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If life doesn't give you lemons, you're not going to be able to make lemonade.

When I was in high school, we had a social studies teacher who was, as I would later figure out, an aging hippie-type. I think he must have felt like it was his duty to expose us—a bunch of ninth-graders—to alternative ways of thinking about the world. This was Indiana in the 1980s, so the list of ideas that might be considered “alternative” was quite long.

As part of this effort, he would periodically invite a guest speaker to talk to our class. Among the guest speakers was a meditation teacher, and my guess is that the stuff she was telling us would fit squarely within the mainstream these days, but back then (and to very sheltered fourteen-year-old me), it sounded like crazy talk.

That’s not the part that stuck with me, though.

As she talked to us about the benefits of meditation, she explained how our frame of mind—whether we are calm or stressed, if we are feeling positive about our experiences or negative—affects the state of our body and our physical health. Again, this sort of idea is not terribly controversial, but to me at the time, it sounded insane. My recollection (which I will admit may not be entirely accurate thirty years later) is that she was suggesting not just that stress and negativity can be contributing factors to poor health, but that sickness and disease are a result of our state of mind.

It is at this point in the story that I should add that, while I was sitting in this social studies class, listening to this person talk about state of mind as a cause of illness, my father was in the hospital with a resurgence of the multiple myeloma that he had been diagnosed with earlier that same year, and which would kill him two years later. While the meditation lady may not have meant “Your dad is sick with cancer and it is his fault for not being positive enough,” that is how it came across to me.

Since then, and possibly because of—although to what extent, I am not sure—that event, I have tended to pretty wary of mind-over-matter claims.

This past week, I was part of several different conversations about the need to change one’s perspective. In one case, it was people talking about health and wellness. In another, it was a conversation about the degree to which one’s perception of the world limits one’s ability to succeed. In both cases, I had my doubts.

Does my state of mind or mood have an effect on how I feel physically? Of course, although I think that road goes both ways. I am a runner, and I find that going for a run nearly always tends to cheer me up and make me feel better about life, whereas my state of mind seems to have a much smaller effect on whether I feel like running.

I would also agree that my frame of mind has a strong effect on what I am able to accomplish. If I’m feeling down and thinking about how terrible writing is and how terrible a writer I am, the odds of me actually doing any writing are near zero. If, on the other hand, I approach the task of writing with the attitude of “I’m just going to start writing, and it’s going to be fine,” I suddenly find myself five hundred words into this post.

This sort of thinking is fine when it stays focused on the individual’s perspective as a means of coping with the larger world and the uncontrollable circumstances it brings. If you lose your job, then sure, maybe it’s a good idea to try to think of it as an opportunity to make some changes rather than freaking out.

The problems start when this sort of thinking loses that focus on the individual, and begins to frame the circumstances brought into one’s life by the larger world as something that can be influenced by individual perspective. It is this sort of expansion that gives us stuff like the now-infamous tweet from early in the pandemic about how, if you hadn’t been using the stress and isolation of the lockdown to iron out your side-hustle, then you had somehow failed at life. This conflation of individual perspective and systemic limitations and biases also brings us the extremely toxic notion that someone who is suffering physically, mentally, or economically has only themself to blame.

I think the advice to change your perspective is probably great for dealing with circumstances that are beyond your control, whether those circumstances are being stuck in traffic, being told you have three months to live, or anything in between. I think that advice is terrible and condescending when it is given as a general purpose balm without taking into account socio-economic inequality, systemic bias, and other factors that may not be obvious to the person giving the advice.

So, sure—if life gives you lemons, make lemonade and all of that. But the lemons may not be any good, and you’re not going to be magically creating lemons out of thin air with the power of your mind.

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