HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – Want to learn how to fly? Peter Pan knows the secret. “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air,” the perennial man-child advises Wendy in J.M. Barrie’s classic play.
But what if you want a shiny new car, flashy boat or hefty raise? According to author-producer Rhonda Byrne, Peter Pan’s secret will help you obtain those goodies as well: Just think lovely, wonderful thoughts, and whatever you desire will come your way.
Byrne is the mastermind behind The Secret, the New Age self-help guidebook and DVD currently enjoying its 15 minutes of fame after an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in February. In little over a month, the book and DVD together have sold more than a million copies, the book has topped The New York Times Bestseller List for seven weeks straight and Internet chat rooms are buzzing about the power of The Secret.
Byrne allegedly discovered that power in 2004, when she read The Secret of Getting Rich, written in 1910 by Wallace D. Wattles. That book convinced Byrne some long-lost secret to success existed and set her off on a Da Vinci Code-like rabbit chase to find it.
What she discovered (after a mere year of research) was "The Law of Attraction.”
According to her book, this “law” was practiced by historical greats such as Plato, Galileo and Einstein, and has been “discovered, coveted, hidden, lost and recovered” repeatedly for the past 4,000 years. The book also claims the Catholic Church worked assiduously through the centuries to keep “The Secret” a secret.
So, what is this “Law of Attraction” that even armies of albino monks could not keep off Oprah? In sum: “Like attracts like.” So, think positive thoughts and positive things will happen to you. Think negative thoughts and negative things will happen to you. Sounds simple enough.
But more than just celebrating the power of positive thinking, the Law of Attraction, as Byrne describes it, is as incontrovertible as the law of gravity. In other words, if it’s a sparkly chain of diamonds you want, just focus your thoughts on that chain with enough intensity, and the necklace will be yours. Conversely, have the audacity to send negative thoughts out into the universe and run the risk of causing your child’s death, losing your job or getting your heart broken.
According to James Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization at Catholic Answers, “The Secret” has one tiny part of that equation right.
“Out thoughts do affect our outlook, and if you have a positive outlook, positive things are more likely to happen to you,” he said. “But that happens in a natural manner. You can’t magically attract things into your life just by thinking about them.”
As for the rest of The Secret’s “wisdom,” Akin dismisses it as “superstition.”
“We all have a desire for a trouble-free existence,” he said. “But people who buy into this are allowing that desire to override common sense.”
Michael McCallion, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, seconded Akins’ opinion, illustrating some of the logical inconsistencies in The Secret’s promises.
“What happens if a teenager channels all his energy into visualizing a bright red bike into existence, while his parents channel all their energy into visualizing that he doesn’t get that bike?” he asked. “How does that work?”
Even more problematic is Byrne’s insistence that individuals bear the blame for all the suffering that comes into their life. Pointing to the problem of unemployment, McCallion said, “The fact that the entire social system shifted and cost you your job has absolutely nothing to do with your thoughts. Leading people to think it does is irresponsible and dangerous.”
McCallion also stressed that Byrne’s ideas reinforce a false idea of happiness based on material possessions and classified The Secret as “sociologically naďve. It puts so much stress on the individual, on the self. It denies the fact that people affect you.”
Same old, same old
According to Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, who hosts EWTN Live and writes extensively on the New Age movement, The Secret, far from being some long-lost piece of ancient wisdom, is just the same old New Age nonsense dressed up for TV.
“It’s a standard New Age idea that all the world’s problems would go away if everyone would just be a little more positive,” said Father Pacwa. “This is an old scam. It’s like a nasty scene from ‘Poltergeist’: ‘They’re ba-ack.’”
The Secret, however, go further back than the New Age movement. In fact, said Father Pacwa, they go right back to Eden.
“What did the devil say to Eve? ‘Eat this, and you’ll become like gods.’ That’s what The Secret really promises,” he said.
The promise of The Secret does seem to echo the promise of the serpent. It promises that without help from man or God you can control your destiny. It assures you neither grace nor suffering are necessary. It makes you your own god, and leaves no room for a messiah who hung on a cross.
Of course, the cost of believing those promises is as high as ever, which is why the best way for Catholics to respond to The Secret is not to think “lovely, wonderful thoughts” about the phenomenon coming to a quick demise. Rather, Father Pacwa advised, Catholics need to help the culture rediscover their dependence on God’s grace and the redemptive power of suffering.
"Suffering isn’t easy, but it’s profound and powerful,” he said. “Our task is to help folks in the culture face their problems instead of looking for the easy way out. It doesn’t exist.”
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Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio for Our Sunday Visitor
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.