Are you a positive person? For me, my attitude varies with the day. For example, one morning this week, I received a text from our farm manager Matt. He wanted to let me know about the latest theft and vandalism incident on our farm the night before. These acts of violence feel very personal.
Since I receive similar texts on average, one per week, I’m somewhat numb to the news of violence in our neighborhood. I’m trying to remain positive while my stomach flip-flops and my anger simmers. Do we prevail by wearing our attackers down from their inability to stop our progress despite increasingly damaging attacks?
Do we remain positive?
I began my prayer journal that morning with an often quoted and ignored text from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul reminds us that struggle builds resilience which strengthens character. But, most important, hope is never in vain.
But did Paul have to deal with senseless vandalism from within the community he was trying to help? Did Paul spend more and more resources on security that could be better utilized in helping others?
Actually, Paul dealt with much worse. So was Paul always Mr. Positivity?
It’s hard to be positive when life is a hot mess.
In an article published in the Washington Post, Allyson Chiu draws a startling conclusion. “Too much-forced positivity is not just unhelpful, they say — it’s toxic.” Who says that always being positive is toxic?
One source offered by Allyson is Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dattilo says we tend to undervalue negative emotional experiences while overvaluing positive experiences. According to Dr. Dattilo, this tendency becomes toxic when we fall into the trap that “the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative.”
Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, reminds us that toxic positivity is rooted in our culture. We value positivity as an attractive behavior in people. This may be caused by a belief that positivity makes us seem well adapted and more popular with the people around us.
But what about the persistent vandalism of our farm assets? Should we try to focus on the positive? Dr. Preston advises avoiding toxic positivity and concentrating on addressing the problem. Understandably, Matt is angry. And I’m not less of a pastor because I’m angry and feeling let down.
As a Christian, I try my best to model myself after Jesus, who didn’t appear to hide His emotions. My favorite bible verse of all time and the only verse I can consistently quote without forgetting parts, is also the shortest verse found in scripture. Jesus wept. For me, this verse is powerful because it reveals a very personal God who understands how it feels to be upset.
This verse comes from a story found in John’s Gospel. In the story, the sisters of Lazarus are trying to cope with the loss of their brother. And although Jesus knew that the outcome would be joy and not sorrow, He allowed His emotions to bubble to the surface. Of course, we don’t know whether Jesus was sad because of His friend’s grief or upset because they projected some of their grief as anger towards Him. We do know that Jesus shed tears in the presence of witnesses.
Professor Brett Ford was the lead author of a study conducted at the University of Toronto that evaluated the effect of positivity on mental health in the face of adverse circumstances. Dr. Ford noted, “People who tend to not judge their feelings, not think about their emotions as good or bad, not try to avoid or put distance between themselves and their emotions, tend to have better mental health across the board.”
Aundi Kolber, in Trying Softer, distinguishes between emotions, which refers to the sensations we feel in our bodies, and the labels we give various emotions, which she calls feelings. This subtle distinction is powerful because naming our emotions allows us to do something with them. Emotions that we consciously process are accessible to our rational brain.
Instead of burying our negative emotions, Aundi reminds us, “Emotions add texture to our lives. They are the feedback to our interactions. They are a response to our stories, physiology, and environments—those parts of our lives that make us who we are.”
Peter Scazzero reminds us that to feel is to be human. And when we minimize or deny what we feel, we distort what it means to be created in the image of a very personal God. If we are unable or not allowed to express emotion, we impair our ability to love God, others, and ourselves.
I try to remember that whoever is vandalizing our farms is more damaged than the damage they’re doing to us. And their cowardly actions represent the scum that sometimes accumulates around an otherwise delightful mix.
This is hardly positivity, I know. But at least I’m honest about my feelings.
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Content for this series is based in part on? Aundi Kolber. Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode–and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Carol Street, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.
Allyson Chiu. “Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity,’ experts say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’.” © Washington Post, Aug 19, 2020. Retrieved from: link.