August 12, 2013 10:45:03 AM
OXFORD -- It was 60 years ago that Dr. Norman Vincent Peale issued "The Power of Positive Thinking." In the decades since, other books, songs, plays and movies have extolled the virtues of making an affirmative choice to be optimistic.
As might be expected, Dr. Peale's work was assailed by psychiatrists and psychologists as simplistic, unscientific.
But Peale didn't deny the existence of mental illness or say rain doesn't fall on the just as well as the unjust. His premise (driven by his Protestant faith) was that we choose. Peale said we should train our brains to look on the bright side whenever possible. The result, he said, would be healthier, happier, more productive lives.
Mississippians have a lot to get down on ourselves about. We're too poor, too uneducated, too fat, too disease-ridden. If we don't see these things for ourselves, no problem. Folks from other areas of America are happy to reinforce notions of their superiority by constantly making lists and ranking us at the top (bad things) or the bottom (good things). Since time began, for example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has listed Mississippi as the worst place in America for a kid to grow up.
Positive thinking -- if it means ignoring real challenges -- won't make problems go away. Being positive is not the same as being oblivious. But having a positive attitude in approaching challenges is more effective than shrugging our shoulders.
A positive attitude is a morale booster.
And Mississippi has many positives -- far too many to list here:
· Lack of debt. That's a big one. What happened in Detroit can't happen here. Yes, elected officials can be completely irresponsible, but all public debt is "bonded," meaning there's a specific, legal pledge to repay from identified resources. There are states and cities with tens of billions of dollars or red ink on their books and no real repayment plan.
· Arts and entertainment. Rarely is there a TV talent show of any type without a singer, dancer, chef or weight-loser from Mississippi in the finals. They are following a definite pattern, preceded by folks named Hill, Presley, Waters, Welty, Hannah, Alexander, Faulkner, Wright, Morris on the national and international scene.
· Sciences. The state's teaching hospital is not lavished with near as many research dollars as others, but a scientist there was the first to come up with a recipe that appears to have made HIV vanish from a child's bloodstream.
· People. In a survey completed by 46,000 Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers this summer, two Mississippi cities -- Natchez and Jackson -- finished as Top Ten Friendliest Cities in America. The vast majority of states had none. No other state had two. CNN has listed Mississippi No. 5 on its tally of "Best States To Retire." Folks will pull over and help you here.
· Scenery. Also unscientific, but the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi was ranked the Most Beautiful in America by Princeton Review and the Natchez Trace Parkway was ranked as a top scenic drive by Reader's Digest.
· Growth. The American Legislative Exchange Council placed the economic outlook in Mississippi among its Top Ten nationally in May. There's a big new ship contract in Pascagoula and Gov. Phil Bryant is announcing business expansions, large and small, almost daily. Crops are actively growing on one out of every 10 acres in the state, and more and more land is going back into habitat.
Now think about this: Every one of these facts was reported by "the media," which, as we know, stands forever accused of only reporting bad news.
The truth is that balanced information is available, but for some reason many in the state get wrapped up in whatever is not going well.
Peale's advice would be a dose of optimism would do us a world of good.
It has to be substantive optimism.
Hollow optimism is best illustrated by the greetings workers at some fast-food chains are required to speak. Everyone says "Welcome to ...," lest they be fired, but in a tone that makes it clear they really don't care if you're alive or dead.
The hollow variety is fake. Chirpy. Pasting on a grin to make a sale.
Substantive optimism is what Peale advocated. It's not about denial. It's about accepting the good and the bad that comes with each day -- and deciding to try make tomorrow better.
Charlie Mitchell is an assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1 University, MS, or firstname.lastname@example.org.