“We are people of faith, not fear.” “Look on the bright side.” These phrases and others like them, especially when used by Christians, disclose an implicit belief that we are supposed to be optimistic. For most of us believers, the love of God is a source of hope that calls us to reframe the way we see ourselves and our situations so that we can come to believe that there are good things on the horizon for our life. As the Gospel is a Gospel that brings forth hope, positive expectations should indeed by cultivated over the course of a lifetime for those who follow Jesus.
Yet, there is a problem. Life is hard. Life is difficult. Sometimes it is harder and more difficult for some of us than others. Poverty, trauma, mental illness, tragedies, and a host of other life situations can make the realities of life harder for some more than others. The slow drain of life, or in some cases even quick, these obstacles can cause can present a real challenge to positivity and optimism.
When I was in a behavioral observation unit for dealing with some problems that emerged from my own struggles with the slow, persistent drain of trauma and loneliness, I met a woman who was at her own wit’s end. She was elderly, disabled, her husband had just recently divorced her, and had no children. She shared with me how on her own it would take her an hour or two to do what would take other people 5 or 10 minutes to complete, making life incredibly difficult. In such a situation, what is the bright side to find? Should she not fear for her well-being, with no one to take care of her?
If someone were to simply tell her one of the many packaged words of optimism, I would imagine she would recoil and retort back. Her situation is one where depression and anxiety are not simply a possibility if she didn’t have the “right outlook,” but emerging from a realistic assessment of her circumstances. Even if those words would be shared with a seemingly kind and gentle spirit, it could still taste bitter. Such ‘positivity’ would be toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is everywhere. For instance, when people talk about the American dream if one just works hard, there are many people whose experiences of life in the United States are the farthest thing from. Seeking to make a better life for themselves, they experience so many setbacks and hardships that they develop a sense of learned helplessness. Yet, the beliefs that maintain toxic positivity leads to a form of cognitive dissonance that blames people’s hardships on something to do with them as a person. Poor people are stereotyped as lazy, rather than as people who don’t know how to escape and sometimes have given up. Depression and anxiety are due to a mental illness with a person and not due to their circumstances. Toxic positivity explains any deviance away from the “happy” life as ultimately the person’s fault and casts judgment upon the one who experience negative emotions, as if they shouldn’t really be sad, that they shouldn’t be scared, that they shouldn’t be angry.
Toxic positivity, at its core, is a form of avoidance. It avoids dealing with the real pain and struggles with life. But to be clear, toxic positivity isn’t the optimism of a Pollyanna. People with a Pollyanna attitude aren’t themselves judgmental towards other who don’t share their buoyant optimism, even if it comes across irksome to others; they are just naive. Toxic positivity, by contrast, is condescending and arrogant towards those who challenge their positive mindset. There is some problem with you if you don’t see how good things are, including how good they are in the case of a toxically positive narcissist. Additionally, when people embrace toxic positivity, it can also be toxic to people as negative emotions are being experienced in the body, even if they don’t consciously recognize such feelings in the mind. Such avoidance of negative feelings contributes to toxic positivity leading to being judgmental of others, as others may challenge such optimism and positivity and provoke negative feelings that then are psychologically displaced back onto them. Such people became increasingly unempathetic towards people’s struggles, but they may imagine themselves being helpful because their ‘optimism’ doesn’t let them see their own failure to help and console. Sometimes, when their failure to help becomes manifest, they then blame it on the other person rather than on themselves. At the core, those who have a toxically positive mindset cannot accept themselves as part of the problem, because their sense of optimism is ultimately about themselves.
Undergirding toxic positivity is a basic rule: you MUST NOT feel bad/sad/angry/scared/anxious/guilty/shame. This rule then implies another rule: if you do feel such way, it is YOUR fault (unless someone made a person with toxic posivity feel bad, then it is the other person’s fault). With such a mentality, people will often appeal to the Scriptures to reinforce their toxic positivity. They will make reference to Jesus’ words about not worrying, Paul’s words about receiving a spirit of adoption rather than a spirit of fear, John’s words about perfect love casting out fear, etc. all to reinforce this basic script: if you feel bad, it something you ought not feel and it is your responsibility.
This is not the Gospel. Rather, in some ways, it is the opposite of the Gospel. In the Beatitudes, the first three beatitudes address people who would feel negative feelings. They are poor in spirit, they are meek and powerless, and they mourn. When you compare these phrases to the Old Testament Scriptures, they repeatedly make reference to people who face difficulty circumstances and even have to deal with the wicked. Being blessed in such a phase of life is not about “You must feel good right now,” but rather a message of hope, a message of liberation. The Gospel does not embrace toxic positivity, but a liberation that cultivates hope.
There are multiple differences between toxic positivity and a liberation of hope. First, toxic positivity is about what a person thinks and imagines. A true liberation of hope is about what God is doing. Second, toxic positivity ignores and minimizes the bad, whereas a liberation of hope starts from the recognition of what is bad, if not even evil. Third, toxic positivity brings judgment, but a liberation of hope comes with compassion and mercy. Fourth, people who come with a message of toxic positivity leave others to fix their problems, whereas a person coming with a liberation of hope comes alongside those in need to help strengthen them.
One other difference that makes a big difference is this: whereas toxic positivity says a person must not feel bad/sad/angry/scared/anxious, a liberation of hope doesn’t jump to conclusions that the person who experiences these negative emotions are to blame. Something is wrong, but where the responsibility for one’s broken and downtrodden state is not assumed. Instead, the liberation of hope helps people to discover the ways that God provides for those whose experience of destitution in its various forms to a way to overcome, even when responsibility does fall elsewhere.
This is perhaps part of the reason why forgiveness is an important part of the Gospel: if one is focused on exacting revenge on those who harmed you, you will miss the way that God provides for you to move towards shalom-making, keeping one in the cycle of aggression, vengeance, and injustice. It is only in becoming merciful that one can begin to move from being destitute and craving righteousness to becoming pure of heart and making shalom and well-being. If one does not forgive but instead seeks to enact vengeance, God will not forgive one’s own sins and keep the pathway of liberation veiled. But if one does forgive, God will graciously provide the way to overcome. It is those who are merciful who can be liberated to live in God’s kingdom here on earth right here, right now.
The liberative hope of the Gospel works through cultivating hope, not commanding optimism and positivity. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23 are often appealed to for evidence that Christians should feel good, particularly the fruit of joy, but it overlooks the agricultural metaphor that implies time to grow and mature. Paul later in Galatians 6.8 talks about sowing by the Spirit to reap the Spirit. Joy, hope, love, etc. are all cultivated by our following the Spirit in our lives; they are not something that just magically comes and arrives because we simply reframe our experiences. We hunger and crave for the hope of a righteous vision for life in the midst of a poverty of spirit, powerlessness, and depression and grief; we don’t simply force our hearts and minds to feel something in the moment.
The “gospel” of toxic positivity only works for those whose life circumstances and feelings are not so bad that cognitive reframing can help them to feel different, while explicitly and implicitly blame those who can not reach this point and leaving them to themselves. However, the Gospel that brings a hope of liberation has a far superior power and effectiveness than the “gospel” of toxic positivity: it effectively liberates the broken-hearted. The “gospel” of toxic positivity has little power to change and transform; the real Gospel of Jesus Christ (not a “gospel” of ideas and doctrines that we think we find to be true) can bring light into the darkness, can bring hope where there is despair, can bring peace where there is chaos.