Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The positive power of negative thinking

 I stole the title of this blog. Over 40 years ago I found an article in a Christian magazine on the importance of critical thinking; it came with that title. (The same title has been since used in other publications.) The author was obviously playing off Normal Vincent Peale’s popular but lopsided book, The Power of Positive Thinking. I don’t remember much of the content of the article (or its author), but the title stuck and continues to temper my own thinking.

Negative thinking as a positive force is a counter-intuitive wisdom. Its purpose is to confront and balance non-critical uninformed optimism: “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.” Those of us who grew up in the church were instructed to “climb climb up sunshine mountain, faces all aglow,” and to celebrate with “I’m so happy and here’s the reason why—Jesus took my burdens all away.” Actually, those songs have their place in spiritual formation; they contain truth. Just not all the truth.

There were times in my childhood when my climb up sunshine mountain was interrupted by ravines and the only glow on my face came from tears. Not so happy. Burdens that didn’t just disappear. It kept Sunday school separate from my “real” life.

The need for a healthy balance between positive and critical thinking certainly applies to aging and how our culture sees the process of growing older. Negative stereotypes abound, of course, but so do the optimistic denials of old age. Consider the label, “The Golden Years.” “The best is yet to be.” “Life begins at 70.” “I’m 80 years young!” “You’re only as young as you…. (fill in the blank).”

Consider the shaky comfort of this popular American ditty: “Darling, we are growing old,/ Silver threads among the gold/…. Yet, my darling, you will be/ Always young and fair to me.” Wayne Booth, in his fine book, The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging, critiques this claim:

Always young and fair? Always? Of course, the speaker… surely knows very well that if he (could the song work if sung by a woman?) and his faithful love stay together, one of them will face a time when the other one is no longer even in the wildest effort of the imagination young and fair.

Perhaps Booth is a little too harsh in his criticism. Maybe some grandpas are blessed with an ability to see beauty where others can’t. When Hal tells me I’ve never looked better, if I can avoid a mirror, I almost believe him. Love affects vision.

The long-term retirement community where I live has an attractive web site, intended to inform and to attract clients. It’s publicity (among other things) so of course the “old” residents featured are all well-dressed, energetic, and very attractive. (Why wasn’t I chosen?) They are walking around our beautiful campus, holding hands, or engaged in interesting activities. They’re all real residents, my friends, but none of them will stay young and active forever. Most of our residents don’t look that way as they struggle with the various challenges (and for some, horrors) of aging. But, as I noted, publicity is publicity.

The organization just finished construction of a beautiful four-story complex where residents will live in the final stages of life. It will provide several levels of care from assisted living, to memory care, and then to 24/7 skilled care to people close to death. The rooms are large and comfortable, almost all with large windows and lovely views. We’re all happy about it (although some of us still miss the meadow and trees it replaced). Someday, if I mange to stick around, I will live there. If I’m still able to perceive my surroundings, I know I’ll appreciate a room with a view.

But there’s something funny about the name. The old health center, which we have outgrown, was known as the Charles Beals Health Center. It seemed appropriate. But we have been instructed not to call the new building a Health Center. It is Charles Beals Plaza. Apparently this portrays a more positive image. But Plaza is a name that goes better with a name like Hilton. The Hilton Plaza. Our director has jokingly told us that if we call the new facility a health center, we’ll be fined a dollar. Each time.

Even so, the place really is a health center, dedicated to the most vulnerable residents among us. It’s all about health and loving care toward the end of life and I wish the name could reflect the reality. (I have a feeling I’ll end up owing a lot of money.)

I’ve just finished reading the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, two of the least optimistic books of the Bible. Through much of the books, the negative overshadows the positive. And with reason. It covered one of the most grim periods in the history of God’s chosen people—times of apostasy, war, captivity, deportation, famine, and death. A time when hope floated level to the ground.

In Lamentations 3, the prophet cries out to a God that he’s not sure is even listening. His complaints are serious. He throws up to the Almighty some grizzly scenarios: walking in darkness, weighed down with chains, mangling by lions, piercings by the arrows of God, and so on. Not all of this was metaphor. I found one of the curses especially troubling; the prophet accuses God by saying, “He has made my skin and flesh grow old and has broken my bones” (3:4). Old age as a curse. Scary thought.

Of course, there in the center of that same Chapter 3, the prophet thanks God for his everlasting faithfulness and great love. We take courage from these words. But then he goes right back to the anguish and laments. What this book in particular tells me is that it’s OK to name the darkness and cry out our bleak prayers, even when we can’t sense God’s presence. The Psalms are also full of this kind of brutal lament. Even Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”

Pretty negative.

I’m wrestling a bit here, trying to find a healthy balance between a positive, joyful, grateful attitude and a brave realism as I look at the coming years.

Maybe the Apostle Paul puts it best, in a unity of realism and incredible hope: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).

Sounds even better than a room with a view.

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