The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

The Positive Power of Negative Thinking December 12, 2012

The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

Years ago I saw one of those one frame cartoons in a magazine like The New Yorker. Perhaps it was The New Yorker. I’ve forgotten now. It so humorously depicted my personality, at least as seen by others, that I decided to put it on my office door. It’s been three for many years now—at two different universities. The cartoon is minimal. It simply shows two stereotypical monk-like figures holding signs. Anyone who knows the genre knows right away the signs, which are unreadable, must say something like “The End Is Near” or “Repent!” Both characters are wearing robes and are tonsured like religious friars. One is saying to the other one “Oh, I know it’s better to light one little candle, but I find it much more emotionally fulfilling to curse the darkness.”

My tendency to “curse the darkness,” that is, to point out what I believe are injustices (including double standards) in society, is often described as “negative thinking.” How many times have I been asked something like “Why can’t you just see the good in things?” and “Why must the glass always be half empty?” and “Why do you over analyze everything?”

Unlike the monkish character in the cartoon, however, I don’t really find it emotionally fulfilling to curse the darkness. My compulsion to do it feels more like a curse than a gift.

On the other hand, I often think that this curse or gift or whatever it is would not be so noticeable or feel so awkward were our culture (in America) not so obsessed with positive thinking. One of the things I’ve noticed for many years is that “the power of positive thinking” is an obsession in our society. Most people seem to think that thinking positively all the time and about everything has magical qualities to create whatever it is that makes us happy.

I trace this obsession with positive thinking back to the New Thought movement of the 19th century with people like Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, the Fillmores (founders of Unity), Ernest Holmes, et al., and their 20th century disciples such as Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale. And today, of course, there are numerous popularizers of New Thought, in various permutations, such as Oprah Winfrey and her surrogates.

But can you imagine an advocate of New Thought talking to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the late 1950s or early 1960s? “Dear, dear Dr. King. I know you mean well and what you are challenging is truly bad, but don’t you think it’s better to accentuate the positive than curse the darkness?”

Every great prophet of social reform has been a negative thinker—at least some of the time and about some things.

Imagine an advocate of New Thought talking to the prophet Jeremiah. “Sweet, sweet, Jeremiah. Do you know people are calling you the ‘weeping prophet?’ You seem so depressed. What real lasting good are you accomplishing by being so negative all the time? Don’t you think you could make things better for the Hebrew people and everyone by being more uplifting and encouraging?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing a “sunny disposition.” I’m all for people being generally positive and affirming of the good. What I’m complaining about is our American tendency to criticize (negative thinking!) anyone who dares to point out things that are wrong especially where most people don’t see wrong because they’ve become accustomed to it. “It’s just the way things are, deary. Wouldn’t you be much happier and make those around you happier if you just accepted life as it comes and not think so much?”

Of course, I’m not talking here about political speech; there’s plenty of negativity there! I’m talking about issues most people don’t think of as issues. For example (maybe this isn’t a very concrete or specific example), I think consistency is a good thing and inconsistency is always a bad thing. After all, the very definition of “integrity” implies consistency. Yet, how many times do we hear Ralph Waldo Emerson’s old maxim “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?” How many people stop to wonder if there is such a thing as “foolish consistency” and whether Emerson may have been protecting himself against legitimate criticism?

I, for one, do not think there is such a thing as “foolish consistency.” Consistency is always something to value and strive for even if total consistency is out of our reach.

So, for those of you wondering what I’m talking about, I’ll give an example from my own life. Some years ago (at a different church than the one I now attend) a guest preacher delivered a passionate sermon about the imminent return of Jesus Christ. He said that all prophecies of the return were already fulfilled and that Jesus could come tomorrow (Monday)! Well, I hadn’t heard that for a while, so I was kind of enjoying it as a change of pace.

Now that church was (and I assume still is) premillennial in its eschatological orientation. So the sermon fit well with what most people there believed. But then, immediately after the sermon, while it was still warm (!) the music leader asked the congregation to stand and sing “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations.” That hymn, of course, assumes (and possibly promotes) postmillennialism. There’s really no other way to interpret it.

I simply could not stop myself from approach the music minister after the worship service and asking him if he noticed any contradiction between the sermon and the hymn. He did not. When I explained it to him he said “Only you would think of that.”

I’ve had similar experiences throughout my life. The pattern is that I see a problem and attempt to point it out to someone who could do something about it and am shut down as being unreasonably critical or nit-picking when, in fact, what I see and point out, is (to me) a glaring inconsistency.

On a larger scale, here’s another one. It’s so contemporary I haven’t really been able to point it out to anyone yet, so I’ll do so here.

Last evening I watched a documentary about the sinking of the Titanic a century ago. It was one of the better ones I’ve seen as it focused on the survivors. We all hear a lot about the victims, but what do most of us know about the survivors and their lives afterwards? I was shocked to learn, for example, that the White Star Line immediately fired the entire surviving crew leaving them stranded in the United States penniless. According to one historian, actually a descendent of a surviving crew member, Woolworth’s came to their rescue and provided them with clothes and food. But many of them had great difficulty getting back to their homes in Europe. What a travesty! The narrator of the documentary displayed great shock and dismay over that.

But even more shocking was the horrible treatment of steerage passengers during the sinking of the ship. I saw the movie and thought that part was probably invented for dramatic effect. But, in fact, according to the documentary, only twenty-five percent of the steerage passengers (mostly emigrants to the U.S. from Ireland) survived whereas sixty percent of the first class passengers survived. The narrator expressed great dismay over the social injustice of it all—as if that wouldn’t happen today. We’re beyond that sort of class-ism, right?

I would be willing to bet that most American viewers of that documentary agreed with the narrator. Surely we’ve progressive beyond such injustices today.

But wait. Isn’t what happened on the Titanic simply a microcosm of what still happens in our “enlightened” society? I think so. Take for example the fact that, apparently, justice can be bought in our country. If you have lots of money and are accused of a crime, generally speaking, you can stay out of jail and possibly escape any serious punishment that a poorer person would receive. Who really thinks there is any parity between being able to hire a celebrity team of lawyers and having to accept a court appointed defense attorney who is probably struggling to make ends meet because he or she is not very experienced and may very well not be very adept at defending people in court? And what about the rich defendant’s ability to pay for “expert witnesses” compared with the poor person’s inability to do the same? Anyone who is paying attention to the news knows that numerous men are being released from American prisons based on DNA testing. It is turning out to be the case that many of them were simply railroaded into prison by overly zealous police and district attorneys. (This past Sunday evening 60 Minutes did a story about Chicago and false confessions of teenage boys who then went on to spend years in prison. It appears that in some cases, at least, they were coerced into confessing.)

We hear about the tragedy of the Titanic and its inequalities and bemoan the benightedness of the owners and crew. But we fail to recognize that something very similar is common place among us. The obvious solution, the only solution, of course, is for every criminal defendant to be given equal defense. A district attorney should not be allowed to spend more prosecuting a defendant that he or she can spend defending himself or herself. And ability to stay out of jail awaiting trial should not be based on one’s financial resources but on likelihood of running away. (With ankle bracelets now this should not be a problem.)

Our justice system is broken. Almost everyone agrees. But very little is being done to smooth out the inequities between the rich and the poor in it. The result is that our prisons are crammed with poor men many of whom may very well be innocent.

I see problems like that—the inconsistency between our common shock and dismay at what happened a century ago on a ship in the Atlantic and our lack of concern about something similar happening on a much larger scale today—and want to speak up about them. But, generally speaking, the response is something like “Why are you so concerned about criminals?”

I have mostly learned to live with my disability (negative thinking). I used to express it with much less finesse and diplomacy. In college I had a reputation of being a trouble maker because I saw numerous inconsistencies and problems in how the college was run. (For example, one year the denomination sent a “star” pastor to chide the student body in chapel about being “rebellious.” He told us in no uncertain terms it was our duty to stay in our place in “God’s chain of command” and never criticize anything done by those above us in that chain. Our only duty and right was to pray, no matter how terrible things were. I happened to know this man had been very rebellious in his college years at the same college and he took his church out of the denomination soon after he spoke in chapel.)

To a very great extent I have learned, for my own good, anyway, to “tone it down.” But I often wonder whether that’s the right thing to do. What if everyone who saw injustice or just inconsistency looked the other way and put on a popular Pollyana-ish countenance and demeanor? That seems to be what most people want. Very little would be accomplished in the way of reform.

I propose that we, Americans and especially Christians, rediscover and re-value the power of negative thinking. A place to begin would be in the pulpits and lecterns of our churches and educational institutions and on the editorial pages of our publications.

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  • Phil Miller

    I don’t think I would consider myself someone prone to negative thinking, but I’m an engineer by profession, and in doing that much of what I do is designing for worst case scenarios. For instance, what happens to a building when there’s an extended power outage, a catastrophe, etc. It’s stuff that most people don’t really think about. I guess the thing I appreciate about that is it forces me to think about things like this, but it also makes me realize the limit of what I can do. There is only so much we can control.

    And that brings me to a related. I think big reason people don’t talk about injustice isn’t so much that they don’t see them, but they actually feel powerless to change them. Despite people like MLK Jr. and the like, I think the majority of people don’t believe they have it in them to actually take on these problems. And, honestly, their probably right. Most people don’t have that sort of resolve. I guess that’s why we still need people with unique giftings to rouse us from complacency.

  • Robert

    I nkow what you mean. People have varying degrees of tolerance for critically examining a situation. It is painful to end a teaching with something like: “it’s a mystery and we have to continue learning about it for the rest of our lives”. Vs. “and that’s the Truth, isn’t it wonderful how God has made everything so crystal clear”!

  • I enjoyed this article. I am accused of the same negativity. I too struggle with when to keep the mouth shut.

    As to the cartoon at the opening, Isn’t bringing light into darkness referring to judgment (1 Cor. 4:5), and isn’t judgment normally looked upon as negative thinking? In other words, isn’t negative thinking actually the only way you can bring light into darkness?

  • Tim Reisdorf

    The obvious solution, the only solution, of course, is for every criminal defendant to be given equal defense. A district attorney should not be allowed to spend more prosecuting a defendant that he or she can spend defending himself or herself.

    It certainly is an interesting idea to impose “price-fixing” to the legal system. Maybe that system could be improved to have each lawyer peer-reviewed based on effectiveness of argument per dollar. Then the talented lawyers would be handicapped compared to those less talented/studied/experienced/motivated/popular. It would be a force to purge the good quality lawyers out of the system – all in the name of fairness. Maybe we’d be better for it. Could we also expand that to the medical profession? Airlines? Home builders? Teachers? Professional Sports Teams? Theologians? (Yes, the good theologians must be handicapped in some way to make it fair for the silly theologians – maybe a lobotomy might level things – or they must be made to spend 10 hours a day watching reruns of “Dallas”.)
    I fear that I’ve tapped into your negative-thinking with my response. Sorry.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Haha. I’ve got no beef with negative thinking at all, unless it’s simply for the sake of negative thinking. You know the type? The kind that always have the questions and no answer is adequate enough. Or, it’s seemingly their place to posit a question so crafty that not only can the people being asked not answer it….they can’t even answer it well enough to satisfy themselves. There’s not a good grasp of reality if there isn’t some amalgam of negative thinking.

  • K Gray

    ‘Negative thinking’ is often simply truth that has so far been avoided.

    I believe ‘negative thinking’ is, as you said, a gift and a curse. The gift (exhortation?) is seeing the problem and saying what needs to be said, at the right time, to the right people, with the right motive, in the spirit of love. That happens when it is of the Lord. The reaction may not be what we want (see, e.g., the prophets), but we have obeyed in delivering the message. If so, there will be fruit. Sometimes a person will come back much later and say “I didn’t like what you said at the time, but I needed to hear it.” Sometimes the messenger becomes a scapegoat, but a needed conversation or movement is begun. Maybe we’ll see the fruit, maybe not.

    The curse is the temptation to spout the message with little regard for when, how or to whom the Lord wills. Fruitless! And of course without love, it’s just clanging.

  • James Petticrew

    You have just explained why I felt such a stranger during the year I stayed in the States, people Intink wrote me off as a grumpy pessimistic Scot

    • Joshua Wooden

      James, when I read this I laughed. As an American, I have often thought I’d be happier (better understood, at least), in the UK.

      • James Petticrew

        Come on over and embrace your dour side

  • John I.

    Oliver Burkeman as written a book that makes the point that over-optimism actually leads to less happiness than are more realistic, negative outlook: “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, which was recently released in North America.

    Here is a review of his book in the Guardian: “The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman – review – Negative thinking is the way forward” at

    Burkeman as writes a regular column,

    • rogereolson

      Sounds good. Thanks for the recommendation. Now I have hope… 🙂

  • Fred Karlson

    For a number of years, I worked as a translation consultant in Africa. I spent all my time looking for errors in tribal language translation of the Scriptures. Talk about negativity — hours and hours of it, seemingly without end! But the end result was much better than if it had not been done. I think that is somewhat similar to the Christian life. I am aware all the time of my shortcomings, but I balance it with the forgiveness of Christ and the hope of a new world to come.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Tim Reisdorf, that was seriously if not negatively funny! Enjoyed your comments.
    May our positively negatively positive Jesus bless you without doubt.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Thanks for noticing and the blessing. I always make it a point to read the other comments when I have time. Sometimes they are nearly as insightful as RO himself. I’m glad that Roger wrote this, making it plain that he accepts negative thinking (ie disagreement) as an important of the discussion about all things in life. I like to agree with him when I can – even to defend him on some things, but I also enjoy the jousting in disagreement.
      One also noticed that God participates in negative and critical thinking this way: “If God places no trust in his servants, if he charges his angels with error, how much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundations are in the dust, who are crushed more readily than a moth!” Job 4

  • Josh

    Although I sometimes (but not always) tend to see certain inconsistencies that others may not (especially in church), I tend to be reluctant to point those things out to the people who are primarily in charge. I remember one Sunday in the late ’90s when we had a guest speaker who talked about money. After the sermon the senior pastor announced a challenge that guaranteed that if we began to tithe (or begin to give above a tithe, depending on our habit) that God would bless us; if after 90 days we were not blessed, the church would “refund” our money. I was quite unhappy with that disturbing turn of events (and the implications for the nature of giving, treating offerings like a business transaction, and how one legitimately judges a “blessing,” etc.) and approached the youth pastor about my concerns during an unrelated conversation. His response to me was that “If we believe that Pastor So-and-So is who God placed in that position, we should trust that he’s hearing from God.”

    • rogereolson

      I don’t quite get your point. Is it that pointing out inconsistencies does no good and even gets turned back on one (I would call what the youth pastor said to you a form of spiritual abuse) OR that one shouldn’t because God has placed leaders in their positions so that they are hearing from God? It’s unclear.

  • Jon Altman

    Roger, I almost always link to your blog posts on my Facebook page. A “left leaning” Episcopalian (who is the daughter of a Baptist preacher) has told me how much SHE enjoys your pieces. We ex-Southern Baptists (I’m a United Methodist pastor) appreciate the value of the tradition we came from, even if we can’t abide what our former faith home has become.

  • Quartermaster

    Perhaps you would be happier as an apophatic theologian instead 🙂

    The 10 commandments are one of the most negative passages in scripture. The Old Testament has been said, and I agree, to be anti-Semitic. God has created us to have a negative view of injustice, although we need to be careful to refrain from calling what God has designed unjust.

    Negativity is quite natural and none of us could function properly without a healthy does of it. We have to careful about imbalances in that regard that we don’t reach an unhealthy negativity. However, we all occasionally have problems with knowing where that line is.

    • rogereolson

      The Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) anti-semitic? Many would say that saying that is anti-semitic! Let’s try to avoid using that appellation too loosely.

  • Diane Whitlock

    Roger, I really enjoyed this article, it helped me understand myself a bit better, and Now I will ask the Lord if I am to address things in a confrontation or pray, i think it’s always good to pray 1st. After all we got to keep ’em all smiling, right!?

  • Bev Mitchell

    “I think consistency is a good thing and inconsistency is always a bad thing.”

    Double Amen! and three cheers! It’s hard to be consistent, it requires constant vigilance, but it is oh so essential to progress in any quarter. It’s lack is at the core of so much confusion and bad feeling – and we know who wants us to be confused and in each other’s faces.