As a child, I was resistant to the idea that what we consume with our senses — those things to which we expose ourselves — truly impact who we are. What we hear and see, in particular, can have profound effects on our minds and hearts. That’s an assertion I’m making for this post; I don’t intend to argue it here.
If you’re thinking this is going to be a post about purity of any kind, please put that aside. While I do want to tie this in with Christianity, this isn’t about abstaining from immoral images or removing ourselves from the company of “sinners” or any of the other stereotypically conservative ideas that Christian communities might be trying to impress upon you. This is a post about positivity; what we consume will impact our outlook, so there’s something to be said for surrounding ourselves with positivity.
Let’s examine negativity and positivity, first, and then I’ll talk about why these matter in Christian contexts.
What Is Negativity?
Negativity is a pessimistic quality that something can have, which often results in criticism. Negativity focuses heavily on what’s wrong with something and/or on something’s potential for failure. A key word here is “pessimistic;” negativity isn’t about objectivity or the reality of a situation. Rather, negativity is about giving negative characteristics or outcomes places of prominence above everything else.
Negativity doesn’t just come from external sources; sometimes we’re negative toward ourselves. This might be a result of external influences (e.g. a child who focuses on negative thoughts because others have been negative toward them), but one reason to learn to recognize negativity is so that we can start taking responsibility for our own negativity.
Some all-too-common examples of negativity:
- People telling you about your “short-comings.” You’re fat, ugly, dumb, weak, slow, annoying, disgusting, etc. As kids get older, those negative comments often get more specific. “You’re fat” can become, “You’re too fat to wear that outfit.” “You’re ugly/dumb/etc.” can become, “That person’s out of your league.” The negativity gets attached to a specific context.
- People telling you that you should pick a new dream. “I know you have your heart set on being an artist, but they don’t really make any money. You should pick a different major.”
- People telling you you’re doing it wrong. “You’re never going to succeed that way. You have to do it like this if you want to be successful.” This can apply after the fact, as well. “That actually worked, but only because you got lucky. You still did it wrong,” or, “You tried, and you failed. Just give it up and do something else.”
- Any internalized version of the above. I’m ugly. I’m stupid. People will laugh at me. I’m not good enough to be a… I’m a failure. I’m never going to be rich/successful/loved/etc.
What Is Positivity?
Positivity is an optimistic quality that something can have, which often nurtures confidence and hope. Positivity focuses heavily on what’s beneficial or good about something and/or on something’s potential for success. A key word here is “optimistic;” similar to negativity, positivity isn’t about objectivity or the reality of a situation. Rather, positivity is about giving positive characteristics or outcomes places of prominence above everything else.
As before, positivity can come from our own thoughts and ideas as much as external influences. Part of combating negativity in our lives is by taking responsibility for our own positivity.
Some examples of positivity:
- People giving you compliments. You’re beautiful, handsome, smart, funny, thoughtful, considerate, encouraging, etc. These can be more specific, as well. “You’re handsome” can become, “You make that outfit look great.” “You’re encouraging” can become, “Your encouragement helped me overcome my self-doubt.” Etc.
- People encouraging you to pursue your dreams. “There are lots of people who make their livings as artists. If that’s what you love, you should go for it.”
- People telling you it’s ok to try something different. “Let’s try it and see what happens.” This works on the backend, as well: “That turned out great!” or, “That didn’t seem to go well. Let’s talk about why and decide what to do next.”
- Any internalized version of the above. I’m beautiful/handsome, smart, funny, capable, worthy of love/success/human dignity, etc. I believe in myself. I’m sure there are creative solutions to these problems. Everyone fails; I’m going to learn from it and keep going.
Objectivity and Reality
Objectivity is about examining facts without showing favoritism. Part of being objective is being able to examine facts with as little bias as possible. Neither negativity nor positivity do this since they each want to emphasize one side or the other. This is what I mean when I say that neither one is about objectivity. This also means that neither is explicitly concerned with the full reality of a situation.
I think this is important to acknowledge so that we can distinguish between negativity and objectivity. I think there’s a difference, for example, between 1) examining COVID-19 death rates and 2) saying that an elderly person with COVID-19 is going to die. According to the CDC’s death by age group data, the death rate is 570 times greater among people 85+ years old than among people between 18 and 29 years old. That’s an objective fact, and stating that as a reality isn’t negative or positive. However, if I emphasize only the likelihood of a person’s death, that’s negativity. For example, if my 20 year old friend dies of COVID and then my 85 year old friend gets COVID, negativity says my 85 year old friend is going to die. My 20 year old friend died, and the chances are 570 times greater for my 85 year old friend to die, so I don’t see how it could turn out any other way.
In that example, I’m emphasizing the negative potential of the situation over everything else. I’m not just stating the statistics as objective facts. If I emphasize the possibility of survival, that’s positivity. “Yes, my 20 year old friend died of COVID, but that doesn’t mean my 85 year old friend will die. There’s still a chance they’ll survive.” Granted, it’s not the best chance, statistically, but positivity focuses on whatever we think is the best potential outcome. (I’m assuming here that survival is the preferable outcome.)
I’ll talk a bit more about distinguishing between objectivity and negativity when I tie this in with my experiences in the Church.
When it comes to positivity and negativity, the one we’re surrounded by the most tends to be the one that influences us the most. I use the term “surrounded” loosely. I’m not just talking about the things that are physically around us, although that’s definitely a factor. “Surrounded” also includes those things which we choose to feed ourselves: music, videos, literature, games, etc. It has more to do with where we’re focused than where we are physically but with the caveat that there has to be a source of positivity on which we can focus.
I could be physically surrounded by lots of positive people, but if I regularly use my headphones to escape into negative music and ignore those positive people, I’m choosing to “surround” myself with negativity by ignoring the positive people and favoring the negative music. Similarly, I may find myself alone in my house, but if I meet up with an online group that’s very positive and encouraging, I’ve chosen to “surround” myself with positivity. Both those examples can work from the other direction, as well.
I believe that with which we surround ourselves will be most influential in our formation. That’s one of the reasons why people get confused about how others “turn out;” they often don’t know enough about others’ lives to make an adequate assessment. It doesn’t necessarily matter what our families are like or what church we went to. What matters is what “surrounds” us the most.
If we’re in a situation where people are pumping negativity into our lives, one way to bolster our defenses against that negativity is by intentionally feeding ourselves positivity and surrounding ourselves with positivity. This can be difficult if we can’t put distance between ourselves and the sources of negativity. Children in abusive households are an example of this. When our parents or guardians are sources of negativity, we don’t always have practical ways to distance ourselves.
The same is true for abuse victims who are trapped for various reasons in abusive relationships or contexts: domestic abuse, toxic/abusive leadership, toxic/abusive company cultures, systemic oppression, etc. Those environments often use negativity to oppress and manipulate others to keep them powerless. For example: “Where will you go? No one loves you but me,” as opposed to the more positive focus on the potential for something better.
The same is also true for many Christian communities and congregations.
Negativity in Christian Communities
Unfortunately, many American Christians lean into negativity and surround themselves with it. Many Christian leaders use it as a way of creating and maintaining oppressive, toxic environments, and the more we buy into that negativity, the more we become part of the problem.
For example: when I was growing up, I heard a lot of people use the terms “doubt” and “lack of faith” synonymously. Many Christians I know still do this, but I think this conflates objectivity and negativity. It takes a proposed reality (e.g. if we lack faith, we probably doubt God), interprets a negative possibility (e.g. doubting can be a result of a lack of faith), and assumes that the two are necessarily the same: doubt and lack of faith are always the same thing, functionally.
This can quickly get out of hand. I’ve been in congregations where church leaders, having adopted this negativity toward doubt, fall into the trap of certainty. They had to be certain about what they believed, because uncertainty and questions (doubt) means lack of faith, which means not being saved by faith. “I’m saved. I’m saved by faith. Therefore, I must not doubt.” To put it another way, “I must be certain of what I believe.” Although this is often expressed in a positive way, it’s often built on a theology of negativity: if I doubt, then I’m not saved.
The problem in this example is that pretty much everyone (maybe literally everyone) doubts. We ask questions and wonder about things, and there are things that we realize one day we don’t really understand or agree with. In an environment where negative possibilities are treated as objective realities, there’s no room for that season of life. At best, it’s treated as a “phase” of immaturity. At worst, it’s treated as an abandonment of faith or a person being led astray.
In many of the Christian communities in which I was raised, people often appealed to the “slippery slope” argument to justify their aversions to questioning. That’s just another example of negativity being the prevailing culture. The slippery slope argument is that going down certain paths is like stepping onto a slippery slope of a hill/mountain/etc.: one can easily start to “slide down” away from “the narrow path.” Logically, there’s some sense to that, and I’ve seen people go down some pretty deep rabbit holes, but, again, there’s a difference between leaning into the negative possibilities and acknowledging that the possibilities exist.
Objective reality says, “Asking questions leads to consuming new information, which can lead to new ideas, which aren’t always compatible with the ideas with which we started.” As Leo Buscaglia said, “Change is the end result of all true learning.” Negativity says, “Change is dangerous, and the risk of changing for the worse is too great.” Church leaders have used the negative possibilities (the slippery slope) to tell me that I have to be always guarded against naysayers and not to question too strongly what the traditions have taught. My experience with that has been overwhelmingly negative, and that shouldn’t surprise me, because it’s rooted in negativity.
There are many more examples of how negativity becomes the culture of our Christian communities, but the point is that I think we need to learn to discern negativity so that we can counter it with positivity. As humanity learns more about self-care, emotional/mental health, and abuse/toxicity, we repeatedly confirm that positivity has a profound impact. Our mental health benefits from surrounding ourselves with positivity and self-compassion, and when our Christian communities aren’t sources of positivity, that likely works against our ability to engage in self-care.
Positivity might take the slippery slope idea and say, “Yes, questions often lead to change, because learning leads to change, but change can just as easily be beneficial as it can be harmful.” In other words, why does the slope have to be “slippery?” We could just as easily use the more positive analogy of an upward slope, up which we climb as we question, learn, and change.
What Might This Mean for You?
I wrote this because I see people in Christian circles on social media and I talk to people in real life who are all dealing with toxic cultures of negativity that have convinced them that the negative possibilities are actually objective realities. You will lose your freedom if… You are condemned if… You are evil if… You will become impure if…
I believe that kind of certainty of negativity is harmful and stifles the Spirit in people’s lives, and if you find yourself in that sort of environment, I think you should take steps to surround yourself with as much positivity as possible to counteract the negativity. When I was a kid, I didn’t realize how much damage the negativity was causing, because I believed in it whole-heartedly. I write this in the hope that you won’t make the same mistakes I did. Don’t accept that the negativity is reality. Instead, embrace positivity. Embrace the possibilities of good. Acknowledge objective realities, yes, but choose to see the hope for new creation in every moment, especially in your own life.
Choose wisely what you listen to, who you give authority in your life, what you watch, and in what you participate and all the more when the sources of negativity are things you can’t immediately escape — not because of some kind of purity culture but as a way of combating the harmful negativity that others are thrusting upon you. Be a source of positivity for yourself, as well. Tell yourself about the possibilities and give your own positivity a place of prominence over the negativity in your life.
Remember: gospel is good news.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.