Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cranky and Hopeful

When I was a tender and cranky teenager my mother besieged me with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Even bought me my very own copy.

I read it in spite of myself just in case my mother actually had a good idea or two. But my first suspicions about this “gift” were correct. It was over the top—not me, especially at fifteen!

My mother wanted me to be cheerful, extroverted and fun-loving like her. I’m an introvert, serious, solemn with my own brand of fun. Bad mix of personalities

That was a long time ago, but I’m still distrustful of overly cheery people especially when it feels forced or I feel judged by it.

The spiritual virtue of hope isn’t the same as having to think positively all the time. The biblical Psalms have plenty of lament, but through the process of honest lament the psalmist arrives at genuine unknowing realistic hope.

Christians who judge themselves and others for being negative need their Hebrew roots renewed. And Jesus was hardly sugary. Cheer up? Chin up? Smile, God loves you? Be happy? Nothing gospel about these except God loves you.

Unremitting negativity is as lethal to spirituality as overblown positivity. Spirituality is about wholeness and balance.

Jesus healed without a motivational speaker, judgment or cheerleading, often asking the obviously disabled what they wanted and if they wanted to be well. He didn’t spend much time trying to talk someone out of their misery or into a positive attitude.

There are actually books on how to be happy. Since when is happiness anyone’s right? Pursuit of course but not perfection. One person’s happiness might be someone else’s nightmare. Positive psychology is in now. It’s a corrective to too much psychotherapeutic emphasis on diagnostics, pathology, problems, what’s wrong with you. A good corrective but have we gone too far? Tipped over into the cotton candy vat?

According to reviews in Boston Globe and New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America makes a refreshingly honest case against the tyranny of positive thinking. I'm grateful to her for speaking my mind.While quintessentially American, constant positivity can be oppressive. I think Peale is back in town.

Ehrenreich’s book came out of her own experience with breast cancer in which she felt that expressions of dread and outrage and profound fears were the wrong attitude. One should be upbeat, positive, never angry or a victim. Ehrenreich posted on a cancer support site that she was angry about chemotherapy and insurance companies and sick of pink ribbons and was told she needed therapy for her “bad attitude.”

What happened to realistic? Affirmations are wonderful IF they aren’t quick cover-ups, instant makeovers..

There are actually people who think that they can create their own reality, make stuff happen by how they think. There’s some truth to this but it’s snaky half-truth, and it certainly doesn’t work for child abuse. Children, innocent and powerless, do not create their own reality.

Jesus did not think himself onto or off of the cross. He simply had integrity and took the risk of proclaiming the God of his understanding, the one in fact who does not prevent or eliminate suffering and evil but, often through prayer and truth-telling, strengthens us from within, which can help us find resources beyond ourselves—even learn to show, tell and ask.

And religious folks are flocking to self-help books. How to get God. How to find the prosperity God wants for you. How not to get left behind. How to feel good and gooder. It’s icky.

Ehrenreich, according to reviewer Hanna Rosin (NY Times Book Review, Nov. 8. 2009,) critiques Christian overcheer and wonders where the biblical “demand for humility and self-sacrifice” has gone to.

OK I’m a crank. I know there are people who need pep talks, encouragement, empowerment, even a little cheerleading, who need reminding that they do have resources they might not have counted. I do too this in my work as priest, spiritual director, counselor, but never to override tears and lament.

Spirituality and good religion are about trust that there is a God who cares and has more grace, will and power than your own will, attitude or positivity.

It’s a control issue!

I believe that the source of one's soul-uplift is not in one's own mind or ego strength or can-do mentality but in one's willingness to partner with the grace that’s given.