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A Tactic of the Oppressor
Most managers and leaders put 10 percent of their energy into selling the problem and 90 percent into selling the solution to the problem. People aren’t in the market for solutions to problems they don’t see, acknowledge, and understand. They might even come up with a better solution than yours, and then you won’t have to sell it-it will be theirs.
William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the most of Change
If someone told you about the resilience of a flower that grew in a desert, you might begin to be inspired by such a strenuous process of growth and endurance. It is an amazing thing that such flowers could bloom in such a place. But in that emphasis we might lose sight of the fact that this actually isn’t good news. The flower that blooms in the desert is bound to suffer, struggle, and face an untimely end, much like those seeds planted on rocky ground, having no root. Its that sickly sweet talk that seems to ask us to embrace the rocky path, as though it were fertile ground, good for planting. When we do not admit of a problem when we ought to, we enter into an enabling type of cheerleading often called "happy talk.” Today in the Church it often misuses the term good-news. Such good news typically focuses on accidental realities in the Church that cover up (or put a mask on) the rot and areas where God’s judgment zealously appeals to us requesting repentance. No body likes a cynic - but asking for repentance is the opposite of a cynic. Its a person who believes the problem can be addressed - and thus predicates itself always on hope. Calling the Church and world to repentance therefore is always rooted in hope, rather than enabling or despair. If things are considered “good just the way they are” in this life - then we are always lying to ourselves.
When we feel as though we are in a futile state, we might be tempted to think our circumstances are insurmountable, or we may even prefer to think this so that sacrifice and changing our vision do not occur. Therefore we look for the silver lining as a vague sentiment of “some good exists.” We do not want to till the ground, we do not want to admit that what we were doing is unhelpful - a rocky path of our own making that we try to justify. So we make it sound as though it were something good. Perhaps we are like the captors of Babylon, who want the Israelites to be happy so they won’t feel guilty about their oppressive tendencies? Perhaps it has to do with the people who surround us; who filter our perception of reality. Leaders for that reason need prophets to listen to, not hired hands, or those seeking power. Fernando de Osuna says in his classic literature on Third Spiritual Alphabet, that a superior (to whom in small and big ways, the kings and queens of baptism participate) that acquiescing from our responsibilities in addressing problems is a significant temptation. If we give authority to one, something that God has ordained to be given to us, then the fruits will not appear. The illusion sets in that its not our fault that things are failing, because its up to everyone else whom such authority has been delegated. But it isn’t real delegation, it isn’t collegiality, it isn’t team-work, or even relying on the gifts of others - its acquiescence. In such a case, we become cheerleaders of everyone else, abstractly connected with the good of the world and Church, and find ourselves disconnected relationally, and practically from the real problems that exist on a spiritual level. And this last part is what we want to mask, because fear naturally creeps in when we realize the weight of our call.
This happy talk can involve an insistence upon being joyful and happy in a manner that turns the stomach of those who are subjects to such voices. It is a violent statement against the affect of those individuals who suffer the rot within the world or Church - like an abusive husband who tells his wife to be happier. This request is often unconsciously cemented to insulate one from a conscience becoming pricked. In a number of TV Shows, I have seen this displayed at times in the stream of chauvinism whereby men expect women to smile, without much care, empathy, or listening as to why they might not be smiling. Its an odd thing, but a sign that we are not in tune with reality. Reality has dark and bright graces, it has tears and joy.
The irony, as Chesterton would point out, is that one extreme generally creates another. If Toxic Positivity exists, its likely reacting to Toxic Negativity and vice-versa. In other words, neither of these are going to help, but they will only polarize things further. When people do not want their own vision or view of things to change, the temptation is to do what Dr. Peter Kreeft calls offering “Happy talk.” It is to generate a sort of cheerleading approach to convince everyone that everything is fine, and then everything will be fine. But this can amount to a defense mechanism that resists self-reflection and an unwillingness to entertain a need to revisit structures, and even listen to objections. In the nominal name of a listening Church, toxic positivity is not selling problems, its baptizing them, and making the problems swept under the proverbial rug of bureaucracy. In other words, listening is not really encouraged, but coaching toward a certain vision not rooted in discernment (spiritual listening).
In many ways, this type of toxicity can exist within a Church that doesn’t want to address sin, and would prefer to only speak of some vague notion of good news. Keeping in mind that the Roman’s thought they had good news, we might ask ourselves to define what the good news is, according to the Bible. That is, lets look for substance, not fluff. It is only in the truth that we find hope - but not in simply willing and imposing positivity. Such disposes the soul toward no object. That is be “positive” or “smile” but the meaning and reason for such a disposition is left blank, nominal, and thus can serve an enabling purpose, or that of aimlessness.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Here what we see is the captor or oppressor demanding that their suffering slaves smile or sing as though everything is okay. But things are not okay. And it is part of the good-news that God has compassion, and validates this reality, that His love is known. The good-news isn’t that everything is okay - everything isn’t okay. We have a world riddled with sin, our Churches our closing, there is division within the Body of Christ (the Church), and we need to be saved. The good-news is that Christ is weeping over our sins, and is seeking to save us by asking us to follow-him.
In order for us to follow God in a new direction, we need to be sold that where we are headed is not the right direction. And in order for us to know that we are not headed in the right direction, we need to be able to be real about the difficulties being experienced by the Catholic faithful. We need to listen to the wounds, hear the brokenness, and to do so without being selective in who we sympathize for. If we deeply listen we will hear a craving for Christ.
Toxic Positivity is the agent of changeless enabling. Toxic Negativity is the agent of changeless ingratitude. Both lead us away from the path to Christ. In order for us to find the narrow path that is in the middle, we must validate genuine suffering, and concretely address it. We must also point out where Christ is to be found, and recognize Him and His compassion as the good news.
When I went to the Holy Land a number of years ago, I sat in the prison cell where Jesus was kept. I felt as though He was sitting right next to me. And it was at this moment that His prison cell became a meeting place of love. He did not undo the reality of that prison cell, but by entering into it with me, he infused it with love. Sometimes in the validation, in the acknowledgement that everything is not okay we find wisdom, beauty, and the goodness of God’s presence. We find in a coach something similar - he pinpoints a player’s weakness not to discourage but to help them desire something greater - a goal to aspire to - a place for growth.
The question is not whether we are willing to challenge others. It is whether we are willing to drop the happy talk and listen to perhaps where the coach, where I, have to grow. This isn’t something like a mere façade of understanding, but like Christ, entering the prison cell with them, becoming affected by their wounds, so that their sorrow and joy may be shared. This is the closeness Pope Francis wants within our church, and it enables us to prepare ourselves for change - be it reconciliation - or structural changes - or visions - and hopes!
Do not therefore be fooled by anyone who asks you to “be happy” or “to be joyful.” These comments do not generate happiness or joy - they simply dismiss suffering. But compassion, understanding, and even our own changing of our mind (our own conversion) often give others a reason for joy - because that isn’t a demoralizing, manipulating type of joy - a façade - rather it is love.