Positive Thinking

“There’s no one more dangerous than an insecure person,” said one of the Great Loves of my Life one afternoon as we lay sunbathing on the deck behind his second story apartment in an older Denver house. He was speaking, specifically, of a man who was kind of a rival. This was Peter’s way of warning me.

I didn’t really understand his statement because of the context but, in general, it’s true. Peter was pretty secure with himself, though many of the realities of his being were very hard for him to live with.

I’ve always felt that I stood on shifting sand in a stream that’s likely to jump its banks at any moment. I’m always ready to run, uh, er, walk fast. But now I know that’s not insecurity. The stream of life DOES shift its banks all the time. Security is more internal — self-knowledge and awareness. I don’t think it happens overnight.

I think of security as one of the rules of rock climbing without protection which is “maintain 3 points of contact.” There are climbers who break that rule, but generally, it’s a good idea not to. “Reach with the free hand or foot.” The contact is with things inside the self that are reliable, enduring and positive. For me, the word “positive” means “forward moving.” Using the three points of contact (security) allows a person to keep climbing. You don’t stay there.

Stasis is an insecure position.

Once, during a time of great personal insecurity (my brother’s life was a mess, I was involved in [irony coming] unrequited love, work was shaky) a “friend” said, “You don’t like yourself. You need to recite affirmations to yourself every day, Martha.”


“Yeah, tell yourself positive things like ‘I’m beautiful,’ ‘I can do anything’.”

But, I thought, “I’m not beautiful, and I can’t ‘do anything’. Why would I lie to myself?” I looked into this affirmation thing, and it’s not for me. The best affirmation I found anywhere came from Goethe, “Hold your powers together for something good and let everything go that is for you without result and not suited to you.”

When I told my “friend” about the affirmation I’d found, she said, “You just don’t understand affirmations.” That’s humanity for you. As Ralph said on the Muppets as he pounded away at one note on his piano, “One man’s note is another man’s symphony.” Nothing in life — except maybe drink water, breathe air — is “one size fits all.”

Meanwhile, I was teaching business writing which basically has two types of messages — good news and bad news. Bad news messages need to open with a positive message which is called goodwill. These messages need to stress what is possible in a bad news situation, meaning focusing on what’s positive, “what we can do.”

The more I hammered it into the minds of my students, the more I realized that “positive thinking” is not canned affirmations, and it’s not “looking on the bright side.” It’s looking ahead to the future and assessing the best possible outcome given choices I can make today. There’s no cause and effect there. Choices I make now might NOT lead to the best possible outcome, but they increase the possibility.

An example. I KNOW I will need at least one knee replacement. I don’t want that surgery, but I KNOW it’s inevitable if I’m going to keep walking into what might be an advanced old age. Sometimes my left knee completely gives out, sort of like a bridge abutment that says, “Fuck it. I’m not holding up this bridge any more.” Mostly works fine, and it doesn’t hurt. It’s certain that I can delay the surgery by exercising to keep the muscles in my leg strong and by losing weight. After my hip surgery, I lost about 25 pounds and, since I like exercise, and don’t care if it’s always an adventure (hello Bike to Nowhere) I’m good with my positive actions.

The best possible outcome is that I will never need a new knee, but I don’t think that’s realistic. My actions now, however, are effective, and, when the time comes, I’ll be in a better position for the surgery.

So, for me, security comes from the knowledge that I’m doing the best I can right now. I guess that’s kind of an affirmation.

34 thoughts on “Positive Thinking

  1. I wrote on the same subject just last week — or was it earlier this week? I have always found “affirmations” annoying because really, they are lies we tell ourselves that are supposed to make us “feel” better. But when they are based on something that’s essentially untrue, where’s the positive part of the affirmation?

    I have a bad right shoulder. It has had an overly stretched ligament since I was in my late teens and I have surely had sufficient time to get it fixed. But there have been so many other medical emergencies, it just didn’t seem important enough to bother. Now, because I have a heavier camera and a huge lens on it, that shoulder and I are having a difficult time. My right arm REALLY hurts and I have spent the week not taking pictures because my shoulder has a very strong opinion about itself.

    I can’t get it fixed. It’s gone on too long and the ligament has hardened and also, I’ve already had more than enough surgery in everybody’s opinion so I’m just going to have to learn to live with it.

    Don’t wait TOO long on the knee. At least get an idea of how bad it is and how long before they won’t want to do any more surgery on you unless it’s a life/death issue.

    Garry had one shoulder fixed (tendons, rotator cuff, ligaments) It was a big surgery and his pitching arm went all to hell, His OTHER shoulder has punked out now, but no one is willing to fix it. He’s at an age where those soft connective tissues don’t heal well and predictions for the outcome of surgery aren’t good. So … there actually IS a cutoff date and you might want to find out what yours is.

    • I read your post on positive thinking and this is basically a response. Sometimes people tell us to be positive because they are sincerely afraid of dragged down by us. We don’t know how close to the abyss anyone else is. If “begin each day with gratitude” or some other affirmation gives someone hope, great.

      And despair is contagious. It’s not that I’m without empathy, but I can’t do anything material to relieve it. All I can do is not add to it.

      Affirmations of the kind my “friend” offered are the best she had and they helped her (I assume). Our friendship didn’t last long after she called me fat (how’s that for irony?).

      I think everyone has to find their own way to move forward, but I think it’s important to keep climbing because when we allow ourselves to be defeated by the circumstances of our lives, and begin to identify with the worst, we’re dead. I speak with some authority having watched my mom do just that and having watched my dad and others take the opposite tactic. Learning to live with something is important. The key word is live.

      I have also had a lot of surgery, and I am reluctant to “go under” again as it took — has taken — so long to recover my brain since my hip surgery. My knee is in good care, and when I have to do it, I will, and hopefully the hospital will have a spinal in stock this time. :O

      • It’s why mostly, I don’t usually talk about health unless someone else has the same problem and is looking for the name of a good doctor — assuming I have one — or maybe I know a better (cheaper?) medication.

        I don’t like affirmations because they are largely nonsense. But hey, if it works for you, go with it. The only affirmation that REALLY works for me is laughter — and hearing the doctor say “Everything is FINE.” I love that one. It makes me happy.

        I don’t think I suffer from despair, but I do have a grip on reality. I was surprised to discover there are limits to how long you can wait to fix a piece of you. I thought this was one of those relatively small things I could get to when I had time. I wuz wrong. Simply put, the older you get, they less eager doctors are to want to surgically work on you. There are exceptions of course and some doctors will operate on anyone if the price is right.

        Garry was heavily doped on Fentanyl for his surgery and if anyone had asked, I would have preferred almost ANYTHING else. It was a few weeks before he could properly open his eyes. There may be a specific requirement for drilling into someone’s skull, but still — that was a LOT of Fentanyl. I think he is still a bit droopy and it’s six months later.

  2. I just wanted to add that I have a torn cruciate ligament in my right knee since … sheesh … 1977? ish? I never had it fixed. I know people who had it fixed and I was not thrilled by the results I saw. Also, I’m not much of an athlete. I just have to be careful not to twist the knee because then, it just seems to disappear and down I go. That used to happen mostly when I was dancing. I haven’t been dancing much.

    Also, there are braces that will help keep it from flopping around. I took a really bad fall that year (77) and tore ALL the ligaments in that knee. The rest of them healed, but not that one. I knew I was never going to fix it, though.

    If I were you, I’d have fixed it because I don’t think you can ski without that ligament.

  3. “Affirmations” have never worked for me — as Marilyn said, they feel like the lies we tell ourselves to make things better. Too, they are usually generalizations, and don’t always work in specific instances. Better for me are the positive things we say to ourselves relative to a specific situation — heavy evaluation of the situation, with pros and cons, then positive self-talk emphasizing the pros!

    • I try to untangle my thoughts until I’ve cleared away all the emotional fuzz and am left with the issue without bundling in my feelings. This is not necessarily easy to do.

      • There are times, though, when the emotional fuzz is a determining factor — I try to make sure even then that the emotional fuzz that is useful is the positive. I make a decision because “I want to,” rather than because “I don’t want to!”

      • No it is not easy to untangle feelings from reality. Pain creates emotions and fear, which is a powerful colorer (is that word?) of reality. BUT feelings are informative, too. I grew up in a world where no one cared about my feelings, so I grew up not knowing how to get that information. Now? I feel them. When I first met my surgeon I was a mess. I couldn’t hide it. I was afraid and I hurt. He just stopped what he was doing (next patient) and listened. BECAUSE he did that, it helped me to learn that my body was telling me it hadn’t liked the experience of having my first hip surgery. “I guess I got traumatized last time,” I said.

        “Looks like it. This is going to be a piece of cake and then you’ll be able to do anything you want.”

        “Will I be able to ski?”



        “I don’t know yet. We’ll see.”

        I can now if I want to. I’m sure I would be fine, the thing is, I don’t really want to. I want to ski in the mountains with the freedom of my Nordic skis. I don’t want to deal with crowds or chair lifts or any of the stuff that goes with downhill skiing. I didn’t know that until I got my skis and go out on them

        That is the point of my post. A person has to — I think — press forward toward the things that matter to them. THAT is, IMO, positive thinking. I’m a physical person and an athlete. It has been difficult being myself without that.

        Yesterday, when I was out with Bear, I saw my tracks in the snow on the golf course. They were beautiful, reflected absolutely perfect form and balance. I was happy to see that. THAT is a legitimate affirmation.

        I hope this makes sense.

        • The cardiologist I saw yesterday was like that. It was the first time — five years since the surgery! — that I felt I understood what had happened to me and what it meant. What I could and could not do … and most importantly (NO ONE mentioned this before ) that the problem is genetic.

          I have a son and a granddaughter which makes that a pretty relevant piece of information.
          Why didn’t anyone tell me?

          I am SO grateful to finally have a doctor who talked to me. Garry said it was the first time HE understood, too. We are so used to doctors who are technicians and feel if they accomplished the surgery, dealing with the patient is someone else’s problem.

    • Yes. And I admit, when I do good, I tell myself. I say, “You did good on that.” Sometimes it includes the dogs, “We did good on that.” Who’s going to do that if I don’t? 😀

      • That’s the sort of positive self-talk that really helps — recognition of the things that went well, when we all too often self-criticize for the things that didn’t go so well, is the most important affirmation we can give ourselves. I love your comment about when you were out with Bear — the ski tracks were beautiful, etc. — again a real positive and a legitimate affirmation.

  4. I think it’s the “fake it till you make it” mindset. I’ve tried those affirmations as well and it always seems three sizes too small and far too much bs. They’re pretty to look at but it’s just window shopping at what someone else feels, and I ask myself is this supposed to work like osmosis? At best they can remind us of some good trait we forget we have.

    So, for me, security comes from the knowledge that I’m doing the best I can right now. I guess that’s kind of an affirmation.

    I like that bit especially, I appreciate you writing this. I know not everyone is comfortable with writing posts involving even a little personal stuff.

  5. This so resonates with me, Martha. Affirmations….I could scream at how many times people say that. Sorry. Not my thing. It is right up there with “But you haven’t tried mine” when you tell people how much you dislike something. What do they think? They’re trying to fix something they know nothing about! I am realistic. I try to be positive about some things, but a lot of times ‘realism’ appears. I can deal with that. No affirmations…..

    • Nope. Having been lied to by my mom well into my 40s, I’m not interested in illusions. I’m interested in what is real and what actions I can take in reality.

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