Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 2010 - When Positive Thinking Isn't Enough

One of the hardest things to do, in ministry, is to stand by people who are going through hard times: not trying to change the situation, but just being with them, accepting things as they are.

An invaluable lesson I learned, years ago, in my clinical counseling training in seminary, is that sometimes you can’t fix it. Sure, there are some counseling situations in which an easy answer – be it a scriptural citation or a word of practical advice – can make a world of difference. But, not every situation is like that. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to be there – accompanying people through their difficulties, sometimes even to the edge of the grave.

It’s one of the reasons (among many) why I have such admiration for my wife, Claire - a minister who works as bereavement coordinator for a hospice program. Accompanying people in just this sort of way is what she does all the time. When she was a hospice chaplain, she worked directly with dying patients. Now, she specializes in accompanying family members through their days of mourning.

Claire’s grown used to a certain awed response she gets from people she meets for the first time. They often say something like, “More power to you! I could never do a job like that,” or, “That must be so hard! How do you keep doing it, year after year?”

Frequently, she gets another sort of response: “I think hospice programs are wonderful. The hospice team was such a help to us when my mother was dying!” A person who says something like that has come to appreciate the value of standing by those who are suffering. It’s like the famous first line from Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

In my sermon this past Sunday, I spoke about a certain tendency toward magical thinking that can be a detriment in situations of serious difficulty, medical or otherwise. I was inspired by reading an insightful book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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Ehrenreich has gotten a lot of press because of the forthright way in which she takes on the 200-pound gorilla of the self-help world: positive thinking. Her point is that our culture so unquestioningly considers positive thinking to be a good thing, that in situations – like the final stages of hospice care – in which it’s no longer appropriate, people just don’t know what to do. They feel abandoned, adrift, without the familiar life preserver of positive thinking.

Many of us think that, in a tough situation, we’ve got only two choices: think positively, or give up altogether. My point in Sunday’s sermon is that, while positive thinking is often a good thing, there are some situations in which it crosses the line into magical thinking – which is not. Some things that happen to us in life are simply bad things, and there’s no getting around it. It’s one thing to cultivate a positive outlook generally, but it’s quite another to believe we have an obligation to think positive thoughts all the time – and that, if we don’t, we’re somehow putting ourselves at risk.

Sadly, some cancer patients get precisely that message from those around them. Some feel guilty, beating themselves up because they can’t keep the sunny side up all the time. If their disease progresses, they feel irrationally responsible for failing to stoke the positive-thinking furnace.

A new illustrated article on, “In Praise of Thinking Realistically: When Positive Thinking Isn’t Working,” by Lori Hope, speaks to this same theme.

The positive-thinking movement is very often an ally of Christianity, but there’s a point at which the two part ways. Bottom-line, the Christian prescription for spiritual health is not positive thinking, but rather, repentance and the forgiveness of sins. As the Gospel-writer Mark sums up the essence of Jesus’ message:

“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” [Mark 1:14-15]

If we’re constantly trying to push everything but positive thoughts out of our minds, we’ll never be able to recognize sin in our lives, because we’re so afraid of the negative thoughts that go with it. Without a recognition of sin, there can be no confession. Without confession, there can be no forgiveness. And, without forgiveness, there can be no experience of grace.

I ended my sermon on Sunday by telling a familiar story from the classic Broadway show, The Music Man. It’s about the con man, “Professor” Harold Hill, who travels around selling band instruments to schools, promising he’ll stick around to teach the children how to play – but he never does. He always hops the first train out of town as soon as the money’s in his pocket. In the Midwestern town of River City, though, he falls in love with Marian the librarian, so he’s got to think of something. Harold’s problem is, he knows nothing about music. He’s not a professor of anything, except shady deals.

What he does is tell the children they can learn to play their new band instruments using what he calls “The Think Method.” All they have to do is think of the melody he tells them to play, recalling it over and over in their minds. When they pick up their instruments, he promises, they’ll be able to play it perfectly.

Well, the day of the first band concert comes, and Harold’s ready for his slippery scheme to fall apart. The children pick up their instruments and start to play. The sound that emerges is one of the most awful things you’ve ever heard – everything you’d expect from a teaching strategy so ill-conceived as “The Think Method.”

Wonder of wonders, a miracle occurs. The parents of River City are so pleased to see their children tooting away on the band instruments, they completely ignore the fact that there’s no discernible melody. Professor Hill’s reputation is saved, and he settles down in River City to marry his beloved Marian.

Positive thinking won’t teach us how to play the trombone, any more than it will guarantee we’ll beat cancer. The lesson of The Music Man, though, goes beyond the concrete task of producing the right musical notes at the proper tempo. It’s a lesson about grace and love and unconditional acceptance of children by their parents. Professor Hill’s brand of magical thinking was a complete dud, but the magic of love proved far stronger.

There is no greater magic in the world than this. It’s the love of God, that Christians believe is experienced uniquely in Jesus Christ. We believe that love was demonstrated for us on the cross of Calvary, and is given to us as an unconditional gift. It comes to us in good times and in bad, in sunshine and in storm.

“Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!”

– 2 Corinthians 9:15


Katrhleen said...


Josten said...

I believe that positive thinking is what you believe it to be. Simply by applying what you read and taking action. Also Being able to differentiate the negatives from the positives.

Aimee said...

you so 'hit the nail on the head' with this post (and apparently your sermon). as a cancer patient i can't even count how many times people in the Christian community wold say things like, "just have faith, God wants to heal you." i would always ask myself, 'then what about the other Christian men and woman who have died from diseases? did God not want to heal them, or was it that their faith wasn't strong enough?' you're right- magical thinking is detrimental to us, and is simply bad theology too. we should be learning to live humble lives, willing to accept ALL that God has for us. praising Him in even the seeming bad times is the demonstration of submission. and i don't mean saying in wrote, "praise God", because even that can go along with the magical thinking (if i just keep praising God i can ignore the tragedy and maybe it will go away). even Jacob wrestled with God. i mean praising Him in the sense of attributing ALL things to Him, glorifying Him even as we're wrestling with Him our selves. thanks for sharing! i wish more people would be willing to walk down that path that leads to the 'edge of the grave'.

Carl said...

Thanks for your kind words, Aimee. Sounds like they come out of difficult, life-shaping experience.

Eric said...
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Grace said...

This is an excellent post. Thank you for sharing.