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I used to do the lab. work for a local group of oncologists, and one evening I heard someone crying in the waiting room. The rest of the staff had left and the doctors were doing rounds, so I went to see what was going on. I found a patient, sitting there, crying quietly. She had been in remission twice, but had recently relapsed. She said she needed to talk to one of the doctors because she didn't know what she was doing wrong. When we talked further, she said she had been using some visualization tapes, where you are directed to imagine that lasers or your vigilante white cells are killing your tumor. She had also been using some “positive thinking for cancer patients” tapes where you are told to repeat, “I am healthy” and “I am cancer-free.” She was incredibly upset, not so much by the cancer, but because she felt that her inability to cure herself with positive thinking meant that she was doing something wrong and it was her fault. For me, that moment confirmed that positive thinking, used in the wrong circumstances and for the wrong reasons, can do more harm than good. The Antidote explores that interesting idea.
Oliver Burkeman is not out to bash positive thinking, but rather to explore “the negative path”, the idea that the more we search for happiness and security, the less we achieve them. This is done through chapters on Stoicism, the ways goals can be counterproductive or destructive, insecurity, the nonattachment of Zen Buddhism, failure, and our fear of death. He presents ideas about what might make our lives less unhappy, but this isn't in the typical self-help form of strict rules or a program to be blindly followed.
The conclusions Burkeman seems to come to are to embrace insecurity, and stop searching for happiness and quick fixes. Rather than thinking about everything in a positive way, it is much better to see things realistically, accurately, and truthfully. That is a philosophy I wholeheartedly agree with.
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We are a culture obsessed with positive thinking. Just look a self help best sellers list and you’ll find “The Secret”, “The Power of Positive Thinking” and others which boast the idea that if you think positively then positive things will manifest themselves in your life. Gurus like Wayne Dyer and Tony Robbins have gotten fantastically wealthy off of this message so I guess that it works for them, but how about the rest of us? If you’re like me then you probably have read some of these and even tried to apply them but without much success; life is too troubling, too unpredictable, and too sad sometimes to face it with a dumb grin. That’s why I love this book, “The Antidote,” so much; it is a much more realistic way of thinking that can face the world we live in and still offer some peace.
This book talks about the flip side of positive thinking. It starts with stoic reasoning and shows that what is bad in our life is labeled bad by our own mind and that when studied almost anything could be worse. The book moves on to talk about goal fixation, the ego and the self, and ultimately death. I really enjoyed this book written in the journalistic style of a magazine article. There is a LOT of wisdom packed into this short presentation. I plan on listening to it multiple times to get all of the messages. What I mean by this is that some parts of this book require “active” listening - you really need to consider what the author is saying to understand it. Maybe not the best book to listen to while you’re doing something else, but a definate must read for those who have found self help books to be lacking in some way.
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