Saturday, June 26, 2010

Update, and the Problem of Positive Thinking

Okay, seriously, I'm a horrible blogger. It took Dave saying, "Hey, you remember you have a blog, right?" for me to think that maybe I should skedaddle back here and get it in motion.

It's probably no big surprise (to anyone who know us) that we are hitting the financial straights big time right now. It's just so surprising the things that will happen as soon as you decide to really pay down the debt and get into financially sound waters. It's been Murphy's law times, like, a billion. Like your adorable husband using a drive-in movie pole as the proverbial butter (giant scratch) to your new van's toast (paint job). Or deciding to use cloth diapers to save money, only to completely flood your landlord's downstairs apartment. Or finding out your medical insurance isn't really covering what you thought it was covering.

I could go on, but let's just suffice to say... cha-ching.

Times like these you'll usually find me in my car, clutching the steering-while with white hands, and practically chanting my favorite verse: "Everything in the heavens and the earth are yours, oh Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as being in control of everything, riches and honor come from you alone. For you are the ruler of all mankind, your hand controls power and might. It is at your discretion that men are made great, and given strength."Over and over again. (Thanks, Crown!)

Of course, it's also times like this that make me so thankful. Especially thankful that financial troubles are the greatest of our problems, and not the least.

So what does this have to do with positive thinking? Don't worry, the train's getting to the station. As I was reading Job the other day (nothing like Job to put you into perspective), I came across this verse in Job 8 "Does God pervert justice? Does God go against what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin." Of course, this is good-friend Bildad lecturing Job on exactly why he's suffering. Good friend there, Bildad. But anyone who's read the rest of Job (or Romans) knows that God wasn't punishing Job for what his children did wrong, or even what he did wrong. God wasn't punishing Job at all, because Job wasupright in the eyes of God. Job was just flat-out suffering. Anyone who's lived knows that not good people suffer. They lose their children. They develop cancer. They lose their jobs. They get into debilitating debt.

Even though Romans tells us that "there is now no condemnation in those who are in Christ Jesus," I don't think we as people believe that sometimes. Even me. Especially me. We believe, like Bildad, that if we are just good enough, righteous enough, believe enough, are positive enough, that we can somehow lift ourselves out of whatever quagmire we're in. Good people get good things, bad people get bad things. In effect, we're saying "Sorry, all-encompassing-love-and-grace-of-Christ, I think I'll pick up the tab on this one." And the trouble in thinking that we can save ourselves, or that we even have control, is that the flip-side of that coin is that others who are suffering have somehow lost control. They could help themselves, if only they thought or believed they could.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a favorite author of mine ("Nickel and Dimed," anyone?) wrote a great book about this entitled "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Pursuit of Positive Thinking has Undermined America." To sum up, Barb discovers she has breast cancer. Barb is pretty frustrated and, understandably, angry. Yet everywhere she turns she is confronted by unbridled, unrelenting optimism. Surrounded by quotes like "don't cry over anything that won't cry over you," and "don't wait for your ship, swim out to meet it." All of which is ridiculous and ridiculously unfair. I'm sorry, but if I find out I have cancer I'm not going to be downright peppy about it. I'm not going to pull a Brendan Frasier in Scrubs and say "Leukemia? That sucks." No, getting no cherries in your diet cherry-limeade sucks. Getting cancer is life changing.

Ehrenreich writes that, in the cancer community, to be angry or depressed is tantamount to heresy. It's giving up.
She writes:
But, despite all the helpful information, the more fellow victims I discovered and read, the greater my sense of isolation grew. In breast cancer activism, the words "patient" and "victim," with their aura of self-pity and passivity, have been ruled un-PC. Instead, we get verbs: those who are in the midst of their treatments are described as "battling" or "fighting", sometimes intensified with "bravely" or "fiercely" – language suggestive of Katharine Hepburn with her face to the wind. Once the treatments are over, one achieves the status of "survivor", which is how the women in my local support group identified themselves, AA-style. For those who cease to be survivors, again, no noun applies. They are said to have "lost their battle" – our lost brave sisters, our fallen soldiers.

The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease. Writing in 2007, New York Times health columnist Jane Brody quoted bike racer and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who said, "Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me", and cited a woman asserting that "breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living."

In the most extreme characterisation, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a "gift", deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude. One survivor writes in her book The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening that "cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live." And if that is not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells, she insists, "Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine."

Cancer, a gift? Gimme a freakin' break. Why do we as people feel the need to be unrelentingly positive? So cheerful that we, in effect, hide our honesty? Hide the things that make us human? Not only does this place an unfair burden on those who are suffering-- not only do they have to deal with chemo, or cancer, or loss, but now they get the unparalleled joy of always being cheerful about it! -- but it compromises us as Christians as well. Job is a perfect example. Reading Job, I'm struck at the anger, the despair. This guy was not cheerful that he got to lose his entire family, fortune, and battle disease. Job flat out rages against God. He even begs that God would send a mediator so that he could argue his case against God.

I think we would be very flawed indeed, if we expected our suffering to be cheerful. If, as in the above quote, cancer is my passport to "living," then no thanks, I'll take life as it is. Let's take a lesson from Job, who laments: "If I say, 'I will forget my complaint, I will change my expression, and smile, I still dread all my sufferings." Sometimes you just have to sit in it, to be present in your sufferings, and to know that God is present with you.

"Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."


  1. what a great post...i know its been ages, but i came across FB photos of your newest little one and then found your blog. love how the internet keeps us posted on people we once knew....anyway, thanks for a fresh perspective on hardships. i especially like the last line, "Sometimes you just have to sit in it, to be present in your sufferings, and to know that God is present with you."
    blessings on your beautiful family!

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    Watch this video. I ran across it on another site, and it kind of reminded me of this blog entry. I'm not sure I feel as adamantly about the subject as this guy seems to, but I do agree with him (and you) that life as Christians isn't going to be all sunshine and roses, and it shouldn't be billed as such. That's what causes people to become bitter and angry with God, when they feel like they've done all they can and bad things are still happening to them, and they think God isn't fulfilling His end of the bargain, but the truth is they've just misunderstood just what the bargain entailed.