False Promises

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While this intriguing profile of Rhonda Byrne, the woman behind The Secretconnects it to the so-called New Thought movement of the 19th century, Byrne herself is apparently fond of tracing her creation back to far more venerable roots.

“The Secret” was released around the same time as the film version of “The Da Vinci Code,” and it was cleverly packaged as a historical mystery. There are lingering shots of faded cursive script on parchment paper, often accompanied by pounding drums or wordless choirs, and Byrne talks about “tracing the Secret back through history,” revealing all the great thinkers who have harnessed its power. (According to one title card, “The Secret was suppressed,” though we never learn how, or by whom.)

Squint and tilt your head, you might find some skewed semblance of truth in the advertising. The Secret isn’t the product of some secret, ancient truth; but it is the latest incarnation of a very old, very human fallacy.

Almost all forms of mysticism and superstition are rooted in the idea that your thoughts and perceptions have a sort of heft and magnetism whose influence extends far beyond your physical body. The universe orients itself around your thoughts. Capital-T Truth is an easy, unambiguous thing, and if you don’t have immediate access to it, you at least know exactly which road you need to walk down to get there. Make no mistake, it is a definite destination—and once you arrive, there is no limit to your ability to satisfy your own needs.

(Aside: You can even see this sort of reasoning in non-mystical conspiracy theories, in which every piece of evidence points to one grand, horrible, blessedly unambiguous Truth. Those who know this Truth are the noble, virtuous ones who, by way of their secret knowledge, have found an anointed cause: to get the truth out and eliminate the source of a large share of the world’s evil.)

In other words, this school of thought—which we might call a meta-school of thought, since it encompasses the greater part of all human philosophical, spiritual, and even political traditions—gives a promise. It promises the end of pain and confusion. And what makes The Secret so fascinating is that it’s a mish-mash of all of these prior traditions rendered down to its base components. It’s the same racket that’s been on the market for millennia, but so stripped-down that it’s compatible with all prior models.

You can’t blame anyone for wanting to retreat into this kind of thinking. We’re neurologically hardwired for it. But I’m afraid that pursuing illusory promises of the end of pain and confusion will only cause it to metastasize. Better to recognize these things as ineradicable pillars of the human experience, and allow ourselves to feel love for that experience. Better to embrace, contain, and utilize.

(Aside: For another example of a powerful contemporary movement in the United States which fulfills much the same role as The Secret but with a militant political bent, please see a recent column of mine on the subject of Glenn Beck-ism.)

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