I had really high hopes for 2018. My second novel, Everything She Lost, had a release date of January 2, my kids were getting older and (I thought) wiser, and I really wanted a year without drama. To give away the ending, 2018 was far from drama-free. Among my family (including extended), we faced hospitalizations, surgery, teen angst, bullying, and a hurricane (Bud of all names). 2018 felt like a bumpy roller coaster ride that wouldn’t end, and I have new gray hair to prove it.
I got through last year with lots of prayer, grumbling, and exasperation. But one thing that hasn’t helped, and has actually made the situation worse are three words that, while well intentioned, annoy me to no end: “think positive thoughts.”
I’m sure “positive thinking” has been around for a really long time. But in my lifetime, I can trace the explosion of the concept to the 2006 self-help book, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. Don’t get me wrong – I was enamored with the concept initially. If I only think positive thoughts, only positive things will happen, the wisdom went. I thought, I can literally think my way to a life of prosperity, good health, ideal relationships, an awesome job, etc. I remember after reading the book, I felt so positive. And apparently, a lot of other people did too. The concept spread and spread, and before long, everyone was just brimming with positivity. Which is good! Of course, it’s good to be positive. But then life still happens.
In 2010, I had what could only be called a perfect storm of bad things happen. Really, really bad. As I struggled through that year, people kept telling me to “think positive thoughts.” Like, I know your world fell apart, but don’t think about it. I know you’re in a hard spot, but you must have brought in on yourself by negative thinking. I know you feel bad, but you shouldn’t, so don’t think about it. It felt like I was getting the message that if I was really going through something bad, I either brought it on myself by not thinking positively enough or I wasn’t thinking positively enough in order to get out of it. The “think positive mantra” insisted, if one can just see the bright side, everything will miraculously be better and fixed.
As anyone who has really suffered, or suffers, knows, that’s not how it works. Thinking positive thoughts isn’t a panacea to life’s problems. The fact is, bad things happen to people who’ve done absolutely nothing to warrant it – they didn’t think it into existence. People who live with chronic pain or illness can’t simply think their way to health. Those suffering loss and grief can’t just magically make their sorrow go away. Pain and hardship are a normal, and at times painstaking, part of life no matter how hard we try to safeguard ourselves from them.
I’m not saying being positive isn’t a good thing. Studies show that positive attitudes can often lead to positive health outcomes and help speed recovery. But wanting to have a positive outlook for yourself (which is good) and telling someone else they should be positive are two different things. When I’ve faced hardship, what I’ve wanted most from other people was simply to be there and empathize – not to tell me what to do or how I should do it.
The book of Genesis tells the account of Hagar, the slave of Sarai. After Sarai and Abram were unable to conceive a baby, Sarai told her husband to sleep with Hagar. After Hagar conceived, Sarai grew jealous and treated her slave harshly and with contempt. Unable to endure Sarai’s abuse any longer, Hagar ran away to the desert.
An angel of God found Hagar there. The angel told Hagar to go back home and submit to Sarai, and promised Hagar that her descendants will be “too numerous to count.” Humbled and moved that God had seen her in her pain and anguish, Hagar praises God saying, “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me,’” (Genesis 16:13b), and Hagar calls God by His name, El Roi, “the God who sees me.”
God sees every single person living with pain, suffering, illness, anxiety, and other hardships. I love revisiting the short by Brene Brown on Empathy. I’ve started 2019 knowing that whatever this year brings, God sees me and will always help me through whatever I’m going through; and I will strive to see others in their pain and respond with empathy.