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.



What is Lost in Translation?

(A Brief Analysis of Two English Translations of the Opening Paragraph of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas)

            A few months ago I was introduced by the love of my life to the German writer, Heinrich Von Kleist. I immediately became obsessed with his work. I read everything he wrote, including a biography and all his letters, and I consider him a literary friend who will always be there for me from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death gives me the chance to schedule a rendez-vous with him in hell.

            But I was lucky. I had encountered a magnificent translation of Kleist’s work by David Luke. You can read all about David Luke and his life in this Independent article. But here’s an excerpt:

           “His [Luke] verse translations all render into English not only the sense of the original with meticulous accuracy but make as close an approximation as is possible to the verse forms of the German, of which there are a huge range, even within Faust. All are remarkable achievements; the very best of them succeed magnificently in conveying the great beauty of the German language in the hands of the finest writers. For decades, reviewer after reviewer (including poets such as Stephen Spender and D.J. Enright), praised David Luke’s acutely sensitive ear and his tremendous linguistic dexterity. In 2000 the German-British Forum presented him with a medal in honour of his contribution to cultural understanding between the two nations.”

            I became so obsessed with Kleist that after finishing his masterpiece, Michael Kohlhaas, for the third time, I ordered a hard copy of the book on Amazon, to give my burning retinas a rest and to have a physical child I could actually hold. When the book arrived in the mail my hands were trembling. I tore open the package, jumped on to the coach to go for ride, and began reading…

            And while reading the first paragraph I was filled with a rising, sickening sense of revulsion. In my hands was a different book. This was not Kleist. This was not Michael Kohlhaas. After three pages, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was reading garbage, an airport novel full of clichés and detectives; a shit book with a hack title like: Jack Knish Hunts For Redemption. I threw the book across the room and stormed out of my apartment. I collapsed in the middle of the street, cars honking and speeding by (Qu’est-ce que vous faites, connard !), and wept bitter tears at the horrible mediocrity that pervades so much of this finite and imperfect world…

            A few days later I began to wonder why I had felt such disgust reading Frances A. King’s translation of Kleist. What was it about the translation? So I began to compare King’s translation with Luke’s translation. Below is what I discovered and the conclusions that I’ve made concerning the art of translation.

            To be a great translator, you must keep three ideas in your head at all times while translating a work:

  1. Who was the writer? 

Who was Henrich Von Kleist? The answer is complex, of course, but there are some adjectives we can use: intense, tortured, curious, adventuresome, lonely, hyper-sensitive, extremely intelligent, and wild. His first tutor described him as having a “mind of undampened fire.” Kleist was known for having shattering episodes of depression. His heart had been broken by his first love. His parents were dead before he was 15. He was a prisoner of war. His only remaining family (sister) abandoned him. He felt like he should have been living in another period of human history. He loved to travel, but he also desired to settle down in the wilderness and write. He committed suicide with a lover (or perhaps a close friend, biographers aren’t certain, Kleist was mysterious) at age 34. All these details and parts of his personality must be kept in mind as the translator engages in word choice, the rhythm of phrases, and the expression of complex ideas.

2.) In what period of human history was the writer working in?

Kleist was writing at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. He was a contemporary of Goethe. Goethe expressed horror and disgust after reading Kleist’s prose, calling Kleist’s writing “diseased” because it showed “the unlovely and frightening in Nature.” He condemned the violence of Kleist’s theories and for finding life “a labyrinth to which reason, faith and feeling were uncertain guides.” Kleist was writing during the romantic period of literature in Germany. Enlightenment ideas were on the rise (rationality, objectivity, reform movements, etc.). In 1793, the execution of the French king and the onset of The Terror disillusioned the Bildungsbürgertum (Prussian middle classes). Around 1800 the Catholic monasteries, which had large land holdings, were nationalized and sold off by the government. Europe was racked by two decades of war. All these events and more must be known by the translator so they can have a sense of the writer’s setting. But a great translator must also read other books written during the same time period (and their best translations), to get a sense of what words and phrases are being chosen.

3.) What is the context of the story itself? Who are the characters and what do they stand for?

Michael Kohlhaas is based on the 16thcentury story of Hans Kohlhase (a merchant whose grievance against a Saxon nobleman developed into a full-blown feud against the state of Saxony, thus infringing the Eternal Peace of 1495). Kohlaas himself was tough, rugged, fair, and strong. Here is a trailer for a movie made about Michael Kohlaas, released in 2013, to give you an idea:

Again, the time period (16thcentury) must dictate word choice, and the characters and the plot (which in this case contain violence and a wild, powerful quest for vengeance and justice) must determine how the translation is rendered.

            I could write 100 pages meticulously dissecting both translations. But I won’t waste your time. Here is just the first paragraph of the great translation by Luke with the shit translation [King] in parenthesis. Analysis and justification below. 

            About the middle of the sixteen century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honorable/[upright] as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues/[model of a good citizen]. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade/[quietly supported himself by plying his trade]; his wife bore him/[presented him] children who he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking [industrious] and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness/[nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice]; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer./[In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.

  1. Honorable as an adjective is a 100x better than upright. The word is stronger, fits the century, and connects with a theme of the story and with Kohlhass’ character (honor). Upright evokes somebody trying to fix their posture, and is physical and limited rather than epic and spiritual.
  • A paragon of civil virtues also has an epic quality, subtly revealing the power of Kohlhass, and the sound of “civil virtues” is pleasing to hear in English. Model of a good citizen is bland and weak, a product of the 20thcentury, and makes one think of “doing their small part” for society as they recycle, vote, and follow the rules. 
  • Peacefully earned a living by his trade evokes the image of a someone working hard in peace. The verb “to earn” is powerful and implies independence and pride. Quietly supporting himself by plying his trade implies that “himself” needs to be supported and that he is meek. Michael Kohlhass could survive any obstacle and doesn’t need, in a sense, to support himself. On the other hand, he is intensely “living” and desires “peace.” And the verb plying, is extremely weak, sounding close to playing and being synonymous with handling, using, operating, and feeling.
  • His wife bore children is 1000x better than his wife presented him children. To verb, “bore” is raw and suggests how difficult and painful the act of childbirth is, especially during the late 1700s. What does “present children” to Kohlhass even mean? It evokes an image of a woman nonchalantly putting children on a table as a gift and saying, “Here they are!”
  • Hardworking and honest is a pleasing alliteration. Industrious and honest are two words that rhyme, and intense prose shouldn’t rhyme (because it jars the ear and flow if it’s unintended). In addition, children aren’t taught to be specifically industrious, like machines or employees, they are taught to be hardworking, a subtle difference but all these differences add up.
  • “Not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness,” reveals that Kohlhass had a respected and revered place in the community. They were indebted to him. Compare this to: “Nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice,” puts the emphasis on neighbors enjoying Kohlass as if he was an entertainer. Kohlass was not an entertainer. And the sentence clumsily uses the word justice, tacked on at the end. Justice is the most important theme in this story, and it shouldn’t be used lightly, as it is in King’s crap translation.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, Luke breaks up the last idea into two sentences: as Kleist does in the original German. Luke writes, “in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.” Making the last idea two sentences adds force and power to the second sentence: his sense of justice making him a robber and murderer. It punches the reader in the gut and makes them want to keep on reading. Compare this to King’s run-on, choppy sentence: “In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.” It’s as if the last idea were just tacked on at the end haphazardly, “oh yeah, Kohlhass also became a robber and a murderer.” The phrase, “the world would have every reason to bless his memory” is also stupid and sloppy. Why focus on the world in this sentence, when the story of Kohlhass is him against the world (as Kleist was against his world). Why use the verb “to bless” which evokes religion and the image of a priest calmly leaning over a pious worshiper. The world did not consider blessing Kohlass’ memory. The world either hated or revered him: a divided intensity that Kleist lived by.

Conclusion: If I had encountered King’s translation first instead of Luke’s I might never have befriended Kleist. How many times has this happened before with other translations? It’s better not to think of this question.

      If you get one thing out of this essay, I hope it is that you should read Michael Kohlhass as soon as you can. But please read David Luke’s translation. I believe it’s better.

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