Highlighting the Negative
By Padraig Colman
While researching my articles on the books of Oliver Burkeman, I came across one called The Power of Negative Thinking. This sounded promisingly paradoxical, a case for the positivity of negativity? I cast my mind back to my studies of English Literature. John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 22 December 1817, described a conversation a few days previously with Charles Dilke. Keats had pondered about “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability to perceive and recognise truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning. Another way of expressing what Keats was getting at would be suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. That would be a useful thing in these days when social media allows everyone to shout their opinions without any knowledge or facts to back them up.
Paradox and Contrarianism
I clicked on the image of The Power of Negative Thinking by Oliver Burkeman and purchased it for my Kindle. Or so I thought. I was surprised to find that what I had actually bought was a book by Tony Humphreys, not Oliver Burkeman. I did not complain because I was intrigued. Tony Humphreys’s dog bit me on more than one occasion. More about that later. I felt somewhat cheated by what seemed to be the verbal sleight of hand.
I was looking for some original paradoxical thoughts about the positivity of the negative. Unfortunately, Humphreys is no GK Chesterton. Time after time, he simply replaces the word ‘negative’ with the word ‘protective’. Much of this book is devoted to illustrating the very many “creative strategies that human beings adopt to protect themselves in the face of emotional perils”. He often asserts that “there is no such thing as negative thinking.
Rather I believe that people creatively develop protective patterns of thinking to reduce the possibility of further hurt, humiliation and rejection.” Later we will see what happened when he asserted that there was no such thing as autism. Humphreys asserts: “By relabelling ‘negative’ thinking as ‘protective’ thinking, the person is no longer being criticised for the way she thinks but, on the contrary, is being given recognition for the need for protection.” Humphreys sees negative feelings as being creative. A reader who was minded to be negative about the book might say that the notion is unhealthy and might substitute ‘delusional’ for ‘creative’. “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing.
Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.” Sometimes it seems to me that Humphreys is saying that playing the victim is a valid ‘protective’ strategy. He argues that deep emotions that are usually repressed within oneself are the result of one’s upbringing and he is not shy about giving details of his own suffering. He was “constantly and unfavourably compared with his twin brother” and felt that he was not given credit for caring for his invalid mother. He left school at fifteen and joined a monastery at eighteen. He was in the monastery for seven years and a month before taking his vows “having lost all belief in Catholicism”. His devoutly religious family rejected him.
Humphreys has something of the status of a guru in Ireland. He often appears on TV and writes frequently in the popular press. He practices as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist. In an article in the Irish Examiner in February 2012, Humphreys suggested that there was no such thing as autism. “When you use the word autism you’re suggesting it’s a fact. Autism is a theory. It is not a fact,” he said on TV3’s Ireland AM. He claimed that there is a link between what are diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorders and parents not expressing love and affection to their children.
This, not surprisingly, was distressing for parents struggling to bring up autistic children. Dr. Michael Drumm, the head of the PSI (the Psychological Society of Ireland) said that the views expressed by Humphreys were “not supported by the vast body of research”. Kevin Whelan, chief executive of Irish Autism, wrote that Humphreys was resurrecting a theory that was popular 70 years ago: “It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.”
The Irish Examiner removed the article from its website. The Press Ombudsman of Ireland adjudicated that “the offence was not only widespread but grave, could have been interpreted as gratuitously provocative, and might have been avoided or at least minimised if the topic had been presented in a different manner”. Indeed, Humphreys did not do himself any favours. There are issues to be explored in more depth about psychiatry and psychology and the qualifications of experts and gurus.
In this book Humphreys write: “What I like about my neighbourhood is that people seem to respect and value differences between one another and there is no strong push towards conformity, not even towards religious conformity, although the latter has been a strong feature of local community life. There is also a friendliness between people. As in all communities, you have the ‘rogue’, the ‘sharp operator’ and the over inquisitive person, but you learn, sometimes after some personal cost, to guard against the exploitative behaviours of these people.” I was also a member of that community. Other members referred to Tony and his wife Helen reverentially as “the doctors”.
Tony Humphreys was, in a sense, my next door neighbour on the left hand side of the lane even though his house was a couple of miles away. We were rivals in the sense that we were in competition for the one copy of the London Observer that Woods’s store had available every Sunday. I asked Donal Woods if he could save a copy for me. Every Sunday morning, I made the ten-minute trek into Lisgoold village to buy my papers. Most Sundays the Observer was not available because “the Doctor” had got there first. I tried going earlier, but the papers had not arrived.
I used to pass the Humphreys’ house regularly as I did a brisk and lengthy walk up the steeper lanes. We sometimes had desultory but reasonably friendly conversations. On more than one occasion, when I was walking on my own, their Alsatian dog chased and harried me and barked aggressively at me. On two separate occasions it bit me on the legs. When I mentioned this to Tony and Helen a froideur set in. The Wikipedia article on Humphreys states: “Tony Humphreys promotes the Refrigerator mother theory of the aetiology of autistic behaviours”. The incident of the dog that bit exposed me to the chill draught of the fridge door opening.
On the positive side in the book under consideration, Humphreys does reiterate the Buddhist teaching that we get in so many self-help books these days. ‘’When we are insecure, we have difficulty living in the present: we tend to protect ourselves by either projecting into the future or living in the past. However, presentmoment living is an essential aspect of healing ourselves. When we focus on the ‘now’, it means all our energies and resources are available to us and can be effectively applied to the activity in hand.”