© Hollis Huston 2011
“Just Say No: The Power of Negative Thinking”
a sermon preached by Hollis Huston
at Unitarian Universalist Society of South Suffolk
on February 20, 2011
An earlier version of this sermon was spoken at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation on February 13, 2011
Ask – it’ll be given to you; seek- you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you. Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened. Who among you would hand a son a stone when it’s bread he’s asking for? Again, who would hand him a snake when it’s fish he’s asking for? Of course no one would! So if you, worthless as you are, know how to give your children good gifts, isn’t it much more likely that your father in the heavens will give good things to those who ask him?
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
Get interested in something. Get absolutely enthralled in something. Throw yourself into it with abandon. Get out of yourself. Be somebody. Do something. Don’t sit around moaning about things, reading the papers and saying. “Why don’t they do something?” The man who is out doing something isn’t tired. If you’re not getting into good causes, no wonder you’re tired. You’re disintegrating. You’re deteriorating. You’re dying on the vine. The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have. .
. . You can be unhappy if you want to be. It is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. Just choose unhappiness. Go around telling yourself that things aren’t going well, that nothing is satisfactory, and you can be quite sure of being unhappy.
. . Happiness is achievable and the process for obtaining it is not complicated. Anyone who desires it, who will it, and who learns and applies the right formula may become a happy person.
Norman Vincent Peale was the guy who wrote: when life deals you lemons, make lemonade. When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, this book of his was everywhere: on coffee-tables, in doctors’ offices, on the living-room bookshelves of friends and neighbors. Peale had gotten hold of something. “Positive Thinking” was a modern and up-to-date-sounding term that described more ancient themes. The idea of Positive Thinking was a discipline, proposed by a mainline Protestant minister, for approaching Optimism; and Optimism was a modern American value if there ever was one. In the fifties Americans believed what some of our bright children are told – you can do anything you put your mind to. Hadn’t we just proved it? Hadn’t we just saved the world from vicious enemies, and then made those enemies free and prosperous? Optimism isn’t fashionable now. Cynicism is more elegant. Pessimism is safe – if we hope for nothing we shall not be disappointed.
Before I go on, I must reveal something of my own temperament. If there’s a confirmed optimist in the room, a person whose habit it is to say that we can do whatever we have a mind to, and everything will always be just fine, I experience a deep desire to kill that person. If you know the Pooh Corner manegerie, you’ll understand me when I say that I’m not a Piglet but an Eeyore. I’m an old gloomy donkey and always have been. If you’re really happy about things, I say, you must have not understood something. You must not be as experienced, as knowledgeable, as smart as I am. And yet I am not a pessimist. I’ll tell you how that can be in a few minutes.
Positive Thinking – Optimism – Hope – Faith – these are closely related concepts. Yeshua ben Miriam said that if you have faith, and you ask the mountain to move, it will move. And another story says that when Yeshua walked on water, and Peter stepped out of the boat to go meet him, he was fine until he started to notice the wind and the waves, and then he started to sink. Yeshua’s response to him was: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
If we get past our literalism, and look at the story for its poetic truth, a truth that can only be told in images, we might see what such stories meant to those who first told them and to those who first heard them. Because there is a kind of – well, let’s call it concentration on a goal – without which nothing can be done. Maybe you and I haven’t ever moved a mountain by commanding it; maybe we haven’t walked on water, but there are a lot of important things we do that require faith. Which is to say, we must visualize ourselves reaching the goal, and as long as we can keep our faith alive the goal is attainable and we seem to walk on water, but if we lose our faith it becomes impossible and we start to sink like a stone. Faith is transcendent. It is that distinctly human ability to do change the world, by doing what is impossible.
A parent, a teacher, a president, a minister – these are people who try to make great things possible for others. It’s part of the job to believe in you, in a way that liberates your potential for good. I aspire – the person in whose place I stand today aspires – to be a person in whose presence some of your noblest dreams can be realized. In chemistry we describe such an agent as a catalyst. That is the true nature of leadership.
Because one thing is for sure. The mountain won’t move if you don’t dream. You won’t walk on water if you surrender your will to the the wind and the waves. If Dr. King hadn’t dreamed on the Washington Mall, if he hadn’t had faith in the decency of American people and institutions, a faith that seemed unreasonable to most white and black people at the time, we could not have torn down the systems of legal segregation and discrimination.
One of our presidents, George H. W. Bush, was criticized for lacking “the vision thing” – which is to say, he didn’t seem to be taking us much of anywhere. The Vision Thing – it’s a well-known fact of human life. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t communicate it to others. If you don’t have a vision of what is not, you can’t get others to work toward a vision that changes what is.
We sometimes learn the power of faith negatively, because we know there are people in whose presence nothing can be done. I had a boss once who taught me never to bring my hopes and desires to him – because as soon as he looked at me, those hopes were dashed, and I realized that nothing good could come of such dreaming. I had no way of counteracting his deathly presence. I hadn’t learned to be faithful in the presence of negativity, which is to say I hadn’t learned how to keep my faith in the presence of scorn.
Norman Vincent Peale thought we could learn to be happy. I used to say to my theatre students, you can have as many problems as you want. All you have to do is think of them – there they are. But if you bring them on stage with you, you’re dead. There’s no real reason why an audience should give you their attention rather than, say, throw tomatoes at you. This goes for actors, singers, musicians, and preachers. You’re in a fearful situation. Nobody wants to see your problems, or your fear. Nobody buys a ticket, pays a baby sitter, travels to a far away place parks the car, then sits themselves down in an uncomfortable seat for an hour or two, to see your problems. They’ve got their own problems, for free, and at home. They’re expecting you to take them away from their problems; they want you to move them somewhere else. They’re expecting you to take them past their terrors and insecurities, and your own. Going on a stage, or standing in a pulpit, is an act of faith. If you bring your doubt and your fear on stage, if your vision fails, then nobody will want to see you. If you bring your personal sense of inadequacy before the congregation, you’ll be inadequate. It’s a matter, as Vincent Peale said, of getting out of yourself. Get out of yourself, I used to say to my students. Get into the task.
Can optimism be learned? Yes. But it’s hard training. It’s a matter of focus, not on the waves but on the task, not on what you fear but on what you want.
I’m not temperamentally an optimist. But I want to be a faithful person, and sometimes succeed. I’m not on most days a despairing person. I always hope that things will go well. But things will not go well, I fear, if I am not prepared against other results. As we often say to our clients and their families in hospice, by all means hope for the best; and in order to hope effectively, prepare for the worst. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. So I’m a strategic optimist, and a tactical pessimist. I’m hoping that, in the big picture, things will work out. But I have to address the dangers in the short run.
Can I do whatever I want? No. I can’t win the hundred yard dash, no matter how often and how clearly I visualize it. Even when I was younger and thinner and did not suffer from arthritis in the knees, what my body felt was fast was really very slow when compared to other bodies. I wasn’t created with the mechanical advantages that define a sprinter.
And although I’m a profoundly musical person, I can’t be a concert pianist. At a much younger age, I took piano lessons. I studied the instrument for seven years, and for the last five of those I took it seriously. You see, I decided I had to be a concert pianist. Anything else would be second-rate, and therefore unacceptable. So I practiced for hours every day, and what I accomplished was that at the end of the year I could play two or three pieces in a recital. I played them well. But that was all I could do. I couldn’t sight-read. I couldn’t play what I heard in my head. I couldn’t learn a piece quickly. I couldn’t play the really difficult pieces of piano literature. I couldn’t play songs at a party. I couldn’t accompany anyone else. And I couldn’t master the basics: I couldn’t master scales and arpeggios no matter how I tried.
When I went to a college – a college with a conservatory of music attached – I learned that I just didn’t have the chops. Nowadays I look at my hands and I ask myself how I could have thought myself a pianist. My hands are big ones, with a reasonable reach. But it’s all palms – my fingers are actually rather short; and my thumbs just don’t reach under the hand in the easy way that scales and arpeggios require.
Now maybe there was another instrument I should have pursued. Perhaps that instrument was my voice, and I should have taken singing lessons. Perhaps I should have concentrated on the useful skills of the keyboard – sight-reading, playing by hear, improvising. But I was obsessed with a purpose that just wasn’t going to be realized. I couldn’t be a concert pianist any more than I could walk on water. I was trying to be something I could not be. And perhaps that effort was more than a mistake. Perhaps it was a sin.
And in later life I have come to understand that what’s hard to do is not your gift. The sheer difficulty of the task, and its lack of reward, should be a sign to you. Your gift is what comes easy. The thing you’re born to do is the thing that draws you irresistibly, the thing that, when you’re doing it, makes you feel like a real person, a child of God. Your real talent is the thing that, when you do it, your life seems meaningful. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to work at it, when you devote yourself to it. Your true gift will make high demands of you when you surrender to it. But it sings to you. It’s not just another chore. It’s the thing you’re always leaving your chores behind for, the thing you’re always falling into. It frightens you because you fear how deep you could fall into it.
But it’s hard to learn what’s easy; and hard to value it. Because in this Protestant country, when you do what comes easy to you, you’re not “working hard.” So many of the things we think we want are things we won’t want any more if we get them. So many of the things we are told we want are things that will never be ours no matter how hard we work. It takes a lot of experience, and a lot of honesty, and a lot of self-examination, to name our false desires. But learning what is false is the work of life. The truth is what is left when the false has been left behind.
I was a child who, because I had a precocious mind, was told that I could do “whatever I want to.” That may sound like encouragement – but it has a very dark side. Because it meant that any degree of failure, any falling short, any lack of perfection particularly in schoolwork, was all my fault. If I wasn’t doing a thing exactly right, it was because I was lazy – I hadn’t worked hard enough. And the way to make it right was always to work harder – to throw myself at the task like a stone at the wall. This delusion, that I could do “whatever I want,” led to many false choices and many misapprehensions of myself. It made me subject to other people’s agendas.
Forrest Church said “Be who you are. Want what you have. Do what you can.” This sounds like a copout. But it’s actually a severe and demanding moral challenge. Because you must come to understand who you are, as opposed to who you aren’t. You must come to understand what you have that a good person would want, as opposed to all the other things you wouldn’t want if you had them. You must learn what you can do, as opposed to your delusions of grandeur about things that are not yours to do. All of these quests take a lifetime’s effort, at least.
We liberals, we children of the Enlightenment, know that truth doesn’t descend from the sky in neon lighting. Conversely, we know that what comes down from the sky in neon lighting isn’t the truth. There’s no foolproof identification of truth: every claim to truth must be tested, by the standards of plausibility and, in the broadest sense, rationality. It’s not true just because it’s in the Bible, or the Koran. It’s not true just because the preacher, or the teacher, or the president says it. Or because Glen Beck or Keith Olberman said it. Or because the New York Stock Exchange says it, or because some marketplace, rigged by players “too big to fail,” appears to confirm it.
It’s not true just because you hear it all the time. It’s not true that a house will rise in value every year. It’s not true that the less taxes we pay the more money the government will have. It’s not true that Muslims are building a mosque on Ground Zero. It’s not true just because you saw it on TV, or because some jerk posted it on the internet. It’s not true just because Fox News or even the New York Times says its true. There are no labels that guarantee the truth. Every claim to truth has to be tested, by the standards of sustainability, and reason. And when we take a label as a guarantee, then we commit idolatry.
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” said the apostle Paul. But where is truth to be found, since no label can be trusted without being tested? The true search for truth is a via negativa, a way of negation. Our Jewish friends teach us that no one can claim to know what God is, but we can come ever closer to the truth by learning all the things that God is not. God is not an old white man with a white beard. God is not an Anglo-Saxon. God is not a paterfamilias. God is not a millionaire banker. God is not the president of the United States. God is not a hater of other races, or of Jews, or of Muslims, or of gay people. God is not an American. And as the idols, one by one, are toppled, we must not give in to that last temptation of despair, for the moment when the idols fall is the moment when we can come closer to the pure apprehension of the transcendent Spirit of Love, Spirit of Life and Sustainability and Universal Compassion that our congregations sing and pray to every Sunday.
To affirm the truth is to deny, one by one, all the lies. Being who you are, as the Reverend Church says, is to reject all the false selves that, one by one, seduce you. Wanting what you have is to reject all the desires that bosses and parents and peers impose on you, to expose all those needs internalized from institutions and forces that have no interest in your spirit. Doing what you can is to reject the tasks that are not yours but that others want to impose on us. To want your life is to reject all the false lives that have been suggested to you. We must think negatively in order to think positively. We must be tactical pessimists before we can be optimists. We must say no many times before we can in true faith say yes.
The door will be opened to us, as Yeshua said, when we knock. But which door? You have to find the right door. The street presents many doors to us – on the right, on the left, straight ahead and behind. Some of them are gaudily decorated. Some have flashing lights on them. Some of them have pictures posted on them, promising great joys and pleasures inside. Some of them have windows that draw us to look into unknown depths. At some of these doors we may knock long and hard, and we will never be admitted. At some of these doors they will come to meet us, grasp us by the hand, give us a big hug and draw us inside, where we will find after celebrating far too long into the night and consuming too many toxic substances, that this is not where we were meant to be. There’s no shortcut. We learn the truth but learning over and over what is falsehood.
Winston Churchill is supposed to have described his faith in America this way: “You can always trust Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” I’d like to say, I have faith in you. I count on you to find the truth – after you’ve tried everything else.
But the door of truth is humble, and simple and quiet. You probably won’t notice it until you’ve tried many of the wrong doors. The door of truth won’t have flashing lights. It takes both faith and experience to knock on the door of truth. But when you knock on it, in resignation and faith, that door will open to you, and you can enter your true life, the life that’s worth living, the life for which you were intended. You can count on that, you can be positive in your thinking about it. That’s what we call wisdom. And it takes your whole life to find it. May you keep finding your whole life, and live ever closer to the truth.
And now I shall bless you. May each of you come to know what you are not. May you realize the limits of what you can do. May you learn the futility of your false desires. And when all the masks and costumes have dropped to the floor, May you be revealed in your glory As what you are, a child of God.