With the recent release of The Power
, the sequel to Rhonda Byrne's bestseller, The Secret
, Ellyn von Huben picks up her own copy of the original bookshelf phenomenon and offers her commentary on its "classified" self-help claims.
I will reveal my secret upfront. While shopping at our town’s abundant library used book sale, I decided to buy a copy of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Having just read the review of The Secret’s sequel - The Power - by Kelefa Sanneh in the September 13 issue of the New Yorker and having a few thoughts of my own on the subject, I decided that I shouldn’t make any pronouncements on the topic if I hadn’t actually read the book.
As is the case with many bestsellers - especially self-help books - that have limited value to their owners, The Secret was not difficult to find among the tens of thousands of donated books. Because the Friends of the Library is a worthy cause, the three dollar price could be considered something of a charitable donation rather than a complete waste of money. The book was my secret. It was bad enough to have my daughters see me toss it into my book bag. I certainly didn’t want anyone else who knows me to see me with it. (I doubt that I will have to be vigilant about putting my cash in my wallet with the Lincolns and Jeffersons facing me - to ensure wealth’s movement towards me and not pushing it away by looking at its backside - in order to afford a copy of The Power. I’m sure there will be plenty of cast-offs in next year’s sale.)
For anyone not familiar with this tiny tome which has sold more than 19 million copies and its companion DVD, the secret is the “law of attraction”: that merely through some physical power emitted by our thoughts, we can manipulate those people and things around us, indeed the whole universe, to our advantage. And, worse, there is this most offensive presumption that those who suffer from poverty, illness or natural disaster have contributed to their condition by their failure to have the right thoughts.
“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency. Everything sent out returns to the same source - you.”  Physics may have been the bête noire of my high school years but I did learn enough to see the laughable fallacies in this statement. Since the book sets the standard of personal anecdote being equivalent to scientific evidence I will follow suit with my own testimony. If positive visualization were all that Byrne says it is, I would have been crowned Queen of England at the age of twelve. Likewise, if negative thinking is such a dynamic force to push things away from us, why is there such a national panic over bedbugs?
I’ll make no secret of the fact that I couldn’t finish the book. It was basically a bunch of aphorisms by assorted ‘experts’ in the law of attraction loosely strung together and bound under a cover so glossy that I could scarcely hold it. (My initial snarky thought? It was slippery from the snake oil.)
I was pleased to notice that Sanneh wove into her review the opposing sentiments presented by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which I enjoyed soon after its release last year. Ehrenreich has a snappy technique for bursting the bubble of the pseudo-religion of the positivity movement that has invaded our education, healthcare, employment and religion. In fact, in some situations positive thinking has tainted and even supplanted traditional religion. She is certainly on target in her dissection of Rhonda Byrne’s work. (The Secret is a barrel of cliché fish waiting to be shot. Yes, one more self-help book offering Joseph Campbell’s directive to follow our bliss. $23.95 retail. Wow.)
The disappointing thud at the end of Bright-Sided is that the author leaves us with no solid alternative to this ‘happy thoughts’ movement which is not even contributing to a societal upswing in any true happiness. She rightly presents the supposed life preserver of positive thinking as having become “a potentially deadly weight - obscuring judgment and shield us from vital information.”  And she puts forth conclusion that “a vigiliant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness.”  True - but as a secular humanist her take on realism naturally leaves a void in the wake of her conclusions.
Ehrenreich does exhort the reader to action and compassion and as beneficial as those may be, they are no substitute for hope. Not wishful thinking. Not positive visualization. Christian hope. As Pope Benedict XVI said in the introduction to his encyclical Spe Salvi,”Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”
The Pope goes on, in the second paragraph, with his powerful message “....the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” We have no need of vision boards and assorted gimmicks when all that we should do is “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) The kingdom of God is where we will become authentically bright-sided.
And that is no secret.
Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York NY; Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2006) p. 25
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (New York, NY; Metropolitan Books, 2009) p.204
 ibid., p. 205
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire Blog.