Decades before the best seller was published, my father knew the secret of The Secret. He was aware there were people with esoteric knowledge who controlled all the wealth, had all the power, and were specifically excluding him from getting any. He bought the books of his time that promised, like The Secret, to unlock these mysteries. I loved listening to him spin his theories about how things really worked—until either I got too old to believe him anymore, or his spinning took him further and further away from reality. He died with nothing, living under an assumed name.
So, I will acknowledge that I came to The Secret with a negative attitude. When I bought it, I quickly stuffed it into a plastic bag, glancing around Barnes & Noble to make sure I saw no one I knew. The last time I was this embarrassed at a bookstore was when I bought The G Spot, another best seller that provided instructions for achieving bliss. For the Human Guinea Pig column, I usually do things that readers are too embarrassed or too intelligent to do themselves—like entering a beauty pageant or entertaining at a kid's birthday party. I wanted to see if applying the rules of The Secret to my life would bring me the perfect happiness that it promises. But millions of you have already beaten me to this one. There are now 5.3 million copies of the book in print in the United States, and publisher Simon & Schuster says it is selling about 150,000 a week. A separate DVD version has sold at least 1.5 million copies. Groups have formed to discuss how to best live by The Secret's rules. It is a No. 1 best seller in Australia, England, and Ireland, and it is scheduled to be translated into 30 languages.
There's no secret to The Secret. The book and movie simply state that your thoughts control the universe. Through this "law of attraction" you "manifest" your desires. "It is exactly like placing an order from a catalogue. … You must know that what you want is yours the moment you ask." "See yourself living in abundance and you will attract it. It works every time, with every person." The appeal is obvious. Forget education, effort, performance. Everything you want—money, power, comfortable shoes—is yours simply by wanting it enough.
There are certain caveats. Apparently the universe has a language-processing disorder and doesn't comprehend standard English usage of the words don't, not, and no. So, as the book explains, if you summon the universe by saying, "I don't want to spill something on this outfit," the universe translates this as, "I want to spill something on this outfit." If only Rhonda Byrne, the television producer who is the author of the book and creator of the DVD, had been there to counsel those negative authors of the Ten Commandments!
Byrne says Shakespeare, Newton, Lincoln, and Einstein all owed their achievements to their understanding of the law of attraction. She asserts that "the discoveries of quantum physics … are in total harmony with the teachings of The Secret." To prove this, she explains, "I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them." (Pop quiz, Rhonda: What is the energy of a single photon [in eV] from a light source with a wavelength of 400 nm?) The book is dotted with quotations from great men of history that supposedly back up The Secret's assertions. Take this one from Winston Churchill: "You create your own universe as you go along." Something about this struck me as sounding not terribly Churchillian. I looked it up and it turned out Churchill did write it, but it was his mocking characterization of the metaphysical twits of his day.
Given my skepticism, how could I make myself believe in The Secret enough to give it a fair test? To quote one of The Secret's avatars, Ralph Waldo Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Clearly, The Secret is drivel, but why should that stop me from sincerely throwing myself into seeing if it worked? I am already deeply susceptible to superstition and seeing signs—if I find a penny (faceup only), I pick it up knowing something good will happen to me. As self-absorbed as I already am, I loved the permission the book gave to sink deeper into a Jacuzzi of megalomania. As The Secret points out: "You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the perfection of Life." Just as I'd always suspected!
So, I vowed to follow Byrne's simple rules for abundance and see what happened. The book encourages one to start big: "It is as easy to manifest one dollar as it is to manifest one million dollars." But I thought starting with the million-dollar manifestation was like saying, "I love you" on a first date; I didn't want to scare the universe into not taking my calls. I came up with three things I thought the universe would find reasonable: a kitchen floor, unclogged sinuses, and a new desk.
At this point I should add that The Secret is not only drivel—it's pernicious drivel. The obvious question that arises from its claim that it's easy to get what you want, is: Why do so many people get what they don't want? As Byrne writes, "Imperfect thoughts are the cause of all humanity's ills, including disease, poverty, and unhappiness." Yes, according to The Secret, people don't just randomly end up being massacred, for example. They are in the wrong place because of their own lousy thinking. Cancer patients have long been victims of this school of belief. But The Secret takes it to a new and more repulsive level with its advice not just to blame people for their illness, but to shun them, lest you start being infected by their bummer thoughts, too.
But look, I needed a kitchen floor, and if abandoning sick friends and loved ones was what was required—well, who really enjoys those bedside visits, anyway? We recently renovated our house, and everything went great except our kitchen floor. Remember being told in school that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire? My kitchen floor was supposed to be acid-stained concrete. And while it was a floor, it turned out to be neither acid-stained nor concrete. Instead it was made of some sort of epoxy, with a surface that looked as if my dog had fallen into a mud pit and then come inside and rolled all over it. I spent weeks attempting to find an easy, inexpensive way to resurface it. One concrete guy said if he came it to fix it, I'd have to remove all my appliances and baseboards, let him grind down the existing floor and pour a new surface, and pay him $4,000 to do it. Thankfully, he decided the job was too small and troublesome to be worth it. Covering the floor with cork tiles would also require appliance removal and an outlay of about $3,500. And so it went with every alternative.
So, I followed The Secret's recommendation and notified the universe's call center that I wanted a quick, economical, pleasing, and durable kitchen floor. Once I did that, the next step was to enter such an intense state of visualization that it was as if my new floor already existed. Byrne writes: "A shortcut to manifesting your desires is to see what you want as absolute fact." Although normally people who see things that aren't there are considered delusional, I went with Byrne's recommendation to "act as if you have it already." One day my husband called from work to check on various house issues, and I said, "I'm so grateful that I finally got a beautiful kitchen floor."
"Are you on something?" he asked.
It turns out I was on a universal high because a few nights later I awoke at 3 a.m. from a dream that had supplied the answer: Paint the floor to look like acid-stained concrete! The next morning I searched the Internet and contacted every faux painter within a 50-mile radius. Only one, Deanne Lenehan Cunningham, agreed to come and take a look. She had never done a floor and was concerned whether her products would adhere to the sealant now on my floor. She said she would talk to the manufacturer, see if was possible, then give us an estimate.
When a week went by without a callback, my husband suggested I phone her, and that I also explore other alternatives just in case. Normally I tend toward the anxiously obsessive, and I would have already been doing that. Instead I told him it wasn't necessary because we already had a perfect kitchen floor. Secret-speak requires this odd future-present construction, which my husband came to call, "sounding like a moron."
But as Byrne so amply proves, the universe loves people who sound like morons. Deanne finally got back to us, said she could do it, and that she would charge us $912. We now have a gorgeous, glowing floor. And I had to admit just sitting back and letting my desires manifest freed up a lot of time—and was much more relaxing than trying to take care of things myself.
With that success, I moved on to my sinuses. Each spring, pollen causes my nose to resemble a drip irrigation device. I spend months spraying my nostrils and popping antihistamines. Why not put in a Secret request to get rid of my allergies? After all, the fiftysomething Byrne describes how it took her only three days of proper thinking to get rid of her reading glasses and restore her eyesight to that of a twentysomething. So I shelved the drugs, walked my dog, breathed deep, and expressed gratitude for my sensational sinuses.
This worked great for weeks, through one of the most frigid springs on record, and I was starting to think that maybe my father was right, maybe people like Byrne really knew how the world worked. Then the weather warmed up and the air was thick with pollen. My eyes swelled, my nose started pouring, and I ended up with a sinus infection and a bag of medications from the otolaryngologist. Of course, one could say The Secret failed. But look at it this way: When I first started imagining myself drip-free, the universe responded by sending a cold snap! Then because I became so blasé about my sinuses, the universe decided to warm things up again. Surely there is a lesson here for Al Gore.
Finally, the desk. I had spent months dragging myself around to furniture stores and cruising the Internet for the desk, which I can see quite clearly: It's sleek and made of steel, L-shaped, with plenty of work space on top and storage below. Unfortunately, no one who manufactures desks also sees it. Following The Secret's precepts, I stopped wasting my time looking for it and instead expressed my gratitude for its arrival. I've now spent six weeks visualizing this desk to no effect. Perhaps the problem is signal interference from my husband, who keeps suggesting I manifest the word Ikea into my search engine and just order a damn desk.
Or perhaps the problem is that millions of people are now putting in their orders and the universe's servers have crashed. Or maybe it's something else. As one of Byrne's favorites, Albert Einstein, said (in a quote that doesn't make it into The Secret): "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."
TODAY IN SLATE
The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
Watch Little Girls Swear for Feminism
Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.