January 21st, 2010

I am uncomfortable “asking the universe” for things. I am uncomfortable with the idea of “the law of attraction” and “manifesting your destiny.” I am downright suspicious of The Secret. I know that many people, including at least a few people who read this blog, swear by the law of attraction and can point to situations in their lives when the law of attraction seemed to be fully at work in their lives. I read blogs; I’ve seen it happen, too.* Certainly on some level the law of attraction makes some sense: if you are negative and unhappy and grumble about your unhappiness, joyful people probably aren’t likely to hang around you for long whereas other grumblers will find in you a partner in unhappiness, reinforcing the negative trend. Certainly if fear holds you back from trying to start your own business, from quitting your job to travel around the world for eight months, from tying to publish your poetry then you will never start your own business, travel the world, or publish poetry. I get it.

On the other hand, suggesting “without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance”¬†seems to me to tread perilously close to suggesting that those who are lacking are lacking through some fault of their own. As if social forces don’t exist. As if class structure doesn’t circumscribe opportunities at every turn. As if crushing, grinding poverty of a type I can’t even begin to imagine wouldn’t dictate a person’s every action. As if there wouldn’t be things that would stand in the way of somebody “manifesting abundance.”

My book club just finished discussing The White Tiger. Balram, the main character, talks about being trapped in “the Rooster Coop.” The Rooster Coop – an insidious combination of social control, class structure, violence, poverty and fear that traps people in “perpetual servitude;” social and cultural traditions that are reinforced from without and from within. “The Rooster Coop,” Balram muses at one point, “was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr. Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.” I thought the metaphor of the Rooster Coop was brilliant, brilliant and sad because I look at the world and see Rooster Coops. There is joy and wonder and abundance, but there is a whole lot of cruelty and injustice too, and I am uncomfortable with a world view that doesn’t take social structure seriously, that doesn’t take injustice – human-created, human-perpetuated injustice – seriously.

I am uncomfortable ignoring the reality that the pure stupid luck of the draw doesn’t have a lot to do with my abundance, with the chances that present themselves to me, with the freedom – the luxury – I have to pursue them. The socio-economic status I occupy, that I occupy by the luck of birth and the coincidence of marriage – colors everything. I’ve written of this before. I do not mean to suggest that people are locked beyond all hope in certain circumstances; of course people can do better, rise above, shine, get lucky, work hard, break free. But I find it disingenuous to suggest that the circumstances of our birth and the social forces at work in our lives don’t tilt the playing field even in the matter of the law of attraction. I am extremely uncomfortable with that.

I am uncomfortable with the law of attraction because it strikes me as yet another way in which the world is unfair, but in a manner that allows us to overlook that unfairness. In a manner that makes it easier for us to overlook the social structures – conditions of race and class and gender and institutionalized corruption and inter-generational poverty – that are at play every day and that are already easy enough to ignore. Things that are very real and cannot be manifested away so easily.

So here is where I admit sheepishly that I asked the universe for something this month. In my own way, I think I asked the universe for something. Something that I got (these are the more coherent thoughts I promised). In thinking about this workshop, I did a few things differently. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have gotten in anyway? I mean, I would have sent the same five poems, written the same awkward cover letter. But I did kind of ask the universe for this thing.

Where does this leave me, cynic that I am? I guess it leaves me thinking that the law of attraction might work in my personal, small life.** But the world is big and the injustice is real. And I am still very, very uncomfortable suggesting that “without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance.” That’s too simple. Too close to upper-class privilege. Too comfortable.

I’m still uncomfortable with all of this. I doubt I’m going to start “asking the universe” for things on a regular basis, unless it’s to ask the universe for a little more social justice a little more quickly, please. And then to go the barricades.

* As a social scientist, however long out of the field, I’m compelled to suggest here: it’s impossible to prove that people wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted even if they hadn’t opened themselves up to the law of attraction since they only live one life and can’t go back and see what would have happened had they behaved differently in some way. Correlation does not mean causality and all that.

** Or it might just leave me thinking that correlation does not imply causality.