The Captivity of Negativity

Dec 13, 2007 |Kara Schwab

Scripture promotes the healing benefits of a joyful heart. Why settle for less?

A friend once told me there are two kinds of people in this world: victims and survivors. I believe he was trying to say that every person will experience hardship, suffering, injustice and the occasional bad hair day at some point in his or her life. No one is exempt from pain. Or heartache. Or disappointment. Or the occasional and uncomfortable bout of gas. His main point is that how you respond to such difficult circumstances is what earns you a membership into one of those two clubs.

While I think the labels of "victim" or "survivor" are a bit too neat and tidy (and a smidge cliché), I do see his point. I've met people from each of those camps. I can think of one who suffered blow after devastating blow in personal hardships — from a cancer diagnosis, fender bender and layoff — all on a Friday morning. I recall his initial response, "Hey, at least I get a three-day weekend!"

His peace and faith were incomprehensible to the rationale of this world, and he was looking forward to some downtime to process and heal. To look at him, you could almost see the wings of God covering his head. It was as if he were taking shelter with his face barely visible through the feathers, occasionally making a sharp burst of air with his lips and lungs to blow one off his nose. He'd never consider using his hands, as they were holding on, helping him press into the warmth and the very heartbeat of the Almighty.

Of course, I've also met people who at the slightest mishap of stubbing their toe and scuffing their new pedicure respond with agonizing thoughts that the world is truly against them and life is basically over. But to me, a person isn't a victim or survivor merely by how they respond to difficult circumstances. It's more about how they approach the every day little ones.

Have you ever noticed that some people are just generally negative, whether their life is going well or not? They assume the worst. While one person getting ready for a first date feels an adrenaline-rushing swell of hope in her chest, able to picture herself and her date riding off into the sunset, another person will see herself riding off with her date into a ditch and then up over a frontage road, through a barbed-wire fence and smack dab into a cow patty.

Truly, a negative person lives in a prison of his own making. Research clearly shows that negativity adversely affects a person physically. Steven M. Sultanoff Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Irvine, Calif., shares dramatic findings which reveal that negative emotions lead to bad health and make a person actually more susceptible to common everyday illnesses, such as colds or stomach pains. Specifically he writes, "People who are chronically angry and hostile are four to five times more likely to have a heart attack than people who are not."

Emotionally and mentally, the effects of negativity are damaging as well. Psychologists say that we tend to do what we tell ourselves to do. "Therefore, if we have negative attitudes, these negative attitudes affect what we expect of ourselves which in turn, affects our actions. For example, those with the negative attitude that they 'can't do math,' are almost assured of trouble when attempting math. A negative attitude limits performance, saps motivation and inhibits learning."Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1999 This information would have been helpful to me during high school algebra.

It's difficult to break patterns of negative thinking. I was moved by how one of my favorite fiction writers, Saul Bellow, wove a tale that revealed how negativity has the ability to dismantle a person's mental and emotional health. His book Seize the Day captures one day in the mid-life crisis of Wilhelm Adler, a man whose personality resembles a cross between Eeyore and Charlie Brown. At one point, an acquaintance throws up his hands in exhaustion as he tries to implore Wilhelm's negative irrationality by saying, "I'm trying to do you some good, I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery."

Some people are so used to expecting the worst that when something good comes along, they don't even recognize it. Sure, not everyone was born with a sunny sanguine disposition — thank goodness, because wouldn't that be annoying? But in the Lord's perfect wisdom and design, He has created unique individuals, each with his or her own personalities and extraordinary gifts perfectly suited to challenge, encourage and balance one another for the glory of God.

I think what's most concerning is how negative attitudes can affect a person spiritually. Surely, it can put up a wall between you and God. When a person replaces gratefulness with complaining and trust with worry, they miss the blessing of abiding in Christ. We are called to rejoice in the Lord always and to think on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and anything else that's excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:4, 4:8). It is clearly communicated as a choice of the will.

Which makes me wonder if having a negative attitude isn't as much about being a passive victim as it is about being a prideful sinner. The Psalmist writes that a person who is filled with pride does not seek God, because in all his thoughts, there is not room for God (Psalm 10:4).

A caveat: A person with depression may be unable to just "choose to be positive." He is unhappy to be depressed. But a negative person often chooses his path by force of habit, allowing himself to be held captive by his thoughts instead of taking captive every thought and making it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Believing the promises of God is the best remedy for a negative attitude. Jesus said that what a man stores in his heart, he will bring forth, whether that's goodness or evil (Luke 6:45). As the old adage states: "Every thought is a seed. If you plant crab apples, don't count on harvesting Golden Delicious." Put the promises of God in your heart and mind. He can be trusted. He can fill your half-empty glass with living water that'll quench your soul.

If you're struggling with negative thoughts, you're not alone. Give it to God. Believe what He says about you in His holy Word — not the negative things you may "feel" about yourself. Hey, He says our thoughts are futile anyway. But His Word is true, and faith comes by hearing and believing in it.

Anna Quindlen muses on a positive perspective in her little book, A Short Guide to a Happy Life. She says that we need to learn to be happy. One of her best "teachers" was a homeless man she met one day while sitting on the boardwalk at Coney Island. She asked him why he'd rather be out in the cold than checked into a shelter somewhere. "And he stared out in to the ocean and said, 'Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view....' Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I'm never disappointed."

As believers we have an even better "view" on which to focus: Jesus himself. Keep your eyes on Him, and He will renew your mind, positively.

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Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling with depression or mood disorders and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2007 Kara Schwab. All rights reserved.

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