Magical Thinking and Paying the Bills

In Sebastopol, California, there is a coffee house called Coffee Catz. Outside the shop is a gratitude tree that looks like a small tree, but it is bare of leaves. People are supposed to attach little notes indicating what they’re grateful for.

If the people in Sebastopol were being honest about their lot in life, that tree would be buried under an avalanche of these notes. By and large, they’re quite well off. They’re quite close to some of the most scenic coastline in the world with what is, for most people, a very agreeable climate. Even the years-long California drought hasn’t seriously impacted this part of the world yet and the surrounding countryside is increasingly covered with vineyards.

I get annoyed with the folks in Sebastopol because, basically, they have little reason to challenge the status quo. They’re sort of left-leaning, but not really. I call them faux-liberals. When some homeless folks started staking out the town, showing up on street corners with signs pleading for help, the town council quickly passed an ordinance banning them.[1] And the homeless disappeared. Yes, they really did. Even an old guy with flowers in his hair, who had some sort of bicycle contraption that he carried all his worldly belongings around on, who had a well-behaved dog, and who had been around forever has now all but disappeared.

No one knows where the homeless went. And, of course, no one cares. What’s important in Sebastopol is that nobody makes anybody “uncomfortable.”

But of course, if Sebastopol folks were really serious about that, they’d probably do something about the Old Main Street Saloon, which, when you actually walk down the street past the place, is pretty obviously a dive bar.

So, the real rule in Sebastopol is that as long as you’re spending money, you aren’t making anyone “uncomfortable.”

Buddhism, of sorts, is a very popular religion around here. Of course, its practitioners are, like everyone else, very attached to their material goods. But they meditate, the guys think of themselves as being so cool, and they pick up gals that way. And I guess this is what is considered “hip” nowadays. At least in Sebastopol.

So I call Sebastopol folks faux-liberal pseudo-Buddhists. It’s really all very fake.

And that gratitude tree outside Coffee Catz is a reminder that we’re supposed to be grateful, that we’re supposed to be content.

And if you aren’t grateful and you aren’t content, well, they might not call it The Secret, but they think you should change your attitude and “attract” good fortune. It’s really as simple as that.

Which, as I’ve noted about The Secret, is, in fact a way of evading the very real human qualities of empathy and altruism. Because if changing your attitude doesn’t work for you, then obviously, according to Sebastopol folks, you haven’t really changed your attitude.[2] It’s also, as I’ve argued, a new age version of the very old-fashioned Protestant ethic.[3]

Oh yeah, there are poor people, and I’m sure that Sebastopol folks think that’s really awful. And there are people who face discrimination for any of a number of reasons. And I’m sure they think that’s really awful. And of course they think it’s terrible what those awful Republicans have been doing to President Barack Obama. But in Sebastopol, all that’s abstract. So you should just change your attitude. And be grateful. And stick your note on that gratitude tree.

Of course, Sebastopol isn’t the only place where people have this attitude. I have one friend who thinks the biggest obstacle to my finding a job is my attitude. I have another friend who thinks the mind is the center of the universe and that people make their own realities.

If you look in the DSM-5, you’ll see a term for that kind of thinking. It’s called magical thinking. I seem to be surrounded by magical thinkers who don’t want to be brought down by my problems.

It’s my fault, after all, that I haven’t been able to find gainful employment since the dot-com bust in 2001. My fault. Everybody else is doing fine. So it must be my fault.

Because remember, all those poor people, all those people who face various forms of discrimination, they’re abstract. They’re not really real.

I have some friends on Facebook who are poorer than I am. And who have kids. And who have parents who tell them they shouldn’t bother going to college because they’re not smart enough. And who suffer from debilitating conditions or chronic pain. I suppose all that’s their fault too. Oh yeah, and I must be imagining them because they can’t really be real.

[Misconceptions] include the notion that poverty affects a relatively small number of Americans, that the poor are impoverished for years at a time, that most of those in poverty live in inner cities, that too much welfare assistance is provided and that poverty is ultimately a result of not working hard enough. Although pervasive, each assumption is flat-out wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high. My research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).

Even more astounding, if we add in related conditions like welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment, four out of five Americans will encounter one or more of these events.

In addition, half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time.

Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.[4]

There is, of course, another way of looking at such delusion. It could be a sort of turning away from what’s too awful to contemplate, what one fears might happen to oneself. If this is true of the people in Sebastopol, they cover it well. I guess “The Secret,” or whatever it is they actually call it here, works for them.

But it doesn’t pay the bills.

  1. [1]Bob Norberg, “Sebastopol council restricts panhandlers,” Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, October 19, 2011,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Diverging paths,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2013,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “The Secret,” Not Housebroken, November 12, 2006,
  4. [4]Mark R. Rank, “Poverty in America Is Mainstream,” New York Times, November 2, 2013,

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