Not too long ago, one of your viewers—a woman named Kim—wrote you to announce that she had decided to halt her breast-cancer treatments and heal herself with her mind. Kim had just seen your two shows dedicated to The Secret, the self-help phenomenon that says we shape the world with our thoughts, and she was inspired to bet her life on it.
You’re an optimistic lady, Oprah, but this gave even you the willies. So you went on the air to “clarify your thoughts” about the Law of Attraction, The Secret’sunderlying theory that mind conjures matter. You implored Kim to go back to her treatments. And you told your audience that the Law of Attraction “is not the answer to everything. It is not the answer to atrocities or every tragedy.”
You saw the craziness in that logic, and good for you. But frankly, Oprah, I don’t think you’ve done quite enough to make up for turning the Law of Attraction into the biggest thing since TomKat. Since you gave it your endorsement, The Secret has become one of the fastest-selling books and probably the most successful infomercial in history. The gaggle of gurus who peddle The Secret’s message all over the world are still out there, arguing that it is the answer to every atrocity and tragedy. One went so far as to blame the suffering in Darfur on stinkin’ thinkin’.
That’s a lot to answer for. But don’t worry, Oprah. You still have the power to turn this entire misguided craze into a “teachable moment.” And I know how you can do it. Just have your people pick up the phone right now and invite Karen Cerulo on to your show.
Cerulo, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote a book last year called Never Saw It Coming. In it, she argues that we are individually, institutionally, and societally hellbent on wishful thinking. The Secret tells us to visualize best-case scenarios and banish negative ones from our minds. Never Saw It Coming says that’s what we’ve been doing all along—and we get blindsided by even the most foreseeable disasters because of it.
In her research, Cerulo found that when most of us look out at the world and plan for our future, we fuzz out our vision of any failure, fluke, disease, or disaster on the horizon. Instead, we focus on an ideal future, we burnish our best memories, and, well, we watch a lot of your show. Meanwhile, we’re inarticulate about worst-case scenarios. Just thinking about them makes us nervous and uncomfortable.
A glance at a few statistics shows that most of us see just what we want. In a national survey of parents by the Public Agenda organization, a hefty majority said their child never stays out too late, never uses bad language, never wears sloppy or revealing clothes, and never does poorly in school. Only a third of American sunbathers use sunscreen, and Californians are almost twice as likely to play the lottery as they are to buy earthquake insurance. When the American Association of Retired Persons asked a sample of adults what they expected from old age, most said they figured they would always have enough money and good health to do what they wanted. And only 30 percent of Americans have written their wills.
How is this working out for us? Think of all the times you’ve heard the refrain, “I never thought it would happen to me.” The American Academy of Dermatology projects that one in five Americans will contract skin cancer sometime in their lives. According to the author of the AARP study, elderly Americans have a “high probability” of eventually falling into poverty, and the surveyed adults had “unrealistic expectations about their physical abilities as they grow older.” (Most said they did not have a plan for old age.) And death—the event that really knocks the wind out of The Secret—still has a 100 percent chance of happening to all of us, no matter what we think.
Your viewers ate up The Secret’s advice about their personal lives. But I wonder whether they would be as enthusiastic if someone proposed running the government according to the Law of Attraction. As it happens, Cerulo spends a lot of time in her book documenting how even the public agencies designed to prevent disasters often fall victim to blindly positive thinking.
Take NASA, for example, which ignored repeated warnings from its engineers in advance of the Challenger explosion because it was so busy envisioning a perfect blastoff. Or the FBI, which turned a blind eye to a memo from its Phoenix office in the summer of 2001—a memo suggesting that al-Qaida was using local flight schools to infiltrate the civil aviation system. Or the Bush administration, which has been roundly condemned for planning the Iraq war around a set of best-case scenarios. (What do you think The Secret folks would say about Iraq? “We will be greeted as liberators” was good, but “Mission Accomplished” was even better. Visualize, guys, visualize!) A little negative thinking might have gone a long way in all those situations.
But unfortunately, we go to great lengths to make people who think negatively feel unwelcome—something Cerulo would probably point out if you invited her on to your show.
Just think of all the pejorative and even pathological terms we have for doomsayers. Like, for instance, doomsayer. Also alarmist, naysayer, paranoiac, complainer, defeatist, downer, and killjoy. Rack your brain: It is hard to think of a laudatory term for contemplating the worst-case scenario. So maybe The Secret appeals because its batty metaphysics help to keep us in the positive-thinking fold. In a culture that stigmatizes negative thinking and imbues it with fear and loathing, a rationalized escape from worry is its own reward.
But that’s not the liberation we should be after. Instead, Cerulo argues we have a lot to learn from two groups of people who have emancipated themselves from the pressure to think positively. She points out that medical workers and computer technicians—the professional troubleshooters of the world—keep our bodies and mainframes running by being paragons of pessimism. When doctors and IT workers take up a case, they begin by dispassionately assuming the worst and then move up from there. Their protocols demand precise and evolving definitions of the most severe maladies and malfunctions, while they tend to have fuzzy and almost absentminded definitions of health, well-being, and normal function. That’s the opposite of The Secret. While this may sometimes make doctors and techies a drag, it also helped them avert worldwide disasters like the SARS outbreak and the Y2K bug.
Everybody respects a good attitude, but no amount of magical thinking will make the universe obey our wishes. Your audience has gotten extremely good at visualizing what it wants. But now it needs your help envisioning the risks, goof-ups, and unintended consequences that accompany life on earth.
We’re addicted to positive thinking, Oprah. And The Secret has sent the whole world on a bender. You, and maybe you alone, can rein it in. After all, the Law of Attraction isn’t a force of nature—but you are. So how about it: Why not invite Cerulo on to your show? What’s the worst that could happen?
We want to persuade Oprah to invite sociologist Karen Cerulo on her show, but it’s not going to be easy. People are always writing to Oprah with their pet causes, angling for her attention. And pro-Secret Web sites are popping up everywhere with testimonials from devoted practitioners.
That’s why we need to your help. To make our case stronger, we need to assemble our own list of testimonials—to the power of negative thinking. Has a healthy dose of pessimism improved your life? Has envisioning the worst ever helped you to avoid a disaster? Or has an overly rosy outlook left you blindsided by calamity? We’ll append your anecdotes to this letter, and send the whole package to Oprah. Write us at email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted in a future column unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)