Last month, my life was changed in a way that can only be described as a disaster. Almost overnight I went from an athletic condition- hiking, sprinting, pull-ups at the gym- to being scarcely capable of stumping my dead legs over to the MRI scanner. A reverberating numbness had replaced my feet, legs, torso, and then, my hands. The preliminary diagnosis: Multiple Sclerosis. A progressive neurodegenerative disease with no cure.
Today though, as I write this, I am happier than I was before the illness struck and I don’t mean some brittle veneer of forced cheer; but genuine happiness. So am I just dumb, or what? Who ends up happy after receiving a diagnosis like that? Well, I’ll share some specifics at the end of this article about my reaction, and then my current state. But first, let’s talk about the power of negative thinking, and why it’s crucial when seeking a healthy equilibrium.
There’s already a lot of advice out there about thinking positive. Look on the bright side! If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all! But every virtue can be taken to a pathological extreme. Mindless positivity leads to dangerous levels of denial and repression. But by the same token, nobody likes to be around a constant downer or someone seeping dissatisfaction like a bitter sponge on a bedsheet.
Positive and negative thinking are tools that perform different jobs. Use the right tool for the right job, and it will magnify your ability to deal with any situation. Here is my three step guide to these poorly understood yet critical abilities:
1) Look at negative realities to understand them as deeply as possible.
Denial at every level is a killer disguised as positivity, whether in an intimate relationship or a massive engineering project. We may not want to face an ugly truth, but it exists no matter how hard we focus on our spectral desires. And sometimes that immovable fragment of reality is the point of failure that brings an entire structure cascading into the pavement.
This is where we need negative thinking. Problems exist, and we have to understand the relevant ones as deeply and honestly as possible. Murphy’s Law abounds, and we cannot plan for negative contingencies if we never take the time to consider them.
2) After understanding, do what is possible to make things better.
If it can be fixed, fix it. Rather than ignoring that dripping pipe in the ceiling, now we can pull up our sleeves and grab a wrench- or call a plumber. Our focus on the negative has given us the tools and wherewithal to address the problem.
But not every harsh reality can be changed. And that’s okay. Because a huge part of life is learning to accept unavoidable suffering. Doing so gives us a unique choice.
3) Live fostering the good.
There comes a point when you have done all within your power to alleviate suffering and everything remaining is outside of your hands. Attention on negative realities here does not comprise a focus, for focus implies purpose: It is rumination, preoccupation, and ultimately a choice of emotional wallpaper for your life.
Choose an emotional tone that makes your life better, not worse. Focus on the good you can do, and the good that has been done for you. Here is where the true power of positive thinking can be unleashed. Decorate your mantle with the good and it will make you stronger, happier, and better equipped to acknowledge and deal with problems as they emerge.
This is the fundamental use of negative and positive thinking. One examines the world and identifies the rocks hidden under the waves, while the other defines how we navigate our ship and whether we choose to steer towards or away from those rocks.
To expand further, this principle applies at multiple levels:
Diagnosing and treating issues early can prevent untold damage- stories abound of people "toughing it out" and ignoring health issues until it is too late. Whereas a preoccupation with illness can contribute to chronic stress. The proper balance is understanding your body and what it is telling you, and then addressing genuine issues promptly.
Often those who call the loudest for empathy are ascendantly vindictive in their social persecutions. They see malice everywhere but in themselves. Or as Jung put it: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” One cannot master something if they refuse to acknowledge its existence.
Too many times, we have seen hideous abuses splurt into the public eye, only to find that "everyone knew" what had been festering behind the drapes all along. Communities that refuse to acknowledge problems turn into incubators for those problems, until it reaches a breaking point. The worse it gets, the more militantly positive they are on the surface.
So, back to my illness. Why am I happier now?
Receiving my diagnosis last month was the biggest shock of my life. Why would this happen to me? I had taken good care of my health, building more strength through my 30’s, while trimming down with a targeted diet. How could I possibly be struck by a debilitating disease? Overnight my entire world had changed.
It would have been easy to fume about the injustice or just slap a desperate smile on, hope intensely for the best, and rely on sheer optimism to thwart the antibodies eroding my nervous system. Instead, I looked square at the worst-case scenarios. They are dark, but I needed to understand what I was dealing with.
That allowed me to plan.
I’m making arrangements for the continuation of my work, and the well-being of my loved ones, just in case. And having those plans in place is much better than lacking them.
Next, I researched the nature of the illness extensively, tracking current clinical studies, and the trajectories of other people with the same diagnosis. I identified several people who had ceased or even reversed their disease progression. And I took immediate steps to change everything possible about my life to implement what they had learned. Within days of my diagnosis, I had totally altered my diet and lifestyle routines. I am possibly on the path to having a better baseline level of health than ever before.
As I write, I have regained 100% function in every part of my body (except my hands- but they are significantly improved). The experience has brought me closer to friends and loved ones, forced me to rebalance my life in order to reduce chronic stress, and given me a renewed perspective. And although retaining my current level of function is not guaranteed, everyone has risk in their life; and I just happen to know one of mine with great specificity.
I know that I will do literally everything in my power to tilt the scales in favor of health, and I know I have the emotional resilience to manage any outcomes beyond my control. I will never give up- it’s not just an abstract thought, but a reality I have had the opportunity to taste. It may be simple, but what brought me to this stage so quickly was the proper balance of negative and positive thinking and I hope it can help you with any challenges that come your way.
And stay healthy out there.