August 30, 2010
Positive Failure - a review of "The Power" by Rhonda Byrne
Review of Rhonda Byrne, The Power (London: Simon & Schuster, 2010) ISBN: 978-085-720-1706.
1. The Law of Attraction
Rhonda Byrne, author of 2006 best-seller The Secret, has released its sequel. Entitled The Power, it claims further depth into the insights gleaned from The Secret. As she humbly states: ‘You don’t need to have read The Secret for The Power to change your life, because everything you need to know is contained in The Power.’
According to Byrne and her publishers, Byrne’s oeuvre (The Secret movie, released prior to the book; and various cards, sayings and other fashionable accessories) focuses on readers’ abilities to get what they ‘deserve’, using what is known as ‘the law of attraction’. According to The Secret’s synopsis by her publishers: ‘fragments of The Secret have been found in oral traditions, religions, literature and philosophies throughout the centuries … By unifying leading-edge scientific thought with ancient wisdom and spirituality, this riveting, practical knowledge will lead readers to a greater understanding of how they can be masters of their own lives.’ We become ‘masters’ of our lives by invoking the ‘law of attraction’.
To understand the law of attraction would require either a casual or a long glance at the current trend in the self-help industry. This is the factory-produced, standardised answers to questions of human betterment, which elicits a solipsistic attitude as the touchstone for all problems in the world; a tethered link between religious guilt and nihilistic dismissal, self-help gurus claim to walk this fine line over the precipice of our banal existence.
This is how they do it. The three rules of the Law of Attraction – let us capitalise the letters now – according to Byrne are the following: Ask. Believe. Receive. As Byrne says, in The Secret, it means that: ‘like attracts like. What that means in simple terms for your life is: what you give out, you receive back. Whatever you give out in life is what you receive back in life. Whatever you give, by the law of attraction, is exactly what you attract back to yourself.’ If you want good things to happen, be a good person, think positive thoughts. By doing so, you can have many things granted: if one wants a parking-space, simply ask the universe to provide it for you; if you want that career, simply ask for it, believe in it and you will receive it. By this logic, Byrne then went on to state one of the worst sentences any literate, twenty-first century individual can make. She says, in The Secret: ‘The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.’
Consider this claim. Repeat it to yourself. Then consider the poverty-stricken multi-tudes. We may reasonably assume that horrendously poor individuals desire poverty alleviation, i.e. money, more than many of us already maintaining a regular income. After all, if we are already making money, why do we need to desire it – unless, as Byrne is hinting, we desire more? Of course, Byrne might say our regular income is a result of our ‘desire’ for money (Ask) – but this does not answer the question of the poor. Byrne sickeningly implies that the poverty-stricken, sub-Saharan African mother, dragging her crumpled, dying infant through a diseased village, has brought such hardship on herself. The mother is, after all, ‘blocking’ money from coming to her, thus preventing herself from saving her child.
The problem of course is Byrne never explains how the Law of Attraction works. Quantum physics, the old canard of a dying industry constantly asked for verification, is hinted at – but never elaborated upon. This is a false analogy: quantum physics is spooky and mysterious; the law of attraction is spooky and mysterious; therefore the latter must work according to the same principles. One is reminded of Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, who said that if you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.
In The Power, Byrne has ‘updated’ her ideas from The Secret, invoking something called the Creation Process: ‘Imagine it. Feel it. Receive it.’ Why does Byrne assume we can obtain things through simply feeling and desiring it? She states her reason on the first page: ‘You are meant to have an amazing life! You are meant to have everything you love and desire.’ She proceeds to list the most juvenile of desires; similar to an outline of life as perhaps imagined by comfortable Western teenage girls who have yet to face hardship in life. She outlines things like a happy marriage, a ‘perfect husband’ (yes she actually does say that), money, etc. Her outline is one cheesy sunset away from being a 1920’s Hollywood movie.
And it is an outline, but one drawn with chalk as reality lays waste, constantly, to our dreams and desires. This is not illusory pessimism but reality. To think otherwise is to confine oneself to juvenile denial (to coin a silly word: ‘juvedenial’). By what logic are we meant to have anything, let alone happiness? There is no one we can appeal to; contra Byrne, there is no force that cares about us. We have no reason to accept, as we will later see, Byrne’s assertion of the Law of Attraction. Byrne’s logic is tautological: the law of attraction works because we are meant to have a good life. We are meant to have a good life because of the law of attraction. This shows how vacuous this notion is.
She does attempt something approaching sophistication, as with most adults who can write a fairly coherent sentence. But her sophistication ends up displaying her utter ignorance on matters of the world: ‘Five thousand years ago, ancient scriptures recorded that all of creation was done and complete, and that anything approaching that could possibly be created already exists. Now, five thousand years later, quantum physics has confirmed that every single possibility of anything and everything actually exists now.’
This appeal to authority – an informal logical fallacy – also forgets that people, five thousand years ago, thought the earth flat and the sun a raging god. She does not list her sources for this blanket assertion, so we cannot verify – as usual – her claims. Two points: ‘ancient sources’ are not necessarily good – just as ‘ancient wisdom’ is not necessarily wise. Ancient sources are the sources of ‘ancient wisdom’; but wisdom, like medicine, is either applicable or not: from where and when it comes does not give it a further quality at all. Medicine is medicine, it cures or it does not – there is no such thing as ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine, for example. It is simply medicine. Similarly, wisdom either aids us in living better, or it is fallacious, solipsistic statements made without foundation – as is the case here
The second point appears to be a misunderstanding of quantum physics or quantum theory’s ideas of non-locality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, etc. Her statement is nonsense, of course. Many quantum physicists will agree ‘spooky’ things happening to your atoms is not completely out of the question but the likelihood is equivalent to, as physicist Brian Greene says, you randomly marrying Nicole Kidman or Antonio Banderas, as you read this sentence. (This does not apply to any potential lovers of either celebrity). The other important point is all the ‘spooky’ aspects of quantum physics – that we cannot at the same time tell the speed and position of an atom for example – all happens at the quantum level not the everyday or, as biologist Richard Dawkins would say, ‘middle world’: that is what we encounter without the aid of micro- or telescopes. For example, we see rocks as completely solid even though they are, according to scientifically-verifiable observation methods, mostly empty-space. Similarly we do not deal with the quantum, i.e. smallest, level of the natural world because it simply does not operate on a scale which would be useful to us everyday. (This does not invalidate quantum theory; it only highlights that Byrne’s claims that quantum theory has confirmed her own shows up to be nonsense, since quantum theory deals with the quantum level. I would also asked more informed readers on the current trends of quantum physics to correct me, if I am severely mistaken.)
Byrne’s assertion that ‘every single possibility of anything and everything actually exists now’ makes no sense. Surely she cannot ignore the progress of, for example, technology, government and medical science which will show up new inventions, policies and medicines in the future? This is not hope but a logical extrapolation from history: could we have imagined a cure for polio, before we even had a germ-theory of disease? There will be things beyond the imagination of anyone – because we do not have the means to create any of it. We cannot dogmatically assert that every possibility exists now – what does that even mean? It seems this appeal to a static existence is one more feather in the cap of apathy and egotism. Take no heed for the morrow because today everything is possible.
Her undermining of science is shown elsewhere: ‘the law of attraction is what holds every star in the universe and forms every atom and molecule. The force of attraction of the sun holds the planets in our solar system, keeping them from hurtling into space … it holds your car to the road, water in your glass.’ I am not sure why she asserts this, because she has not forgotten about that tiny thing called ‘gravity’. But after mentioning gravity, she implies the Law of Attraction actually subverts or governs gravity. She is remarkably unclear about this. Her idea that planets will hurtle into space if not held, makes it seem like planets ‘want’ to hurtle away; that the only thing preventing them is the law of attraction or gravity (do not worry: I am getting confused, too). Of course, planets are reacting in accordance with the physical laws in the universe – even if hurtled, they would still be operating according to physical laws, not undermining them. Perhaps it would undermine the Law of Attraction, but it only shows then that the Law of Attraction is not a testable, physical law of the universe – it is Byrne’s assertion that all is well because all is well. (We should also note her relating the story of water reacting to positive and negative emotions [p.205]. A view, I think, which has been thoroughly disproved.)
2. Glorified Solipsism: Ignoring the Misses
If you doubt Byrne’s solipsism as the source of her ‘wisdom’, consider one of many egotistical examples she lists to compound the Creation Process. ‘A few years ago I was in Paris for my work and I was walking down a street when a woman rushed past me wearing one of the most beautiful skirts I had seen, intricately detailed in Parisian style.’ When she returned to Australia, she found herself through pure luck facing a store-window with ‘the exact same skirt’ she had seen earlier. The store only received one and, in one of her usual egotistical assertions displaying how much the universe loves her, she says: ‘Of course the skirt was my size.’ Not only that, but it was half-price and the store had no idea where it had come from! (Notice my random use of an exclamation mark.) This is part of the endless fallacious statements people make using barely noticeable, day-to-day examples to reinforce their belief in the spooky, the supernatural or the ‘mystical’ (we see the resort to the equally spooky domain of quantum physics). This is the same logic people imply when they tell us the tired old anecdote of thinking of a person and her calling you; or dreaming about a long-lost friend and suddenly they appear in your life, backyard or grocery-store.
As Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society, constantly states: people remember the hits and ignore the misses. All the hit-counters in Byrne’s life have achieved such a high number she has built her entire system of random accidents into a bizarre conquest of delusion. She has conquered the territory of life’s mysteries and ‘destiny’ using the sword of solipsism, carving through a forest of counter-claims. How often do we think of someone and the phone remains silent? How often do we remember distant friends, but never see them again? We forget when these apparently mundane incidents occur because they appear so normal. By normal, I mean in keeping with our day-to-day expectations about occurrences in our lives: it is no wonder that we forget the ordinary and remember the extraordinary. We hardly react to a flat road, but do react to sudden slopes, surprising dips – similarly for the plateau of everyday life. Indeed – to continue the stone metaphor – what makes for milestones in life, dinner conversations, anecdotes worthy of retelling: the banal or the wonderful? What colours the lines of our monochromatic existence except the palette of the extraordinary?
But remember, too, that a property of the extraordinary is that it is exceptional. It is an exception to the banality or normalcy of something. Extraordinary would not be worth the name, unless it stepped beyond – usually above – the environment from which it springs. Therefore, of course finding the same dress is extraordinary – it is ‘out of’ the ordinary. Of course you will remember all the times you had a phone-call from a friend in the front of your mind; of course we are glad for the countless cases of people raising themselves out of terrible positions in life – but what about those misses? What about those people who fail, those poverty stricken multitudes, those desperate people huddled in the rain, those crying infants born with painful cancers only to die days or weeks later? If we are ‘meant’ to have a good life, we cannot just keep evoking stupid, banal examples about dresses and shoes and parking-spaces. We need to be aware of the whole of humanity.
Stepping beyond the tower of egotism reveals a world cruel, harsh and unforgiving; it relates an uncaring universe, an indifferent countdown toward death, a dismissal of all our efforts toward anything meaningful sub specie aeternitatis, or ‘under the gaze of eternity’. There is nothing honourable about locking yourself in a tower of egotism, peering through the lens of solipsism at the wider world. Doing this means seeking only what will make you ‘happier’ according to wealth, love and other boring and banal American-housewife idiocies. Laying down your hair only when Mr Perfect melodically sings your name further transmutes solipsism into apathy.
3. It Is All About Love
Byrne tells us that ‘the law of attraction’ is empowered by love.
‘Every single invention, discovery, human creation came from the love of a hu-man heart … Take a look around you, right now. Whatever you see that is a human creation would not be there without love.’ She lists examples like the planes from the love of the Wright Brothers; buildings from the love of architects; education from the love teachers. This is typical of Byrne to make massive, sweeping and unfounded claims about our world.
What about weapons? We do not even have to think of nuclear bombs to reinforce this thought. Weapons are made with one intention: to destroy, hurt or cripple something. There is little else the bomb dropped on Nagasaki could do except destroy; there is little use for a Glock except to make large holes in meat, or to turn sculptures into wreckage. When the first of our ancestors raised a stone against the head of his annoying friend, he turned it into a weapon. That was a human creation – but that was not done out of love.
Even if we give Byrne the benefit of the doubt, it still says nothing about this force being ‘good’. Byrne and other lawyers of attraction could argue that scientists so loved their science they made the atomic bombs; a man so loved his family and his life that he created a weapon to defend himself or conquer others; Nazis so loved their racial purity they were willing to wipe out everyone who failed their template. Does this make these things ‘good’? No, because they caused great suffering. So even if things are made using love, it tells us nothing about whether we would want such things existing in our world. But to compound all reasons for the creation of inventions or institutions into a singular thread called love is to dismiss the complexities of history and the world. It answers no questions and gives us little reason to trust love at all.
4. Life’s Simplicity
‘Life is simple. Life is made up of only two kinds of things – positive and negative things. Each area of your life … is either positive or negative to you. You have plenty of money or you lack money. You are brimming with health or you lack health. Your relationships are happy or difficult. Your work is exciting and successful or dissatisfying and unsuccessful. You are filled with happiness or you don’t feel good a lot of the time. You have good years or bad years, good times or bad times, good days or bad days.’
Byrne commits a false-dichotomy here, another informal logical fallacy. This states there are only two options to a situation, things are either ‘black or white’ (an-other name for the fallacy). Yet, there are plenty of people who are content with their modest income; many people who are not in incredible health but are not in their death-beds either; couples who are not comfortable with each other all the time, but remain firm through bad times. I do not even understand what her last sentence means. It is purely descriptive: of course we have good days and bad days. No one, not even Byrne, can say her life is built upon rainbows, ponies and butterflies every single day – even with the Law of Attraction.
By showing that she has committed this false-dichotomy, we also have under-mined her assertion that ‘life is simple’. Once again, we see the mindset of a comfortable, teenage girl who is not worried about hardships in the real world. Perhaps life is simple for her: but she cannot tell the rest of us that all our lives are simple. What is simple about eradicating diseases, solving conflicts in dictatorial countries, attempting to feed, clothe and cure victims of despotic strife? What is simple about the emancipation of women in Darfur, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq? These happen and are happening. To say ‘life is simple’ implies there is a simple solution to these problems: after all, they are part of someone’s life (obviously not Byrne’s or her fellow apathetic followers).
There is nothing simple here: imagine saying to those attempting to cease strife and hardship – the United Nations, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders – that life is actually simple, and made up of only two kinds of things. Do we need to stretch our imagination very far to ask if a person proclaiming such juvedenial would be granted a senior position in these groups’ policy-making? Would anyone seriously want such profoundly babyish ideas to be running through such important organisations, goals and objectives? If we do not, what use does such an approach have to aid us at all? It might, as we have seen, cater to Byrne and others living in comfort. But for the rest who want to actually have an impact on the world in improving the plight of our species – especially for the better sex living in despotic patriarchal environments – proclaiming the simplicity of life not only raises apathy in these areas, but would dissolve all and any attempts at amelioration.
5. Hume’s Passion
‘Everything in life about how you feel. Every decision you make in your life is based on how you feel. The single motivating power of your entire life is your feelings.’ Here, Byrne is stating that feelings override reasoning; why reason when you can just listen to your feelings?
The greatest Scottish philosopher during the Enlightenment, David Hume, made a similar point in his Treatise on Human Nature: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ Hume thought that reason could act as an auxiliary, in order to achieve our passions. Reason cannot inform our desires, or cannot form them initially. After all, we cannot reason ourselves into hunger, into love, into choosing what type of person we are. Hume was right to a great degree but of course he was far more sensitive to the subject than Byrne. Hume made concessions that reason could waylay passions, could undermine them, could displace them by showing another or subverting passion.
Also, one is reminded of Karl Popper’s idea, which can serve as a weapon against Byrne’s whole book: a theory that explains everything explains nothing. Unfalsifiable claims are useless. Consider the dancing, invisible pixie on the tip of my nose: disprove he does not exist. He is beyond testing, beyond measurement, but I can feel he is there. This is an unfalsifiable claim, since any charge you lay against me, I can bat off with my assertion of his properties. This, of course, only means our answer for everything can make no concessions for its disproof. To be worth any value a theory ought to postulate scenarios of counter-claims. To say ‘everything in life is about how you feel’ means we cannot disprove it – showing it to be worthless, not powerful.
Also consider the position of non-believers facing death. Many of us have concluded that death is the end. Does that make us feel good? To an extent – but what would we rather have? Certainly not the awful heavens and paradises proposed by the theisms – which seem more like penal-colonies than paradise-islands. But we each of us can imagine some sort of place that we would want to continue our existence. That would make us feel better about facing death – but we cannot because reason has shown otherwise. That does not make us ‘feel’ good at all; to the contrary, it at times is terrifying but we face up to it anyway.
Does this show feelings are not involved? No, of course not, but it does highlight that feelings are not the main reason we accept eternal annihilation. It shows we are willing to face it, even when we do not want to. Here reason dominates not feelings.
Also, Byrne does not articulate that feelings are necessarily good. Many of the Ku-Klux Klan felt that abusing blacks was important for their fulfilment; the apartheid government truly felt that non-whites deserved worse treatment than whites. Like ‘love’, the idea that ‘feelings’ somehow give our actions an automatic moral pass is ludicrous.
6. Bringing It On Yourself
‘No one can come into your life and affect you negatively, unless you are already on the same negative feeling frequency. If you’re on a feeling frequency of love, it won’t matter how tough or negative someone is, they will not and cannot affect you.
Maybe they cannot but their bullets, fists and policies can; their trains, ovens and gas-chambers could; their gulags and gas-masks will certainly affect you. Remember: Byrne asserts that no bad thing happens to you, unless you invite it to your life; just as good things happen because you give out good things.
As we saw earlier, she implies poor people are preventing money from coming to them; she must also say that the many who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wanted to be annihilated; that the millions of Jews, Gypsies, the old and physically-impaired, and many children in Nazi Germany all wanted to die; that non-whites in South Africa wanted to be oppressed during the long apartheid years.
On the same page as the above quotation (p. 180) she ironically quotes Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Widely revered and praised, fighting for the incredible cause of equality between the races – have we forgotten King was assassinated by an escaped convict? Have we forgotten Steve Biko in South Africa was probably murdered by the police? Did these great figures, who gave as much as they could into the world, want to be shot, abused, or die by the hands of those they fought against? At what even remotely rational level could you possibly say King, Lincoln, Kennedy, wanted to die by the hands of an assassin.
Byrne must, according to her invoking the Law of Attraction, say these people brought it on themselves. She in fact did say so about the recent floods in America. People actively chose to murder themselves, in one of the most awful ways – with large amounts of water killing them and their families. This point is central to why I consider this work completely anti-moral, in any sense that a thinking, literate individual ought to be behaving in today’s world – as I will outline at the end.
7. It’s All About You
Byrne has titled a sub-section of her fourth chapter, ‘It’s Not About the Other Person’. This is her engagement with relationships. By now, we can guess what her view of relationships is: give enough and your relationships will be give back. The banality of it is made extraordinary by her random assertion of the Law of Attraction. However, she also infuses our conduct in relationships with her usual glorified solipsism: ‘It’s all about you!’ Remember too that she thinks love is behind every type of creation, be it railways or relationship. (You should be unsurprised that ‘the force’ indicated by the book’s title is love. Stifle the yawn.) But to be fair, let me give the full quotation.
‘Some people think a relationship is either good or bad because of the other person, but life doesn’t happen that way. You can’t say to the force of love, “I will give love only when the other person gives it to me!” You can’t receive anything in life unless you give it first! Whatever you give, you receive, so it’s not about the other person at all: it’s all about you! It’s all about what you are giving and what you are feeling.’
Consider psychological egoism; this is the position which states that everything we do is for our own benefit. We do something because it either gratifies us now, or serves to gratify us in the long run. Even self-sacrificing individuals – no, not the very unmaternal ‘Mother’ Teresa – like soldiers leaping on grenades, do so because they know their friends will live. This makes them feel good, moments before they die. There is no case in which gratification is not forthcoming for us. Even if we are doing something we hate, we at some point will get gratification (e.g. the drudgery of obtaining a passport means we will be able to travel; taking out the trash at least means our partners will stop whining at us; helping AIDS orphans makes us feel good). The problem with psychological egoism is mainly its unfalsifiability: there is no hypothetical situation we can postulate which negates it, like invisible creatures on the tip of my nose. Byrne appears to be brandishing a version of this. As we saw with regard to her use of love, it is unhelpful and vacuous because it answers all claims.
Another problem is self-evident. There are clearly many, if not most, relationships that are one-sided. This is not to say both partners do not give, but that one evidently cares, gives and engages more than the other. Many relationships continue like this for years. It is not unheard of, nor impossible. My point is merely that Byrne is talking nonsense, if we think relationships will not last or even be authentic by saying we must give in order to receive. And these can be ‘great’ relationships – even if one sided.
She also tells us that by ‘looking for the things you love in the person … every-thing will change in the relationship’. I would be interested to see such an approach performed by oppressed women in African or Muslim (not mutually exclusive) societies. Here they are thrust into a relationship, usually with someone old enough to be their father. It is not unheard of for these women to fall in love with their husbands, from these arranged marriages. Yet, if he keeps beating or raping her, simply focusing on what she loves about him will be absolutely no help to her. Even in Western societies, a woman who stays in an abusive relationship maintains she still love ‘parts’ of him, even though he continues to beat her. Byrne’s solution could just compound the problem. Recognising those aspects you love of someone does not mean you must become a slave to them.
Byrne proceeds to list one of the most awful examples about a woman who had an (verbally) abusive husband who ‘complained every day. He was sick all the time. He was depressed and angry.’ Apparently being sick is a bad thing and he should have stopped being sick. I am uncertain why Byrne lists this as a property; it seems a bizarre choice of slander against this husband. (Unless, his sickness is an indication that he was doing something bad in his life. See, sceptics? The Law of Attraction does work!) If anything, someone’s sickness ought to elicit compassion. Perhaps Byrne is relating the burden he had on the woman’s life? After all, ‘it’s all about you’.
She continues: ‘When the woman learned about the power of giving love, she decided right away to feel happier despite the problems in her marriage.’ The woman took out photos of their previous ‘life’, when both were young and in love. When she did so, she felt love return for her husband. They both reconciled and he got healthier, happier and was no longer depressed.
To Byrne this was ‘the power’ in action. But there is nothing supernatural about this. People solve relationships all the time, some in worse tatters than this mundane example. Byrne gives no evidence to support her claim that love is an active force in the world (or universe). What should be particularly worrying is whether this couple worked out the problems they had in the first place. Unless they have focused on the root causes for their conflict, simply ‘loving’ each other will do nothing to abate future problems. It is stupid and juvenile for anyone to think serious, adult discussions are less important than simply allowing love to conquer all. No doubt a change in attitude is always helpful to articulating, even identifying problems – in a relationship or life in general – but this is not what Byrne claims occurs.
We should also be troubled by the statement: ‘she decided right away to feel happier’. Byrne has said that our feelings decide everything. But how could this woman decide to feel anything, other than what she is feeling? The very basis of feelings is that they are not decided upon; they simply are. Decision implies reasoning about different choices: either this woman decided through reason to change her attitude, or her feelings arose as feelings do. I do not even know what ‘deciding to feel’ any emotion means.
8. Instant Happiness
The previous paragraph also tells us the woman decided to feel happier. What does ‘feel happier’ mean and how does one simply elicit happiness? Does Byrne mean joy or warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does Byrne mean happy, in the sense of consistent fulfilment? If Byrne means the former, so what; if the latter, how so?
We cannot simply evoke happiness. There needs to be a situation that calls for joy or usually a long process toward consistent fulfilment. It cannot simply be evoked, spontaneously. Especially in situations where one is abused and badly treated. Then you are simply deluding yourself by imagining things are fine, good, wonderful. Byrne has told us the woman was in a horrible relationship. The woman then ‘decided’ to be happy. Imagine you are a soldier on the battlefield: around you, explosions, tanks and your dying friends. You are hit with a bullet. You look around, see nothing but death and misery, your leg bleeding out. You could decide to simply ‘feel joy’ (I still do not know how to do this, but let us give Byrne the benefit of the doubt) or fulfilment. Will that heal your leg? Will that attitude help you survive? Far more likely is a grenade exploding nearby, a tank rolling over you, or an enemy soldier killing you. A realistic conception of the situation would have you crawl, with gritted teeth, over to the medic to receive help. The woman in the relationship would be the soldier smiling up at clouds and the pretty blue sky. The one who would get crushed by a tank or shot.
Self-delusion does not work nor is it ever a good thing. There is no situation where being out of touch with reality, with your situation, can be a good thing. It might serve you, but it will do little for those under your care, who depend on you, etc. For example, the children would still be receiving abuse, even if their mother fell into her fit of joy and spontaneous happiness combustion. She can delude herself and feel happy, or take charge and get her children out of that situation. Byrne is suggesting that former works every time. Maybe it worked in this example (and we have seen why, even if this was the case, it does not make it a good thing) but there are probably far more instances where it will not. Rejecting reality for self-delusion makes life into a beautiful performance, but it will always be just that: a performance, where the only audience member is you.
9. Why This Book is Anti-Moral
There are two reason to think this book anti-moral, if not immoral, if not simply evil. I mean nothing religious by evoking evil; but anything that subverts attempts to act morally for the good of our species, that gravitates toward egotistical fulfilment despite the hardships of others, I conclude as being an evil thing. Yet, I know that such a word will be misused, so instead I will say anti-moral.
By anti-moral, I mean the same thing: it dissolves attempts at caring for the wider world, attempts to aid our species, active engagement and realism about wider situations occurring as we speak. Apathy is, I conclude, one of the reasons our world remains horrible. Apathy on the part of those who are able change, aid or care for people in need perpetuate situations that otherwise could be ameliorated, if not overthrown. I mean nothing optimistic or hopeful. Most Enlightenment thinkers believed that progress was never inevitable, that the world was a terrible place. Yet they saw a lack of engagement with the world, a lack of passion for change, a submission to the chains society had locked peoples’ situations in. We all know that changed: it changed because people of passion and persuasion, people of realistic appreciation for the sciences and political situations decided to really make things better, not simply rest in idle dreams where it was so.
Byrne’s horrid little book continues to weld chains to passion. It tells us, as we saw, to focus only on ourselves: it tells us everything – and I mean everything – is about us, individually. ‘Life is responding to you. Life is communicating with you. There are no accidents or coincidences … There is a reason [for example, why] you saw the police car … but you have to ask the question “What is this telling me?” to receive the answer. Police represent law and order, so the police car may be a message of something that’s out of order in your life, such as you forgot to call a friend back, or didn’t thank someone for something.’ She also gives an example of a fire-engine racing past: did we not put out a fire in our life? Do we need more fire in our love life?
Byrne then relates a few sentences that makes the psychology-student in me worried: ‘Whenever I hear something, even if they are the words from a conversation of two strangers who are standing near me, if I can hear the words, their words have meaning in my life. Their words are a message for me, they’re relevant to me, and giving me feedback on my life.’ She continues: ‘Every single thing that surrounds me is speaking to me.’
I do not believe she is hearing voices – this is not my concern. It is picking out messages from random places, people, signs, police-cars and ‘fire engines’ that is worrying. This is of particular concern since it only reinforces to Byrne that everything is about her. We are pattern-seeking creatures, makings faces out of clouds, battles out of stars. But seeing patterns – or rather, imposing patterns – does not make their ‘messages’ true. We can see patterns wherever we like. Indeed, there are some wonderful things arising out of seeing patterns where previously there was chaos (see Philip Ball’s award-winning Critical Mass). But, refracting these patterns off the lens of solipsism is simply bizarre: why should we think the fire engine is trying to spice up our love life? Maybe it was trying to put out a fire at an orphanage, which, remembering the Law of Attraction, the orphans brought on themselves. One again, Byrne says think about what the fire engine means in your life, do not think maybe I can aid the fire-services.
Indeed, it is symbolic of the entire anti-moralist stance of Byrne’s book: think about what a random event means to you, find meaning in your own life on some mundane topic (who did I not thank; should I use those handcuffs tonight?), and repeat, knowing that anything bad that happens to other people was, according the Law of Attraction, brought on by their own blocking of good things or wanting of negative things. Thus, there is no guilt or engagement.
No guilt. No engagement. Thus, solipsism and apathy. As I indicated, this glorification of moral dismissal, doing away with any notions of helping others to make a better world in some way, is part of the problem of today’s suffering. Byrne has made an entire project out of this: showing not only how you can make your meaningless life into something special, how the world is all about you, but compounds this by an extra move that makes it, to me, anti-moral or evil: it says, other peoples’ problems are their own, you have no part in their lives, let them simply learnt how to be positive to invite positive things into their life, even if they invited floods, are living under despotic regimes, etc.
But, to live in the world is an invitation to live a meaningful life: meaning can be found in realistic passions, in realistic comprehension of helping others, in being adult about suffering and its alleviation. The extraordinary can occur and can be appreciated without the superstitious, without the supernatural. Nothing is needed to revel in the wonders of art, literature, music and photography, for example; all extraordinary but not superstitious, not supernatural. Byrne’s book does nothing to aid us as individuals, provides no insight into life itself, and is anti-moral in a new and horrible sense. To glorify solipsism, peeling apart the skin of morality and wearing it to the performance of our self-delusion; to perpetuate apathy and waylay passion, by flattening any conceptions that arise like bubbles on the flat terrain of our existence. The damage of this book is that it appears not to damage: it simply continues and then goes on to glorify the lack of realistic engagement with the world. The Power and books like it gives banality a supernatural essence, which transmutes banality into solipsism and, furthermore, into apathy. The world remains unchanged, if not in reverse, whilst the apathetic majority rock to the rhythm of their egotism. Ambrose Bierce appears quite prescient about such an approach to life, when he defined ‘fool’ in the Devil’s Dictionary: ‘[The fool’s] grandmotherly hand has warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man’s evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.’
Through no optimism of my own, I doubt that Byrne is a terrible person, or that people who subscribe to her view are stupid or bad people. That is not my criticism: my criticism is what occurs by embracing this life-style, by glorifying in apathy and solipsism. However, Byrne has presented herself as the ‘fool’ according to Bierce; Byrne and similar authors are guilty of burying real-world concerns under their carpet of feel-good, instant-gratification. And for that, they deserve no respect and to be called out for the hucksters and snake-oil merchants of morality they are.
If you really want to think about how horrible The Power is, imagine if we all started thinking of our lives in this way, ignoring the world suffering around us, then imagine the collapse of passion, the fallout of mediocrity and revelling in the muddied-waters of self-aggrandisement. I for one will not be found near such waters, smiling like Narcissus at my reflection. Byrne wants us all to gaze into these waters, to become trapped by the wonder of our existence, but to remain there without looking up at the calls for help as these waters of life drown the starving multitudes: after all, they brought it on themselves.
Posted by Tauriq Moosa at 12:55 AM | Permalink