A Systematic Distaste

The relationship I had with my best friend eventually ended over, what I will argue, was a comment I made about self-help books. We lived in the same apartment together at the time, and I had stumbled into his room to give him rent or look for an extra sock or something like that, and I found it on the bookshelf. I don’t even remember which book it was, specifically, and even forgot at the time, which made my arguments quite a bit less effective. I remember though, it had something to do with money and happiness. I think maybe this threw me off so quickly because “money” and “happiness” have never existed in the same universe for me. That’s not to say that I’m poor (though I am) but mostly I just prefer not to correlate the two, it will lead to disappointment quickly.

The day after I’d seen the book I had come home from a rough (and totally normal) day at work, and decided to tell him that it was stupid. This was largely unprovoked, save for my gross need to rid the world of everything I consider bad ideology. I could tell that he was upset, but not enough. So, the next day we went to the bookstore together to get Christmas presents, and I took my opportunity.

“I want to get a book about running,” he said.

“A book about running? Why would you get a book about running? What does that even mean?” It was as if he’d told me he wanted to find a book on how to kill puppies or something.

“Well,” he slowed down to speak, knowing I was irrational. “I have a run coming up and I’d just like to look at a running book. Like how you’d get a book about music or something.”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

Oddly enough, this formed a tension which tightened over the next week or so. I asked him to hang out and subsequently found out the extent to which I had offended him.

“I can read whatever fucking book I want,” he had told me.

“It’s below you,” I argued. “I’ve seen your writing and this is just garbage,” something like that.

I realize now that my argument was the real garbage, but it took a while.

Needless to say, I have grown past the idea that I need to rid the world of bad ideologies. Most of the time. The exceptions are fairly frequent and both appropriate and not appropriate.

I have not, however, grown past the idea that positive thinking is nothing but trouble. By positive thinking, I mean the idea and practice of continually thinking that you are capable of accomplishing all things, and that all those things are possible, and that if you set your mind to it, all those things will in fact happen. Maybe this is a bit melodramatic, but the actual practice isn’t far off.

In his book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” Oliver Burkeman, a harsh critique of self-help books, embarks on several quests to prove that positive thinking is not helpful. The most helpful of these journeys I have found is his conversation with a stoic. The man Burkeman met is happy, though he does not have much and is not special in any way that would immediately promote more happiness. He has just found his ideal way of coping with life; he expects the worst at all times, as a true stoic. When he leaves his house, he’ll imagine the he could be shot, or kidnapped, or have all of his belongings stolen. This then makes the man even more grateful when these things do not in fact happen. And if something tragic should happen to arise, the man is already prepared for it.

Now, the stoics will take their beliefs so far as to not become emotionally attached to anything even remotely. This can be extremely problematic, yet the logic reins true: if you are consistently expecting positive things to happen you are setting yourself up for failure. You are setting yourself up for a life of boredom, for even when the positive thing you were expecting happens, you were already expecting it. It is not spontaneous and interesting. Nothing is. If I go into my job interview expecting to be hired immediately there are only two things that can happen – I am either not hired, and my hopes are more ruined than they’d be had I planned for this, or I am hired and my expectations have gone according to plan. If, however, I go into the interview expecting to be mocked for my dress, and tossed onto the street, I may find it easier to bear the news of not receiving the job. Just as well, I will be completely stunned if I do happen to make the job.

This is not to say that self-esteem is not good to have, just that it’s mostly an irrational illusion.

People who think in positive terms have also been found not to succeed more. That guy who wrote that book on how to be a millionaire tells everyone to do exactly what he did, not divulging that what he did only works one out of a million times.

It’s also just more comfortable, at least for me, to be negative. And I have come to love those most who can handle my negativity the best.

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