I was thinking of toxic thoughts – the ones that harm you think … when you venture into the mental rat poison that prevents action, that corrodes everything, that enslaves, that renders us docile and powerless.
There are a lot of these, but a few stand out. Earlier I talked about images that provoke a visceral revulsion. Equally, some images summon a visceral attraction. In either case, the response is automatic and unreasoned. Sometimes this works out. Most of the time it doesn’t – and we’re not really able to honestly evaluate which is which.
This is a response to a stimulus. It is the way we usually react politically, socially, and economically. But there are also habits of thought that are self-defeating. They wear grooves in our minds – trails; every time they are repeated, they are reinforced. We are responsible for them – not because we chose them, but because we have to live with the consequences of them.
I want to make perfectly clear: I’m not talking about avoiding negativity. What most people seem to mean when they say that is self-deception. The act of pretending things are other than they are; the act of calling bad good; the act of going to sleep. That is, in itself, a toxic thought habit.
No, what I mean here are the things we think that are not justified; not helpful; not productive. What I mean here are the habits of thought that keep us from succeeding, or from being happy, or from being noble, or from being kind. What i mean here, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln, is that kind of thought that inoculates us against being “touched… by the better angels of our nature”.
In thinking about this, three such habits stand out to me today. We are trained in them from our earliest days on the planet. And our instincts tend toward them. But they thwart us and cause us only frustration and pain. We are afraid. We are ashamed. We are aggrieved. These three are certainly not the only negative mental habits we have, but they are near universal, and they keep us from attaining any good thing.
Fear is with us our whole lives; and it seems to be getting worse. We make decisions out of fear. We avoid doing things we love out of fear. We pass our fears onto others. There is something always wrong – some eventuality we are schooled to avoid – that keeps us comfortably in our place. Now, fear is, in itself neutral. Sometimes it is a survival skill. If we have no fear, we do stupid things without regard to their effects. But when we live in perpetual fear, we condemn ourselves to being smaller, pettier, weaker, and more passive-aggressive than we could be or ought to be.
Like fear, shame and its related phenomenon guilt, have their place. In some cases, we make better choices because of them. In some cases, guilt is a rational response. There are, in fact, things about which we ought to feel guilt. Nonetheless, we mostly feel guilt for things that aren’t wrong. We deceive ourselves. Shame is worse. People make us ashamed. People make us feel bad about ourselves – and this, like perpetual fear, makes us shrink – we become smaller, less likely to draw negative attention, less kind to others (who might drag us down with them), more resentful at those we so desperately try to appease – to be thought well of.
And then there is aggrievement. We have been wronged. We have been slighted. We have been denied justice. We have been treated badly. We got a raw deal. All of this may be factually true. Every aggrieved party knows well: objectively speaking, someone else had it worse … basically that would be true of all but one person on earth. But that doesn’t matter. As long as I am looking at it through the lens of what bad or unfair things have happened to me, what wrong things have been done to me … as long as I maintain my King Lear stance: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”, I am hobbled. The consequence for us of aggrieved thinking is that the injustice – whatever it may have been – continues to defeat us. We continue to live it, we become resentful, we become envious of others, we become rigid and uncreative, we become sterile.
These three habits are harmful to us. If we can escape them, we can thrive. Yet, it occurs to me to wonder what would happen to our whole economic system – our whole society – if people just said no to them. If we did not act out of our fears (or remain inactive), if we did not purchase things because we felt bad about ourselves, if we did not act from of resentment … what might happen? Whole segments of our economy would collapse overnight.