Positive Thinking in a Time of Coronavirus?
The question of suffering ought to haunt people like me who subscribe to New Thought, the metaphysical philosophy of mind causation. It cannot be dodged or responded to with catechism or rehearsed answers.
This came home to me several years ago while I was researching the life and work of metaphysical writer and positive-thinking pioneer Joseph Murphy (1898–1981). I came upon a cache of handwritten letters that readers had sent to Murphy’s publisher, Prentice Hall, following his death in 1981. The letters originated from places ranging from Nigeria to Sweden to England to Canada to the U.S.
The minister and writer Murphy attained worldwide readership in 1963 with the publication of The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, a book of mind metaphysics that is perched in impact and timing between Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking and Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 The Secret.
An editorial assistant plaintively replied to many of these readers, “We regret to inform you that Dr. Joseph Murphy is deceased. Prentice Hall was notified of this in January, 1983.” The editorial assistant attempted small acts of kindness, like sending one writer a Spanish-language edition of Murphy’s 1968 book, The Cosmic Power Within You.
Most of these readers had burning questions. It saddened me to encounter the needs of seekers who were reaching out to an author no longer alive to reply.
In the midst of our global pandemic — which I witness quarantined with a mild case of coronavirus from my apartment on New York’s Lower East Side — I offer one of these letters, which poses the unavoidable question about the persistence of suffering. I also present my response to the writer from across the space of a generation.
1991 (month unknown)
Dear Mr. Murphy,
First of all I want to thank you so much! I’ve just read your book: Miracle of Mind Dynamics and I feel that it has given me so much! Every word seems so right to me. I read a few pages every night before I go to sleep. I don’t want to read too much at a time, since there are so many things to learn and think about on every page and besides I want something left to read.
Ever since I was young I’ve felt that God has done a lot of miracles for me, but since I read the book my days are bordered with miracles. I am deeply grateful and I try to show God’s love to the people I meet.
There is just one thing I cannot understand and that is, why me? I mean I’m no better, nor worse than anyone else. Why so much love to me? Why are children hurt, tortured and killed. Why do so many have to starve. Are they more evil? They must also be loved by God since they too are his children.
This is so hard for me to understand — and I would so much want an explanation…
Lots of love,
Thank you for your thoughtful and honest note. You pose the most sensitive question in mind metaphysics: why me? This question can be asked in the negative or in the positive, as you have.
I am responding to your long-ago letter during the first weeks of the 2020 pandemic that has gripped the world and, in particular, my city of New York. I write you quarantined in my apartment on the Lower East Side, nearing week three of my own (thankfully mild) bout with coronavirus.
Joseph Murphy wrote about the impact of accumulated thought — of parents sometimes passing down thought forms to a child. He further theorized that the cumulative thoughts of humanity, extending to deep antiquity, can out-picture in our present world and in the physical life of an individual.
I accept neither of those views.
If we surmise that all the thoughts that have ever been can out-picture and cause suffering in the physical life of someone today, we more or less accept the premise of randomness, since vast and unknowable thoughts have occurred for thousands of years. Randomness contradicts the rest of Murphy’s system and the purpose of New Thought in general.
If we propose that the thoughts of a parent can be visited upon a child, and can result, apropos of your concerns, in profound physical suffering or illness, I also reject that cause and effect.
I have witnessed circumstances, as I am sure you have, of a child suffering and dying from chronic disease in an atmosphere of love and support. Pointing to a parent (a ghastly proposition), or pointing to a thinker or thinkers in antiquity, seems like an effort to plug a philosophical gap rather than respond meaningfully to suffering.
Matters get more troublesome when New Thought tries to explain chronic tragedies or catastrophes by appending ideas of karma onto positive-thinking philosophy. Past-life sins, in this view, could explain why a person, or millions of people, experience painful lives or violent deaths. Such reasoning appeared in the late 1950s in the work of a widely read metaphysical writer, Gina Cerminara. Cerminara had previously done a great deal to popularize the work of the psychic Edgar Cayce in her 1950 book, Many Mansions. In a later book, The World Within, deemed “one of the best books on reincarnation” by Cayce’s son and collaborator Hugh Lynn, Cerminara attempted to bring a karmic perspective to global suffering. “Present-day Negroes,” she suggested in 1957, might understand the roots of their racial oppression if they
can project themselves back into the past and in imagination see themselves to be brutal English slavetraders, arrogant Virginia slaveholders, or conscienceless Alabama auctioneers, smugly assured of their white supremacy — if they can make this imaginative leap, their own present situation may seem far more intelligible and far more bearable.
Her advice continued:
Present-day Jews who feel that they are the victims of unjust prejudice should reflect that a long racial history of regarding themselves as a “chosen people,” and of practicing racial exclusiveness and pride, cannot but lead to a situation where they themselves will be excluded.
Such arguments collapse under any degree of ethical scrutiny. Spiritual insight arrives through self-observation — not justifying the suffering experienced by another. To judge others is to work without any self-verification, which is the empirical tool of the spiritual search.
The private person who can maturely and persuasively claim self-responsibility for his own suffering, or endure it as an inner obligation, shines a light for others. The person who justifies someone else’s suffering, such as through collective fault, only casts a stone.
Retrofitting current spiritual or ethical conundrums onto the ancient philosophy of karma, a vast and complex thought system, is almost admitting that one’s chosen outlook doesn’t work. Yet I believe that New Thought or mind-metaphysics does work. As a seeker, I believe that thoughts are causative.
So why do we witness mass suffering in a purportedly self-created mental universe?
I venture that we live under and experience many laws and forces. Physical decline and mortality alone tell us that. Although I believe, like my intellectual hero Neville Goddard (1905–1972), that mind is the ultimate arbiter of reality, its effects are mitigated by circumstance.
A law, in order to be a law, must be ever-operative. The law of gravity is ever-operative. But you are going to experience radically different effects from gravity on earth than on the moon or Jupiter. In the vacuum of space, gravity appears absent. Introduce mass into the cosmic vacuum and gravity is experienced. Gravity is, in a sense, mass being attracted to itself. Hence, natural laws are conditioned by circumstance. I see the law of mental causation no differently.
A child who is born into circumstances of war, disease, natural disaster, violence, or poverty faces crushing (and socially reinforced) mitigating factors. Thought is one powerful vehicle among others in the possession of the individual. Thought has, I believe, causative properties, as I have argued widely in books and articles. But we must never harbor the illusion of an equal playing field, geographically, socially, physically, or politically. Until New Thought allows for the experience of multiple laws and forces within our physical framework (a topic well handled in the 1908 book The Kybalion and in classical Hermetic literature) the field of mind metaphysics will fail to deal maturely with suffering.
Suffering is inevitable. “As above, so below,” goes the Hermetic dictum. That principle does not abrogate the philosophy of mind causation. But it must affect it. New Thought’s acolytes, if they are theologically serious, must persuasively respond to suffering. In that vein, I offer you the words of Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman (1907–1948), one of the few leaders in the positive-mind movement who directly addressed the Holocaust. Two years after the war, the Boston rabbi said:
Mine has been a rabbinate of trouble — of depression. Hitler’s rise, world crisis, global war, the attempted extermination of my people . . . For those who have lost loved ones during the tragic war, all of the rest of life will be but a half loaf of bread — yet a half loaf eaten in courage and accepted in truth is infinitely better than a moldy whole loaf, green with the decay of self-pity and selfish sorrow which really dishonors the memory of those who lived for our up building and happiness.
We honor life by valuing the sacrifices that others have made for us, and the opportunities we are granted for developing our highest potential.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman once asked me: “What do you do when someone offers you a gift?” After I looked at him blankly, he replied: “You accept it.” The continuation of one’s life following a tragedy is to accept an irreplaceable gift. We have been given life for a purpose, which is: to be generative. Use your life. Go and build.
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