The Difference Between Helpful Hope & Disheartening “Not Good Enough To Deserve A Miracle” Messaging About Healing When All Else Has Failed
In the original draft of my new book Sacred Medicine, the book opened with a legitimate, medically provable radical remission story about a child with a life-threatening illness conventional medicine had given up on. In desperation, the parents of the child, who were skeptical physicians, sought out the intervention of a Sacred Medicine healer- and the child is now pre-med in college, cured. I thought it might offer people with “incurable” illnesses hope.
But when I asked a colleague to read it, she rolled her eyes. She has a sick child. She has tried everything humanly possible to get that miracle cure for her child- and her child is still sick and suffering. She begged me not to begin with that story. Sure, she said, throw it in later if you think it will help people grasp for a dangle of hope when everything seems hopeless. Sure, hope can be healing when you’re drowning in helpless despair. But please, she begged me, don’t make mothers like me feel like we’re somehow not good enough to get that cure for our own children or that our children are somehow not favored by the deities enough to get their miracle.
I took her plea to heart and buried the story under a mountain of disclaimers. I did not want to offer false hope or make anyone who was doing everything humanly possible feel like it was somehow their fault or they were a bad patient or mother if they or their children were not one of the exceedingly rare, chosen “miracles.” So many New Agers and people in the wellness world leave sick people feeling that way, as if they’ve somehow done something wrong, as if they’ve failed to manifest their cure with the positive thoughts or spiritual power because they’re not spiritually pure enough or disciplined enough with their positive thinking, or even worse as if they’re not favored by God the way some others might be because they’re just not special or they’re somehow (cruelly) a “bad seed.”
That way of thinking, teaching, or preaching is the opposite of healing, in my humble opinion. Sure, it might give desperate people hope to hear rare stories of radical remissions facilitated by healers. But it’s also totally void of empathy for those who are still suffering to suggest in any way that some people deserve miracles because they’ve earned them- and others who are less deserving don’t.
I understand through a trauma-informed lens that some people were so wounded when things were uncertain or out of control in childhood that they have to believe in a delusional way of thinking that suggests that we have 100% control over our reality with the power of our thoughts. This line of thinking popular with “law of attraction” teachers like those in The Secret suggests that when you make vision boards of wish fulfillment, fill your mind with imagery of good things happening, and focus your disciplined mind towards creating everything you want and avoiding everything you don’t want, you can control the outcomes of your life.
Likewise (if you follow this line of thinking to its inevitable logical conclusion), if something bad happens, it’s your fault. You’ve been thinking negatively, not keeping your vibe high enough, doubting your faith, failing to pray, meditate, or say affirmations relentlessly enough, or you’re otherwise manifesting badly. Along this line of thinking, if you get raped, it’s because you manifested it. If you’re an inncent Black man and you get killed by cops who pull you over for a registration violation, it’s because you were attracting abuse and violence with your abusive or violent thoughts. If you get cancer, it’s because you’re getting punished for impure and unspiritual thoughts. And if your baby is born disabled or gets a childhood cancer, it’s because you, Mama, manifested a damaged baby- or maybe that baby did something evil in a past life and this disability or cancer is her lucky opportunity to expiate her karma so she can come back with a more favorable lifetime next go around.
This is cruel shit, people.
When I posted this on Facebook, one reader wisely commented:
“Somewhere between total certainty and powerless despair lies a whole landscape of complexity. And it’s the complexity that overwhelms and confuses. When we are ill or desperate, complex ‘possibilities’ are too hard for us to process. And so many folks want to hear the simple, the easily processed answer, because they don’t have the mindspace for anything more at that moment. So I think stories of complete healing are both wonderful and awful. And often vulnerable people will jump upon one or the other interpretation, when in a better space, they might consider the information with more discernment. The only other thing I can say, after many years supporting people with chronic illness, is that being told that it is your own lack, whether of faith, positivity, determination or whatever, is a terrible, cruel disempowering thing to do to anyone. And it pushes some folk over the edge. That alone, even if it’s a tiny minority of cases, means we need to share stories of ‘miracles’ with great care and wisdom.” Is There A Baby In The Bathwater of The Idea That “Thoughts Create Things?”
As I write about in the “paradoxes of healing” that weave throughout Sacred Medicine, I do believe there’s a baby in the bathwater of law of attraction practices- and we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Your thoughts DO influence reality and some things can indeed be “manifested” by will, intention, discipline, a strong work ethic, good health and self care habits, certain unearned privileges, and perhaps a bit of luck. But your thoughts are just not powerful enough to control reality. As destabilizing as that fact might be to trauma survivors who have control freak parts and need to believe things are never uncertain or out of control, it’s still a fact that your individual thoughts are simply not powerful enough to control 100% of your reality.
What this means is that we must turn away from, reject the teachings of, and no longer promote, share on social media, financially compensate, or otherwise amplify the voices of those who teach this abusive nonsense. (You know who these people are, so you don’t need me to name names. It’s quite obvious. Just follow the exaggerated law of attraction promises and claims all the way to the bank.) As my colleague and the reader from Facebook reinforced, we need to be careful about the way we share stories of unexpected and seemingly miraculous stories. Hope, when it’s realistic and grounded, can be kind and empowering. But promoting magical thinking or denial (especially if you’re cashing in on it commercially) is just unethical, untrue, and unkind.
The Sciences Of Psychoneuroimmunology & Epigenetics Explain How Our Thoughts Impact Our Physiology & Genetic Expression
So what’s the baby? Well, it’s true that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact our nervous systems, which impacts our immune systems, our epigenetics, our psychoneuroimmunology, and our endocrine systems, and this leads to chronic inflammation and end organ damage- and also chronic or life threatening diseases. And as we know from clear science, when those bodily systems get disrupted, this impacts the health of our body and our ability to recover when something goes awry.
And what activates painful thoughts, beliefs, and feelings? Trauma. Does science prove that a heavy trauma burden left untreated makes us sick? As I describe in annotated scientific detail in Sacred Medicine- yes, unequivocally. So might treating trauma shift our “negative” thoughts, beliefs and feelings into more positive ones in ways that might help regulate our nervous system in ways that might prevent or reverse disease? Well, that’s the hypothesis science has yet to completely validate, but maybe. It would certainly make psychological and scientific sense, given what we know about disease and healing.
Don’t Gaslight Your Parts!
So what’s the bathwater we need to throw out? Well, affirmations on their own are pretty worthless. First of all, your conscious mind only runs the show 5% of the time at best, which means that even if you can remember to tell yourself “I am worthy of being healthy and healed” a hundred times a day, that’s a drop in the bucket. If the other 95% of the time your unconscious mind is running the “You’re a worthless piece of garbage undeserving of love, health, abundance, or validation and life isn’t worth living”- because your parents convinced your child self this was true- then your nervous system is going to be all jacked up.
Plus, from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) perspective, telling your scared, hurt, wounded inner children “You’re whole, perfect, healed, and lovable in every way” when they’ve been told otherwise for years in childhood is gaslighting those inner children. They know this wasn’t true back then, so why should they believe you now? Lying to yourself only further alienates these hurt parts from the deepest aspect of your beings- the true healer within you- what I call your Inner Pilot Light or what IFS calls “Self” with a capital S.
Telling An Oppressed & Suffering Person “Your Thoughts Created This Oppression” Is Just Cruel
Then there’s the social justice aspect. If you believe that every bad thing that happens to you is because you manifested it with your thoughts, then you’ll have to twist yourself into all sorts of abusive, emotion-shaming, and social-justice demeaning logical knots to keep that belief alive. Does that mean that every Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, disabled, poverty-stricken, war-torn, or immigrant person on the planet is oppressed and marginalized because their thoughts weren’t pure enough? Likewise, does that mean that those who are not oppressed- the white, privileged, male, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, wealthy people- are that way because their thoughts are so pure and they’re spiritually superior? You can start to see the Aryan nonsense in this bathwater.
When I was a fire refugee last year, fleeing my home because there was a wildfire three miles away as the crow flew and my home was filled with smoke and I was coughing and couldn’t breathe- even with all the windows closed and filters running- someone on social media suggested I should free myself of my filthy thoughts and then I’d be able to breathe again. I was like “What. The. Actual. Fuck?”
Did she really think I would have some smoke-free bubble only around my head, giving me clean air while all my other filthy-thinking neighbors in the same neck of the woods coughed away? I was struck by her utter lack of empathy for our legitimate fear and suffering. She didn’t utter one word of “I’m so sorry you’re going through that. That sounds really scary and painful.” Wow. And to top it off, she’s inflates her cruel self by labelling herself “a spiritual person.” Ouch.
To Rescue The Baby, We Must Identify The Bathwater
As I wrote about in more detail in Sacred Medicine, there are more babies- and more muddy bathwater, but I’m curious what you all think about all this! If you, a child of yours, or a loved one is sick, is it helpful and empowering to hear about the unusual but real mystery stories of radical remission, or does it just make you feel awful like it made my colleague feel? Have you found the law of attraction helpful? Has it felt abusive when you’ve failed to manifest something your heart desires? Or has it outgrown its cultural relevance in trying times?
*If you’ve been curious about Healing With The Muse, I’m going to preview something I’ve been working on with Harvard doctor and author of Cured Jeffrey Rediger and anti-racist teacher, somatic therapist, and author of My Grandmother’s Hands and The Quaking of America Resmaa Menakem. We’re putting out a statement titled “9 Signs The Mind-Body-Spirit Wellness Industry Is Compromised,” which we’ll be picking apart on Monday, April 18. Join Healing With The Muse here.
*If you’ve read Sacred Medicine, please post a review on Amazon! Early reviews are very important, so please let everyone know what you think!