted to change my thinking. Things that have been worrying me of late, bringing me to the verge of panic attacks. Health outcomes for family members. The sale of our house in St. Louis, which has been on the market for over a year now, whose siding is showing wear and tear and whose price tag we keep chipping away at with no change in response. Even the fate of the novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years, which I recently sent out for feedback and in the hopes of finding an editor.

For the first few days, each morning when I got up and each night before bed, I set aside a few moments for active positive thinking. I closed my eyes and walked through each of the scenarios in my head, imagining what it would look like or feel like to experience a positive outcome. Mostly, it felt…weird. It wasn’t the most genuine sensation on earth for me. It felt like I was pretending to be something I’m not, but there was definite pleasure in it. Picturing people I love well and healthy. Imagining some family our young couple discovering our house is exactly what they want. Hearing positive feedback about my book.

It wasn’t a terrible sensation. In fact, there was a terrific amount of relief surrendering to the idea that everything could work out well. I tried not to dwell on whether I was wishing or believing, tried not to work to undermine whatever amazing magical powers The Pseudo-Secret was bestowing upon me. I just let it flow, man. It didn’t suck.

I also sought counsel from other people on how to approach the idea. At a dinner party, I told friends I was trying to think positively. They laughed. When they’d finished, which took quite a while, I told them about my version of The Secret. I told them about trying to visualize good things, then I remembered reading about how people made vision boards, where they pasted images that represented their positive outcomes.

“I would completely try that,” I mentioned, “if I wasn’t also completely lazy.”

“There’s an app for that,” a friend said. And she wasn’t lying! Of course there’s an app for that! Imagine! For just 99 cents, I could download my own vision board for my phone and add things to it. Done! I went home that night and got to work. I made a little starburst that said: “House Sold!” I took a photo of my towel hanging on the hook. I made a little note about the people I love being safe and protected. I took a picture of the place in my bookshelf my novel would be if it was every published and wrote “YOUR BOOK GOES HERE.” There was even a default photo of a big pile of cash which I, of course, left on there. Couldn’t hurt.

Then, for the remaining few days of the experiment, I would whip out my vision board throughout the day. I would look at each of the items on there, close my eyes for a few moments and really try to feel what it would be like if they were true. It was, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, tough not to get excited about it. There’s a giddiness that comes, a real temptation, with believing you just might get everything you dream of. Which might explain why so many suckers bought The Secret book in the first place.

And the outcome? I know you’re dying to hear how thinking positively changed my life forever. But, dear reader, I still haven’t heard anything back about my book. Loved ones didn’t suddenly get well – although, in fairness, they didn’t get worse, either. I didn’t win the mega millions. My house did not sell, even as the tax rebate deadline approached and passed.

I discovered that my fear and insecurity about these issues runs so deep that I felt overwhelmed enough to abandon all attempts at positive thinking on Sunday morning and allow myself a good, long self-indulgent cry. I allowed myself twenty minutes of dumpster diving into my old mindset, that the house will never find a buyer and it will hang around my neck like an albatross forever, bleeding us dry and causing me to lose sleep. Twenty minutes to worry that the people I love will die and that we’ll never be out of debt and that I’ll never be a published author.

I can’t say that abandoning my positive attitude felt better. It didn’t. But it felt more genuine for me, at least in that moment. And, for better or worse, it felt more familiar. It made me realize that surely what we’re supposed to have in all of this is some sort of balance. Is that what people have been meaning all these years when they’ve told me it’s about hope, not expectation?

That is not to say that all was lost, dear reader. Because I did experience something amazing last week. For four nights in a row, I closed my eyes, visualized the towel landing neatly on the hook – and it did. For four nights in a row, Chris and I laughed with increasing disbelief and my turtle count skyrocketed. Until the fifth night. Maybe I wasn’t feeling it so much because it was the last night of the week of this positive thinking and the wind was already leaking out of my metaphorical tires. I know that when I tried to visualize a successful outcome, it didn’t work as well. I had trouble imagining the feeling of triumph and picturing the look of glee on Chris’ face.

Still, I prepped my stance and let the towel fly. For a split second, it caught on the edge of the hook before its weight pulled it to the floor. I looked at Chris. “

I think I broke The Secret,” I said.

He nodded and sighed and I think we both knew that the winning streak was over. I looked down at the towel in a pile and felt so empty. So disappointed. But I felt something else, a feeling like the pressure was off, that things were the way they were and I might not have to work so hard to try to change them. I think there’s a name for that feeling. I think it’s relief.