Ever since I started writing so much about loss, anxiety, isolation, and depression, my blog readership has seen a dramatic increase. (Um, yay?) The words seem to have resonated; I’ve been amazed and touched by the responses I’ve received. Some were from strangers; others were from people I’d known for years without being aware of even a fraction of what they were going through. One woman I’ve known over a decade said that “a big part of the struggles is feeling like you can’t talk about it.” She’s right. Isolation is crippling, and there’s relief in simply seeing a problem acknowledged, owning it, and knowing you’re not alone. I remarked on this to another friend, and she replied, “People are desperate for transparent relationships and shared struggle. For far too long, the (American) Christian life has been all about ‘living victoriously’ instead of recognizing the difficulties and helping each other walk through the hard providences.”
American optimism is a beautiful and potent thing. It survived the first horrific winter in Plymouth Colony; it settled the western frontier; it built the railroads. All these achievements have suffering built into their very foundations, but what we chiefly remember is the triumph. Americans are all about assertion, determination, goals, and action plans. We refuse to accept defeat; we focus on the good to nurture and encourage it; we dream; we achieve.
The can-do spirit is so systemic to our culture that we forget there’s any other way of looking at things. We can get a lot of insight from an outsider’s perspective, as in these hilarious travel tips for Russians visiting the United States. Here’s what the Russian advice-giver has to say about American optimism:
Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, “Are you all right?” Russians will inquire: “Are you ill?” We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we “aren’t sick,” they “stay well.” We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.
Hokey as it may sound, there really is tremendous power in thinking positively, though not as much as some would say. To some degree—we could safely call it a significant degree—our moods are affected by the set of our minds, the things we think about and brood over. And, also to a significant degree, this set of the mind is something we can control. But not always, and not entirely. The author of this Huffington Post article claims that changing from a negative to a positive outlook is as simple as flipping a switch. Seriously, those are the words he uses. Some days this may be true, but not every day or for every person. Sometimes the switch is stuck—corroded, even. Anxiety can do a real number on your mind. Obsessive-compulsive disorder—the real kind, not the eccentric-but-cute version we see in movies—can make you think about things you don’t want to think about, horrible things, over and over, and you can’t stop though you desperately want to. I don’t wish to minimize the real and admirable gumption people can show in disciplining their minds and emotions, much less excuse self-indulgence or mental sloth, but some people have a more challenging set of underlying circumstances than others, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.
C.S. Lewis has this to say in Mere Christianity:
The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.
It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.
In recent years a dear friend of mine went through some rough times, which she handled with incredible grace and fortitude. In the face of trials that could have cratered her, she joyfully and deliberately thanked God for blessings of life and salvation and family and coffee and birdsong and sunrise. She had down times too, and she was transparent about these, but hope was never absent. One day she observed that when things are going well, people often assume it’s because their methods for marriage or childrearing or Christian living or whatever must be the right ones. And they congratulate themselves on their success, subtly implying that those who are struggling are doing something wrong. But maybe the self-congratulators haven’t been truly tested yet; maybe their time just hasn’t come. And in the meantime, maybe they ought to be humbly grateful for their blessings and not so quick to take credit for them.
There is no shortage of optimism in the American church. We teach and believe that if you do certain things you will succeed, you will prosper, you will have a spectacular marriage, your children will rise up and call you blessed. And of course it’s true that cause and effect really is a thing and that certain behaviors do generally produce certain results. But there are a lot more causes than our systems account for, and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we aren’t following the behavioral formulas all that well to begin with.
There is a thing called the just-world fallacy which is responsible for a lot of needless frustration and blame. The idea is that people’s actions always bring fair and fitting consequences; good is rewarded, evil is punished, and moral balance is restored before the final credits roll. This has next to nothing to do with the justice of God; it’s a mythical temporal tit-for-tat that satisfies our limited comprehension. If asked point-blank, most people would claim they don’t believe anything so crazy and simplistic, but their responses to calamities often betray their unconscious bias. If someone gets sick, he must have had unhealthful habits. If a child gets hurt, the parents or caregivers must have been negligent. If someone gets swindled, it’s his own fault for being so gullible. This is a defense mechanism, of course, a psychological barrier to shield us from the knowledge that random terrifying events could happen to us too. Job’s friends subscribed to this belief, and they clung fiercely to it, growing increasingly hostile the longer it was challenged. Admit it! You sinned! You brought this on yourself. What, do you think God is unjust? He only metes out what we deserve. You managed to hide your sin for a long time but you were found out at last. You had it coming! Confess and repent before something worse happens to you!
Sometimes you just get tired. You’ve been staying brave and keeping faith and holding the course to the point of white-knuckled fatigue, but still no joy. You smile, but you feel beat up inside. You see people online and in person who appear to have succeeded where you’ve failed, and you’d like to crawl into bed and shut your eyes and make them all go away. You wish some wise mentor would tell you what you should do, but you’re afraid that confiding your problems will be perceived as gossip and complaining. Besides, even if you’re desperate enough to risk it, is there anyone you trust that much?
On the whole I believe American optimism is a good thing for the church. It causes you to focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t. In relationships, this means that instead of brooding over another person’s shortcomings, you deal with your own, and that is an excellent thing. Once the other person is off the hook and not being criticized anymore, he might respond with positive change of his own, or you might realize that your shortcomings were the real problem to begin with.
But proactive optimism is not a failsafe formula for success. It can only do so much. And with all the emphasis on overcoming, those who suffer have no place to go. They feel they will be blamed for their own difficulties or their struggles will be minimized.
“These people do not stop smiling,” says the travel advisor to Russians visiting America. “Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling.”
Maybe we need to stop smiling and really listen.
If we are believers, then our greatest burden, that of our own guilt, has already been lifted. We can now help bear one another’s remaining burdens. I think we could do better at this. We need to learn to remain in the tension of a difficult providence, to keep company with one another while accepting the lack of resolution and the helplessness. We really are helpless; we need God to intervene. When we realize this, we pray out of real desperation, and in interceding and being interceded for we become dearer to one another.
We also need to be more transparent about our own difficulties. Most of us probably have at least a few folks around us who would be quick to sympathize with our troubles and distressed that we’d kept them to ourselves so long. Also, being transparent can help another person do the same. It has often happened to me that I have shared a weakness or a struggle, and the other person has looked at me and said, “I am so glad you said that.” And then we really talk. Isn’t that remarkable? I don’t think the words are chosen idly. I think my admission truly makes the other person glad. We are both glad together, and able to relax in one another’s company.
Years ago I read an author’s account of how an acquaintance from church dropped by unannounced for some reason while her house was a wreck. The author was cringing inside, but her guest looked around and announced, “I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we can be friends.”