Monday, January 19, 2009

Width of a Thread

One of Katie Melua’s songs has a verse which goes like this: “The line between wrong and right/ is the width of a thread of a spider’s web.” It’s one of my favourite songs at the moment. It makes me remember that only the tiniest shift in perception is required to make something appear positive or negative. As usual, good old Will Shakespeare said it first: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

This thought appeals to me, especially at the start of a new year. Perhaps this is a good time to renew a commitment to stop believing that things are hopeless and rather to look at how good they actually are. If we compare our situations to people in so many other countries - Tibet, Iraq and Zimbabwe are just three that spring to mind; or if we look back at our country’s very recent bloody past, our lives come out pretty much as half-full as the clich├ęd glass.

I’ve been observing this phenomenon lately in my daily life. For example, I’ve tried changing my dread of going to one of my least favourite places in the world: the Home Affairs offices in the city. Actually, that’s a bad example. Even Norman Vincent Peale couldn’t turn that into a positive experience. So perhaps I should think of something less challenging.

Okay, let me start with something smaller, like the way we treat others in shopping malls or on the roads. I’ve had more successes in these arenas. If someone bumps into you in the mall, for example, or tries to overtake you on a busy intersection, instead of blowing up with a barrage of well chosen invective, it will take the offender completely by surprise if you simply smile and graciously wave the person past. It’s so much less stressful to do this too, especially in South Africa where an angry comment can ignite a violent reaction fuelled by sixty years of bitter resentment. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I’ve noticed many times that if you offer a smile when one isn’t expected, anger melts away like mud washed away by rain.

Many more books have been written about positive thinking since the days of Norman Vincent Peale. In fact there’s an absolute glut of books on the shelves telling us that we can manifest our own destinies. From The Secret to books written by almost everyone else on the planet, these prophets of joy make it all sound so simple. Just think positively they say and you’ll be sailing a yacht in the Bahamas in a month.

I’ve read a lot of these books and thought a great deal about the whole issue too. I believe Quantum Physics is a very real phenomenon. It makes sense, really. Our way of thinking affects our way of being.

But there is a flaw in many of these books in my opinion. Demanding a wish-list of material goods for the satisfaction of our egos isn’t positive at all. Especially if the demands are largely selfish. I’ve noticed that expecting to get exactly what you want simply because you demand it, is doomed to failure. The reality of the matter is much more Zen. Being positive means that you, like the Zen Buddhists, remove all expectations of the outcome from your thoughts. This doesn’t quite suit the “large list of must-have items” brigade. Being positive means that you see the worth in every situation, even when you don’t get exactly what you want.

So if the person overtaking you on the intersection still chooses to show you the finger, just keep smiling and try not to wish he’ll hit the next lamppost. And if you see me forgetting my own advice and giving rude signs to the taxi, please forgive me. I’ve still got my training wheels on.

And I think for the sake of universal sanity, all of us should do all in our power to avoid a visit to Home Affairs!

First published in The Witness, 19 January 2009.