A had a fifteen minute interlude yesterday at the airport that began in relational euphoria and ended in paranoia. Moments occur daily that signal my grasp of human relations, the mastery I have in moments of stress, the ability to charm and placate, to create world peace with a warm smile and a few charming words. In my formative years, personal skills centered on the wisdom of Norman Vincent Peale’s, The Power of Positive Thinking, and Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The power of positive thinking became the panacea, the cure-all balm for every social and economic predicament. I never trusted that movement, believing the power of negative thinking more suited my sensibilities. There’s something intrinsically liberating about admitting you are capable of failure. Yesterday, however, I was Dale Carnegie for fourteen and a half minutes.
While flying to California via Tulsa International Airport, we entered the T.S.A security maze. Although we travel enough to qualify as seasoned fliers, we entered the beginner maze because there was no line. I ripped off my belt and removed my shoes, placing them along with my wallet, phone, and one stick of blue-foiled Cobalt gum, into a gray tub and shoved it along the rollers into the image oven, and proceeded to the Last-Book-in-the-Bible machine. Placing my stocking feet on the splayed cartoon feet painted on the floor, I made the football signal for a two-point safety, but keeping my hands slightly apart like an uncertain referee, while the machine whirred in a half-arc around my world. I followed the T.S.A. agent’s pointing finger to another set of feet and went to stand on those. Bacteria lounging in the painted feet, picnicked, awaiting the next podiatric contribution to the daily buffet. Shoving that thought to the side in the name of national security, I stood awaiting directions. The man asks if I have anything in my right jean pocket to which I reply, “No sir.” He pats my pocket. Nothing. Relieved the pat down was limited to one pocket, I turned to retrieve my belongings. After looping my belt, pulling on my shoes, placing my wallet and phone in my pocket, I turned to leave the cattle prod area, when another T.S.A. employee asks if I left something in the tray. I had forgotten my Cobalt stick of gum. I looked down at the gum just laying there alone in blue foil in that big gray tub and I asked the young woman in the unflattering T.S.A. uniform if she wanted my last stick of gum. We both looked down at the gum, then back up at each other and we smiled and laughed. It was a small moment of humanity, and I walked away secure in my ability to brighten the day of stressed and downtrodden federal employees.
Strolling toward Starbuck’s in my euphoric mood, I asked my wife if she wanted something to drink. “Water”, came the reply. Standing in line waiting for an older gentleman struggling to pay for his coffee using a Starbuck’s app on his cell phone, I pulled a bottle of water from the cold case and waited five minutes for the barista (clerk) to manage this gentleman’s payment problem, which unresolved, led him to pay with folding money. Finally my turn, I ordered a Casi Cielo Tall and stood at the counter waiting for my coffee, debit card in my right hand, my left hand resting atop the bottle of water. Setting my coffee on the counter, the young woman said, “That will be $4.75.” Overcharge bells rang in my brain and I came back with, “$4.75 for a tall coffee?”, in an all-knowing tone. To which she gently replied, “And a water.” Realizing my error, I sheepishly said something lame about arrogant customers and she said something gracious about folks with busy lives and I laughed nervously knowing she thought me a jerk.
My transition from gracious saint to arrogant consumer took fifteen minutes. This made me think of one of the brothers coaching in the Super Bowl last Sunday, Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who manages his team using principles from a book titled, “Only the Paranoid Survive”. Written by Intel CEO, Andy Grove, during the peak of his tenure in 1996, it features buzz-phrases like “strategic inflection points,” and stresses the value of paranoia. It’s the same notion that escaped Henry Ford who believed black was the only color choice any automobile buyer required and that the Model-T was the pinnacle of innovation. It’s also the paradigm that will enable Apple to stay atop the technological heap of product development. Paranoid folks don’t rest on their laurels. And it hearkens back to my personal aversion to positive thinking. Always disappointed in success, never happy with the status quo. Ah…the power of negative thinking. I once heard an interviewer ask Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, what motivated him, in an age when one player said of Jack, “He knew he was better than you, we knew he was better than us, and he knew that we knew he was better than us.” With that psychological battle of the mind complete, his golf game allowed him to simply go out and make fewer mistakes while the rest of the field withered. And it made his answer to the question of what motivated him, enlightening. Jack’s reply? “I was motivated by fear of failure.”
I recently read this excerpt from the Wall Street Journal in an article entitled, The Power of Negative Thinking. “One pioneer of the “negative path” was the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who died in 2007. He rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst. Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ” To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely. Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.
Apparently, I’m in the company of 33 1/3% of my fellow Americans who subscribe to the “premeditation of evils” crowd. It even works on death, preventing an attitude of denial like that of Woody Allen who posited, “I’m strongly against it.” At least paranoia and negativism helps us face our fear of death. With that small level of positivism applied to negativism, I’m comforted in my right to remain positively paranoid. When I think I’m a saint, stay paranoid. At the nadir of my humanity, my personal peak of graciousness, even when I charm stern government employees, paranoia reminds me that I’m a stumbling-bumbling-foot-in-the-mouth idiot.
What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8