The Most Terrible Secret

Perhaps the most terrible secret I have ever learned is that we are alone fully responsible for our own joy.

I know this probably sounds like “white light” bullshit, especially if you consider yourself a radical or a leftist. Even more so if you’ve been on the internet for too long and seen the memes like this:

The “White Light” movement, or “white light spirituality,” stems from a philosophy in the 1800’s called New Thought. You already know New Thought if you’ve ever encountered the phrases “mind over matter,” or “law of attraction,” or just the idea that thinking positive thoughts makes things in your life better.

Much of New Age spirituality—all the ideas about raising your consciousness or “vibration” to make your own life and the lives of others around you better—descends from this school of thought, as well as much of the faith healing (including Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science) that ran rampant throughout the United States in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

All these philosophies teach basically the same thing: that most of the shitty circumstances in life can be changed with application of mental discipline or a change of thought patterns. This includes physical conditions such as illness and poverty, as well as social problems such as relationship issues, loneliness, depression, and alienation.

And most of it is bullshit, but unfortunately most of it is also true.

There is a school of psychotherapy, the one I’ve seen have the most profound effects for many of my friends who’ve used it, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Unlike more traditional approaches (often involving pharmaceuticals), CBT1 attempts to find the core beliefs a person tells themselves which lead to destructive or unhealthy patterns in their lives, and then guide the person into a place where they can change those beliefs.

For instance, consider a person who is constantly depressed and has a long series of failed relationships. The therapist using CBT would attempt to discover what that person thinks about themselves and how they narrate those relationships. From there, the therapist would then try to tease out the core beliefs that might be leading the person to sabotage themselves and those relationships. Once those are identified, the therapist then would suggest new beliefs and thought patterns that might help the person become less depressed and have more success in relationships.

The key question constantly posed to a patient in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is some form of, “have you tried thinking a different way about this?”

A person who, for example, believes that they will never have healthy relationships because of past abuse would be encouraged to question this belief, possibly by questioning the relationship between those events and how they define themselves. Perhaps the person believes in some way they ‘deserved’ the abuse, or that they can never heal from that pain, or that they are still being abused even when they are not. Those beliefs prevent them from having healthier relationships, and thus need to be replaced with more useful beliefs.

By this point, I’ve likely triggered an emotional reaction in some of you reading this, because my description of this scenario seems to “victim blame,” to put the onus and responsibility for all those situations on the suffering person, rather than the person who caused the suffering in the first place.

Please feel free to sit with that emotion, because that’s exactly the kind of reaction I used to have to such narratives, too. Especially if you’re a leftist, the very idea that the suffering of a person might be linked to their thought patterns rather than external circumstances seems like the core belief of capitalism: “if you’re poor, it’s your own fault.”

Stepping back a moment, however, it’s not hard to see that “if you’re poor, it’s your own fault” is also a core belief that a therapist using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might try to tease out and help the person change. The key here is the word ‘fault,’ which belongs to mental framework in which wealth and poverty are signifiers of a moral order.

Put another way, “if you’re poor it’s your fault” is a belief that wealth is tied to morality. The more moral you are, the more wealth you will have; the less moral you are, the poorer you will be.

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