The Power of Negative Thinking

The Power of Negative Thinking November 1, 2015

In some ways it  has been the curse of my life, a genuine burden and even bane of my existence. For as long as I can remember I’ve tended to see problems everywhere I look. To my way of thinking, they simply jump out at me. I don’t have to strive to see or find them. They’re just there: ignorance (of those who shouldn’t be ignorant), injustice, malice, short-sightedness, illogical thinking and communicating, neglect (of people and issues that shouldn’t be neglected), deceit, and, of course, perhaps above all, theological nonsense and folk religion.

With the help of God, my wife and some friends, and maybe the aging/maturing process, I’ve been able to tame the curse to some degree. At least I’ve been able, to some degree, enough to get along most of the time, to dampen it down. I’m painfully aware that I should do more and I have prayed to God for a disposition that focuses more on the “sunny side of life.” I would give almost anything to be a Pollyanna type person. They seem much happier.

On the other hand, I tend to view my “negative thinking,” at least at its best (if that makes any sense), as a gift, a cross to bear. Without comparing myself with them, I can point back to the Hebrew prophets, Jesus and the apostles, the great opponents of heresies, the church reformers and social critics and reformers. In their times, at least in the eyes of many people, they were considered nay-sayers and negative thinkers.

I once thought about writing a book entitled “The Power of Negative Thinking.” Right about then, however, coach Bobby Knight authored such a book.

I actually do believe that God raises up some people to be negative thinkers. They’re called prophets (when God is the one who assigned them the role of negative thinkers). The key thing in evaluating them is NOT whether they think negatively or positively; it is whether they are putting their fingers on real problems that need to be addressed and solved or just being cranky.

Our American culture is saturated with “positive thinking.” The New Thought Movement of the nineteenth century has had a powerful effect on American culture. Because of it, many people think “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, that leaves “good” undefined, but when that saying is said it usually means “positive.”

I actually think negativity can be very positive, but I realize that goes against the stream and the grain of most people’s thinking (at least in American culture). If the negativity is constructive, pointing out real problems that cause people harm, then it is positive. That’s dialectical, I know, and many people have trouble understanding such a paradox.

Of course, I’m well aware there are better and worse ways to engage in negative thinking. Sheer cynicism is rarely helpful to anyone. I pray to avoid it. Still, and nevertheless, I think our American culture, and this bleeds into church life, is too focused on positive thinking to the detriment of critical thinking–which is often, even usually, considered “negative.”

I have a one frame cartoon tacked to my door. It’s been there for many years. I think it’s from The New Yorker. It shows two monk-like men. One holds a sign that says something about the end of the world. He says 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.” It’s my confession. But, really, I don’t find it emotionally fulfilling to curse the darkness. I find it necessary and often tiring and even painful. But I can’t avoid it–at least in my own mind and sometimes here. I am convinced that this is a cross God has put on me–like Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Not that I always carry it (out) rightly. I’m nothing more than a broken vessel and unworthy servant.

I envy the Pollyannas of this world–those who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” But I can’t be one of them. Is it a personal flaw and fault? Yes and no. It is and it isn’t. I have come to embrace it while struggling always to tame it so as not to give offense or drive people away from me.

So what is the “positive power of negative thinking?” It is that, when focused on the right things, real injustices and really harmful theologies, for example, and when expressed rightly, with grace and generosity (to those who deserve those) and always with love, it can lead to the righting of wrongs. In fact, I doubt that, in many cases, wrongs can be righted without negative thinking.

All movements for the right have involved negative thinking and those who dared to point out the injustice, the stupidity, heresy, or the danger have always been labeled by some “nattering nabobs of negativity” (to quote an infamous Vice President of the United States of the past).

"As I'm sure you know, there is a difference between "welcoming" and "affirming.""

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