Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Viewer Mail: Reality is Value-Neutral

A reader writes:
Hello Robert:

Let me make this as brief as possible. I notice that most of what you write in your blogs is not something that the mainstream media would tell the average Joe and Jill Sixpack.  So my question is this: Do you think that your way of thinking -- which most people would label as negative thinking -- is the truly sane way to approach life?  My answer is surely a resounding "yes," but I have to ask this question because we are inundated with all these self-help gurus out there proclaiming the need to be positive in a negative world. Zig Ziglar comes to mind when I think of this.

I am of the opinion that mental illness strikes the hardest at people who are sold all the lies they are being presently sold in our made-for-mass-consumption culture. If people were told reality as it is (whatever that may be), then maybe they would be more sane. Of course, no one would be buying worthless stuff and financing themselves to the bone the way they have been, would they?

I spent years going through the whole "positive thinking" schick back in the late 1990s, and I know that most motivational gurus probably despise the very people that made them rich and the ones that attend their seminars. I never spent a lot of money on the stuff (material), but I nevertheless listened to a lot of it rented from the library and had it copied to me by others who were trying to tell me how great this particular Nightengale-Conant speaker was (Denis Waitley, Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn... and the list goes on).

I think you need to do an article on this industry. Something seem very sinister and peculiar about it. Authors years ago were more realistic on the human condition, and there seemed to be no profit motive involved either. Books like Golden Gems of Life seemed to deal straight-forwardly and forthright with life at the present time (1880s). Are motivational gurus and self-help gurus -- in your opinion -- being 100% honest with themselves and with their audiences? I have a sneaking suspicion they're not.

Thanks for the e-mail.  Excellent comments and ideas!     See my posting on"Gurus".   It explains all.
REALITY is neither "Negative" or "Positive" - it just is what it is.  How you choose to interpret it, is up to you.
The man who lives in fantasy land, believing in "Positive Thinking" ends up getting burned by mean old Reality all the time.
He thinks he can fly, so he jumps off the Empire State building.  For a few seconds, his "positive thinking" is working - he is flying!   But then mean, old reality steps in, in the form of the fast approaching concrete sidewalk, and then spoils all the fun.  This is, of course, a metaphor.   The Empire State building represents leased cars, overpriced mini-mansions, big-gulp sodas, Jet Skis and all sorts of things that consumers (i.e., human beings) buy, that end up hurting them in the long run, financially, physically, or both.
I agree with you.  Positive thinking seminars are not only worthless, they are EVIL.   When you tell someone (or a company's employees) that the whole problem with their lives or company is their ATTITUDE, you are taking what are reality problems and then blaming them on the person or employee.   Poor management loves this, as it takes the pressure off of them.
But it backfires, as you can't fix your personal problems by positive THINKING, but rather by positive ACTIONS.  And similarly, all the positive thinking can't save a company that is mired in debt, has second-rate products, and a poor quality reputation.
General Motor's problem wasn't lack of positive thinking.  Their problem was their inability to confront reality and make hard decisions (such as confronting the unions, dealing with their debt problem, shedding unprofitable divisions).  Reality, in the form of bankruptcy, forced them to deal with messy reality.  In the reality of Bankruptcy, they could unload Pontiac and Saturn (the latter a departure from reality if there ever was one - GM spent more developing that division that it would have cost to BUY Toyota Motor Corporation outright).   They could force the union to renegotiate their contract (which previously required GM to retain people, even if they weren't needed!).  They could shed the onerous retirement benefits off onto the union.  It took bankruptcy for GM to confront reality.   Until then, it was fantasy-land, fueled by cheap gas and robust SUV sales - and the fantasy that it could go on forever this way.
I am not a "negative" person, just a realistic one.  Reality seems "harsh" only to those who avoid dealing with it.  Oddly enough, the folks who fail to confront reality are usually the ones who are most depressed.
Take my friend, who smokes pot all day long and lives in a fantasy world, where "evil corporations" run the world, and "government conspiracies" explain everything.  He is unemployed and 57 years old.  Is he happy?  Is he a "positive thinker"?  Hell no, and his problem is failing to comprehend and understand reality.
Myself on the other hand, am grateful to be alive in a country where you can make a little money without working too hard - where you have the freedom to speak what you want and do as you choose, up to a point.  Where our greatest health problem is too much food!   I marvel at that one, every day.
I am a positive person, because I have a constructive relationship with reality.
With regard to the reader's comment on mental health, they are right on point.
Most mental illnesses are created when a person's view of the world is disassociated from reality.  Whether it is depression or schizophrenia or whatever.
The depressed person (see my posting on Learned Helplessness) tries to alter his environment, and nothing he does seems to make a difference.  As a result, they become depressed and passive (and excellent consumers!) rather than proactive.   And this is why, if you are depressed, changing something in your life can be a way to help yourself.  Even something trivial as a new haircut programs the brain by saying, "I can control aspects of my life!"
For others, (like a friend of mine, who started going off the rails in his teen years, when schizophrenia sets in) reality seems harsh and unobtainable.  Making the transition from straight-A honor student and Boy Scout to adult working in corporate America seems impossible to do. So he went off into a fantasy world, aided by drugs.   It did not work out well.
I was lucky, I guess in that at age 18 I became a salaried employee of GM.   I learned that I could work for a living, that I had job skills, and that the "captains of industry" were just schmucks like you and me.   Reality, as it turned out, wasn't all that scary.  In fact, it was rather mundane most of the time.   But fun nevertheless.
Of course, extreme mental illness is marked by a total disconnect from reality - hallucinations, hearing voices, etc.
Now, to get to the reader's question - does our society induce mental illness (from mild to wild) by pushing a media version of "reality" that isn't real?   I think they are on to something there! People are dumb enough to believe that a "reality" television show represents reality. That actors in a car commercial reflect real life.   But most of us realize that the Hollywood version of life is fake.
See my posting on "How themedia portrays our lives".   I noticed this disconnect as a kid, when on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, they showed Ms. Moore going out and buying a brand-new car, on her limited salary.  The television (and movies) always do that - showing us regular folks living in houses far beyond our means and driving cars we cannot afford.  (unless it is a "gritty drama" in which case they show an overboard representation of poverty).
Again, this is why turning away from the media is so important.  The average American watches 4.5 hours a day of TeeVee, and I suspect it makes them more than a little crazy!
Maybe there is some sinister motive behind all of this.  Perhaps not.  I think snake oil salesmen have been around for a long time.  Whether it is an Ad Man from Madison Avenue, a Hollywood producer, or a banker, they all know you can sell anything to anybody, if you can first create a disconnect from reality in the purchaser.