Attempting to Reconcile Doubt and Adversity with Positive Thinking for a Better Life


I recently read the following “poem:”

Watch your thoughts, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Watch your thoughts.

For many years I’ve known, at least in the back of my mind, that thoughts are powerful, directional forces in one’s life. I remember in a college philosophy class reading these quotes by Marcus Aurelius:

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of one’s thoughts.”


“Very little is needed to make a happy life, it is all within yourself, within your way of thinking.”

Yes, Emperor Aurelius, what we think is important.

But we’ve all had those days where we wake up feeling morose and cranky…and the rest of the day seems to follow suit. Then there are those times we think unstoppable, triumphant, glorious thoughts…and all the circumstances of the day seem to work in our favor.

So the solution is simple, right? Just think more positively and have a better life…in the words of the poet Biggie Smalls:

Uh, damn right I like the life I live
‘Cause I went from negative to positive
And it’s all…
(It’s all good)

But here’s my issue/concern #1:

How much control does one really have over one’s thoughts? How much should we expect ourselves to have the ability to watch over them? How does one simply “switch from negative to positive” despite the intervening chaos of the outside world?

Because the outside world often invades our thinking. We’re not empty islands of consciousness. We’re affected by our past and our surroundings. When you’re tired or you’re in pain, you think negatively. When you listen to a beautiful song, your thinking becomes brighter and more positive. Depending on what you eat, your thinking is altered (just now I crushed an entire box of cinnamon toast crunch and I “see” my thoughts are more sluggish and uncooperative.) If you’re high on drugs, you think you’re on top of the world. When your loved one is treating you cruelly, your thinking plummets. When you overcome an obstacle, do something kind for someone else, or even remember a special moment, the color of your thoughts change. 

Over the years I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on free will and the brain. I desperately want to believe that the brain is more than a complicated muscle. There’s a burning conviction inside of me that I can mold and craft my life within reasonable bounds. But when I mentally step back I can’t get over the knowledge that your sense of self, your mood, your beliefs can be altered by poking, cutting, and tampering with the physical brain. Insert dopamine into the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus: happiness.

Unsatisfying Conclusion #1: The “self” is influenced by millions of unfathomable things…we can play games with it (in a bad mood? listen to your favorite song, exercise, remember a beautiful moment…then ride the mental momentum etc.) but this doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re constantly pushed and pulled around and it’s not always easy to press the on-switch of positive thinking.

Issue/Concern #2: Negativing thinking and doubt can be horrifying and tortuous nowbut it may pay off in the future. 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” -Friedrich Nietzsche


“My mustache is better than yours.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Contained doses of struggle has its merits. Whether it’s your leg muscles or your brain, if you don’t work them, they decline. Because everything is in flux, nothing stays the same (Buddhism 101).

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
-Friedrich Douglass

“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”
-Helen Keller

This means that negative thinking, mental struggle, and spiritual pain carves out parts of our mind and selves so that we think more clearly, simply, and positively in the future. Mental anguish makes us better on the other side. 

So shouldn’t we, in a sense, say bring it on to negative thoughts? Shouldn’t we submerge ourselves in loathing and confusion? Because if we survive…we not only have learned about ourselves and the world, but we’re left with the residual belief that we can handle anything in the future.

Right now I could drop my writing ambitions and coast on positive thoughts for the rest of my life. Whenever negativity creeps into my consciousness I’ll jump on it and say: “At least I’m not starving, at least I can go to the movies, at least I’m not retarded or paraplegic, at least there’s bacon, at least my dog loves me, I’M THE MAN, LIFE IS GOOD.” But no…I return to my apartment and I’m consumed by doubt and anger. I beat myself up.

Yet how long will this go on? How much progress should we attempt to achieve through ceaseless struggle?

I used to read a lot of self-help books. Many of them have the following message:

What you think about, you bring about. 

This is also the message of “The Secret” or The Law of Attraction: By focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life.

So if I focus, positively, on being a successful writer, on being a good person, on a healthy, sunny existence…experience will mirror my beliefs?

Perhaps…in my own, narrow way. 

But I think this sort of positive thinking can be dangerous, can be stagnating. How does one improve if they’re always patting themselves on the back? How does someone move to another level in their art, in their thinking, in their confidence, in their strength, if they are busy telling themselves how good they are? Doesn’t calling yourself a wretched, stupid, lazy nobody provoke action to remedy the situation?

Today a regular came to my bar and was pissed off that he had to wait a couple minutes for his drink. Then he was angry that there wasn’t enough vodka in his Moscow Mule. Before he left, he told the new bartender that, “I’m actually a really nice guy. I’m not an asshole.” A quote from a Louis CK comedy sketch came to my mind: “Nobody’s allowed to say that they’re not an asshole. It’s not for them to decide! Other people decide whether or not you’re asshole.”

So can’t positive thinking, in a sense, be delusional? You repeat to yourself: I’m a nice guy, I’m successful, I’m strong, I’m charming, I’m caring…meanwhile, you’re a mean, weak, selfish bastard living in a hovel. Wouldn’t it be better if you had more negative, confusing, depressing thoughts? Wouldn’t that develop more empathy and understanding?

Unsatisfying Conclusion #2: Yes, negative thinking may bring about negative experiences…but it is also your brain searching and coping and digging through the maelstrom of experience.

“To live is to war with trolls.”
-Henrik Ibsen

All that being said, we should still watch our thoughts, positive or negative.

But don’t flee the battlefield.



Lost Innocence and Childhood: Stop Fantasizing Against the Inevitable and the Irrevocable


girl with cigboy with gun

Last night a regular at my bar (“The Devil”…see People at my Job) pulled me aside and shoved his stinky-booze-breath in my face,

“Uh…dude…you should check out the bathroom…big problem.”

I opened the door and discovered shit smeared on the wall and shit-covered toilet paper all over the floor. I put on gloves, got the mop bucket, held my breath, and cleaned up the mess. Then I watched the security camera.

Two boys were the culprits. But wait a second…they were still sitting “with” their family at the restaurant! (Separate table though: telling.) I thirsted for some type of revenge, but I’m a manager and wasn’t about to make a scene, so my tactics for releasing rage were limited. Perhaps I should let the whole thing go? My nostrils were still quivering from the stench. Nay.

I approached the low table of adults and half-kneeled next to them (same plane of eye-contact, manager technique, disarming) and said,
“Are your sons feeling alright? Are they sick?” The parents and grandmother looked angry and confused.
“No. Why?”
“Well, fifteen minutes ago they went into the bathroom and smeared their shit on the wall and left shit-covered toilet paper on the floor.”
“Nooo, not them.”
“I watched the camera. It was them.” They paused and looked at each other.
“Ahhhhh, oh, yes, ____ wasn’t feeling well, we’re sorry.” They weren’t sorry. I had observed them since they sat down. They had sent food back twice and complained unnecessarily to the server. They were wretched, despicable human beings. The grandmother’s hideous face was lined with wrinkles of bitterness. The father had beady eyes, a hitler mustache, a pointy chin, and struck me as a prick. The mother was obese with sagging cheeks, bleary eyes, and wispy hair. The mother blurted:
“And?” The father added,
“What do you want?”
“Tell your sons that it’s inappropriate to smear their shit on the walls of a public bathroom.” The father nonchalantly leaned to the side,
“_____ and _____! Tell the waiter you’re sorry.” The boys hadn’t been listening.
“We’re sorry Mr.!” I walked away. Nothing had been accomplished.

Twenty minutes later I was working upstairs when I received a text message from a bartender:

Customer wants to talk to you.” I went downstairs and saw the mother leaning against the bar.
“How dare you,” she said. “Never have I gone to a restaurant and had a waiter complain about me and my family. My son has special needs. He’s not stupid. He’s smart. But there wasn’t any toilet paper left and he didn’t know what to do. I’m writing a bad review as soon as I get home. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Sometimes, in life, I wish I was more of an asshole. Because if I was…I’d have been prepared for such an attack. I’d have lashed out with my opinions. I’d have been quick to the gun. But I’m not. Despite being socially pounded in the ass by NYC and restaurant environments, I look for the best in people. So I stood there, in disbelief, wondering if this woman was being serious at first, then letting her rant because what would fighting against her have accomplished? I knew there had been two full rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom in which her son/s had spread their feces, yet I let her shout, nod in satisfaction, and leave.

Twenty minutes later I found a server crying in a stairwell.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Transfer all of my tables to Caitlyn.”
“Why? What happened”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m leaving.”
“Was it that table with the two, shitting-boys?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No.” She doesn’t know that I had a crush on her when she was hired, but that it faded away due to time, the seriousness which we take our jobs, her comments implying being devoutly religious, and the social barrier of manager vs. server. Again, if I was an asshole I’d probably have ignored this barrier. But I wouldn’t put a woman in the pressured, difficult place of choosing between job/livelihood and pleasing a man above her. (How many millions of women are put in this kind of wretched situation everyday?)  Besides, she had developed a crush for a bartender. That’s why she was crying. He was drinking after his shift at the bar and hitting on her too aggressively. There was a regular there who liked her, too, and was also hitting on her. Then there was a drunken, idiot saying inappropriate things about her yoga pants. The three guys were all sitting in a row next to one another and chuckling. (I learned all of these details later.) She just wanted to go home.

An hour later the only barback/busboy arrived at the restaurant. He hadn’t shown up for work the past two days and wasn’t responding to phone calls or texts. The police showed up, though, looking for him. Long story short, his girlfriend had put a restraining order against him. She had stabbed his ball sack with a box-cutter (did I want to see it? No.) He had slashed her ear.  He had spent a night in jail. Here’s the paperwork. He’ll be in for work tomorrow.

At 1:45am I’m sitting in the ferry terminal waiting for the boat. I’m thinking how my life is a ceaseless grind, and yet there’s no way that my perspective is unique. Other people must be going through this sort of thing too. Other people must be coping with daily depressions.

But am I paying for wrong things that I did in my past, or am I being somehow prepared for obstacles in the future? That’s the problem with justice: you never know which direction it’s coming from. Are you being punished for what you’ve done? Or bombarded by senseless pain and confusion so you’ll be ready for what will arrive?

You ever hear someone say “I wish I was a little kid again”? Ever watch a movie or listen to a song that laments lost innocence and lost childhood? I couldn’t help but fall into the fantasy as I sat there in the terminal. What happened to my joyful innocence? How did I end up here?

But after indulging my childhood memories….here’s what I realized/was reminded of while sitting there: the problem, the ridiculousness of such a desire…when you’re a kid, you’re a leech. Between the ages of 0-20 (depending on your family environment) you’ve been provided for, allowed to play, given a fantasy world. Of course the memories are often rosy and nice when you could lounge with stuffed animals, draw in coloring books, and play games without worrying about the implications and support of such a lifestyle. You could smear your shit in a public bathroom without consequences. But that’s not reality anymore…that’s not life.

I think the sign of a mature mind is how fast you move on from the pettiness and problems of the daily grind. I’m not very good at it, but I’m getting better. Because while sitting there in the terminal and telling myself to stop fantasizing, I began to look around. Already the stress of the previous shift was melting away and the events that occurred seemed funny. I was looking forward to going home.