Category Archives: Illness

The Truth About Positive Thinking

IMG_9937for Adele Ryan McDowell

I read a book by Doreen Virtue after I found out about Mary Rose’s trisomy 18 “diagnosis” and was taken back when Virtue said that she believed that all illness stems from negative thought. This includes any cold a child might get or a cancer. According to Virtue, someone in the house has a negative thought and it takes hold in a child’s body causing sickness. I do believe that we attract much through our energy and thought patterns, but Mary Rose’s trisomy 18 was a genetic illness, and I neither attracted nor created it. It troubles me that we blame each other for our children’s illnesses (and our own) whether through negative thoughts or lack of faith.

Years ago I was married to a man who was mentally ill and unable to keep a job. I reached a low point when my friends and family were having babies and going on vacation, while I could not afford groceries or gas for my car. My idea of the good life was being able to afford children and vacation. I read Elizabeth Harper’s book Wishing: How to Fulfill Your Heart’s Desire in the winter of 2009 and decided that I wanted a different life. I prayed and wished for a nurturing and loving partner (I called him my Wish Husband), children, a safe and peaceful home and abundance. I tucked my wishes away on my altar that sat on a piece of turquoise velvet fabric on the floor of my unfurnished bedroom and waited. I started practicing qigong. I studied with Pat Bolger and took a Level 1 training for Emei Qigong. I meditated and prayed, and worked on my thought process. I was tired of coming home to the telephone or electricity being shut off, or tax notices on my door.

It took another 18 months, but I found the courage to walk away from the marriage after nearly 19 years with this broken man whom I had met when I was 18. I discovered many debts in my name after I left. But the wishes worked. I found an amazing lawyer, Debra Marino, dedicated to helping her clients. She fought until the condo was in my name and the equity covered the debts. I went to visit my sister and her family in Switzerland. When I came back the divorce papers were signed and I went to a wedding of some friends soon after dressed in orange and purple and gold. I was free from debt and the burden of an unhappy marriage and decided that I was okay being single and childless. I walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral in Hempstead, New York and there was one other person in the church. I am married to him now, and we have two children. Wishes do come true. But I cannot believe that all of our suffering comes from negative thoughts. My positive thinking may have been a catalyst in shifting my grim situation, but there has still been tragedy since then.

I’ve been thinking a lot about positive thinking since I carried Mary Rose, my daughter who died an hour after birth. I remember being on the table of a naturopathic physician in New Haven many years ago. She blamed my negative thoughts for my pain and state of health. I remember feeling so small on her table, as I did when I was a child and my mother or teacher criticized me. I have spent over two decades studying various spiritual traditions in an effort to better myself. But lately I’ve been thinking that I don’t have to get better. I can accept that I live in a fallen world and that sometimes the people I love get sick and better or not. I once had a student in my office telling me about how her mother “lost her battle with cancer.” I looked her in the eyes and told her “Your mother got sick and died. She is not a loser. She completed her life on earth.” Why do we beat each other down with our words blaming thoughts for cancer or the flu or any other illness?

The missing piece to the positive thinking conversation is that there is a component of karma or God’s will. Mother Gavrilia, the Greek Orthodox nun, says that whatever happens is because God wills it or God allows it. Either way it is the best thing for your soul. That is difficult, especially when children are chronically or fatally sick. I like the idea that we raised our hands before we came down this lifetime and agreed to certain soul contracts and certain dramas to better our souls. Did I have a soul contract with my first husband? Is he the one who taught me resilience and creativity in a tight corner? What about my daughter who died an hour after birth? Do I have a soul contract with Mary Rose to further open my shattered heart and write this book in service to others? Today my son told me that he wanted to send a deeply pink rose from the Botanical Gardens to his sister in heaven. “I will send it to her and then she will get it,” he said. I turned my face away in tears. Did my son have any thoughts that brought upon his sister’s death and this loneliness we have for the one we love?

Elizabeth Harper’s book is balanced because even though she gives us the means to wish or pray for a better life, she does not blame anyone for illnesses. Harper writes

We are so quick, especially in this New Age society, to think we are to blame for illness. We are not. It may be part of the package deal of this life, or it could be a “contract,” as medical intuitive Caroline Myss likes to call it. Whatever it is, illness is there to show us something about ourselves that can be revealed through that suffering. It may also be the only way for us to bring some part of ourselves to the surface (158).

She continues with a partial list of “deeper motivations behind illness” including the connections that our situation give us with others. After an illness or trauma we are able to help others in a way that we could not before. As Arielle Greenberg writes in Home/Birth: a poemic, co-written with Rachel Zucker, about her stillborn son Day,

I never thought I would be writing this. I never thought this would be my story.

But it is, so I tell people, and hold this space (195).

We can each hold the space for our suffering and for those who suffer around us. We can hold the space for the friend diagnosed with a brain tumor or a mother diagnosed with ALS because these things happen.

I’ve been listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being. Again and again her guests talk about suffering. One Buddhist teacher says that everyone suffers on Earth. “But how do you face your suffering?” she asks. How gracefully do you walk through your parents’ aging, your friend’s suicide, another death? The human condition is preponderant on suffering. We are born in the trauma of labor, born after a long journey from a safe watery place through the canal that brings us to the light of this earth. I see suffering all around me and I want to hold people in my arms and tell them that it is okay. We are in this together. I want people to stop blaming each other when difficulties come. Perhaps it was my fault I lived in poverty with a mentally ill person as long as I did. I stayed, didn’t I? But until that veil was lifted from my eyes I could not see clearly. I could not believe that a husband would lie every day to his wife. I could not believe that someone would pretend to have a job. But I learned a lot there, and now after walking through my daughter’s pregnancy and death, and that sharp grief afterwards, I can say that we each have certain things that we must suffer in this life. I am of Greek descent after all, and we do believe in Fate.

If God allows us some suffering, then He also allows the way through it. I believe in being positive, but I also believe in anger and sadness and rage. And when we harness those “negative” emotions, and lead them to the Light within, they are transmuted into joy and we become stronger. For those writers who continue to preach that 100% of everything that happens to us is born of our thoughts, I think about gardens growing, and abundance, but even the cucumber plant withers after she bears all of her fruit. I am at the point in my life when I am ready to accept my broken humanity. I mean well but fall short of my standards. I bless people and pray. And I am learning to accept my frailties and constitution and life. I hope that my thoughts allow me to be grateful every day of life, as I was on the day my daughter was born and died. When our midwife, Grace, said to Mary Rose, “Open up your eyes Baby Girl, and look at your mama,” she did. She opened up the one eye that she could and looked into my eyes and I saw that they were blue. Not everyone who carries a baby with trisomy 18 gets to look into her child’s eyes. I am blessed. And Mother Gavrilia is right. Mary Rose is so very good for my soul.

Photo by Sindy Strosahl