I live in a big Indian city, surrounded by pollution-saturated air. We breathe it in as a matter of course, and consider it normal life to regularly get sick, to have skin break outs and grimy hair after being out in the traffic for a while, to have breathing problems, especially in the winter. But a couple times a year, my family heads to the hills, and suddenly everything feels different. Our bodies start feeling healthy and energetic again, we breathe deeply of the fresh, clean, pure, cool air, and our sleep is sounder, deeper and more refreshing.
This is not an air pollution blog post. I want to talk about another kind of poison, one that has insidiously affected everything in my world. Most people I know in India have been affected by it, but most seem unaware that it is not normal, or healthy, or even that it exists.
I’m talking about the poison of negativity, the darkness that has influenced most thoughts, ideas, conversations, interactions, relationships and even decisions for the future. You may say, “Who, me? I’m not a negative person! I do know some people like that. But I’m not one of them!”
Well here’s a checklist to find out if you are one of ‘those people’:
1. Which of these topics are you more likely to talk about when you meet up with friends, family, or random acquaintances?
a. How corrupt the government is/ how bad the traffic and pollution are/ how the world is going to hell/ how hard your college course is/ how tired you are/ how busy your life is/ how mean and unfair your boss is/ how stupid/judgmental/annoying people in your life are/ dramatic retelling of the latest annoying/frustrating thing that happened to you
b. The latest cool thing that happened/ a blessing you experienced/ an unexpected thing that worked out/ an achievement you’re proud of/ an answered prayer
2. When someone talks about a plan or dream or new idea, are you more likely to say:
a. Oh, but have you thought about (all possible obstacles to their plan)/ But have you finished working on your last project yet?/ You’re a bit of a dreamer, aren’t you?/ I don’t think it will work, because…
b. Wow! What a great idea! You can do this!/ How can I help?/ That’s exciting! I’ll pray that it all works out!/ That’s really interesting! How do you envision moving forward?
3. When someone makes a mistake, how are you most likely to respond?
a. I TOLD you not to do it that way!/ Next time be more careful./ You’re always like this- too hasty, too distracted, you don’t think things through./ You asked for it! You should have thought about it before getting into it. Now don’t expect me to save you.
b. It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes./ I’m sorry that happened. How can I help?/ Are you okay?/ It’s not that bad. We could fix it by…
4. When YOU make a mistake, how are you most likely to talk to yourself?
a. Idiot! I can’t believe you did that again!/ Ugh, I’m such an idiot. I’m never trying that again/ Aargh, if only (so and so) had helped me when I had asked none of this would have happened/ I suck at life.
b. (Calming voice) It’s okay, calm down, everyone makes mistakes./ It’s not the end of the world. We can figure this out./ Jesus, please help me fix this.
5. When you are talking about other people, are you more likely to be talking about:
a. People who annoy you- Their annoying habits and their weaknesses/ the unsatisfactory interaction you had with them/ the way they behaved that didn’t meet your standards/ why they are the way they are
b. People who inspire you- Their gifts/ the kind or creative or thoughtful acts they did that you noticed/ why you like them and are glad they are in your life/ the way they inspire you
6. When you hear about someone doing something new, something that hasn't been tried before, how are you likely to react?
a. Talk about how they are probably going to fail/ feel vaguely resentful or irritated/ talk about how their efforts are most likely going to backfire and negatively impact existing structures and efforts/ watch and wait skeptically
b. Feel inspired and excited by what they are doing/ hope for the best and pray that their efforts are fruitful/ offer to collaborate or help/ encourage them
7. When thinking about your upcoming day/week/month/year/life, what do you usually think of and feel?
a. All the possible things that could go wrong and the reasons why they probably will/ A vague sense of doom and disaster/ What people are probably thinking and saying about you, and why you don’t measure up to where they think you should be/ A sense of failure because you’re pretty sure you’re not going to be where you thought you would be
b. All the potential that the future holds/ a sense of anticipation and excitement for the surprises around the corner/ a sense of purpose and determination as you think of goals you plan to work towards/ “I don’t know, but it’s going to be AWESOME!”/ A sense of peace- “I don’t know what my future holds, but I know Who holds my future.
8. How do you talk to or relate to children?
a. Constantly tell them to be careful or they will fall or get hurt/ watch them and critique every action and word/ constantly remind them to say thank you, say sorry, be polite, be respectful, study hard, study harder, do well in their exams/ only talk to them when you are correcting them or giving advice
b. Ask them about their interests and listen to their answer/ tell them things that you noticed about them that you really liked (I love how you are playing with your little sister, and watching out for her!)/ make funny faces at them and play with them
9. What kind of expression does your face usually hold?
a. Gloomy/ serious/ little frown between your eyes/ preoccupied/ RBF
b. Quick to smile/ pleasant upturn of your lips in moments of repose/ interested and alert
I could go on forever. So… mostly As or mostly Bs? Be honest! With a lot of us, it’s an overwhelming chorus of As. So do you believe me when I say we have a problem? The easiest way to bond with people is to share a common grievance. It’s almost like we don’t know anything else that we could talk about. We see the world and its events through a lens of sadness or hopelessness, as if everything and everyone was doomed to failure. That is all we have heard from most people in our life.
Why does it matter? Can't we just enjoy our shared negativity as this quirk of our society and world?
The truth is negativity is silently destructive. It brings us down, and brings everyone else down with us. It makes us less likely to try new things, to take a risk, to do good. Every act is seen as a possible disaster. And if everything is doomed to failure, why try anyway? Negativity is a prison that prevents us from becoming the people we are capable of being. It prevents us from changing the world because negativity whispers that it is incapable of change, and what do we have to offer anyway?
Negativity is catching. I’ve been both a recipient of other people’s negativity and a sharer of my own. Is that all there is? Are we doomed to standing around until we die huddled in little circles repeating all the reasons for despair?
No! We need something new, and it is within our reach! Especially for those of us who are Christian, we have a reason to hope. We need to live as people of hope. How many Christians do you know who you could describe as people of hope and joy? Not as many as you should, right? So how do we detox? How do we move out of this poisonous atmosphere, and start breathing the pure, sweet air of hope?
1. Choose hope: It is a choice! It’s not just that some people were born sunny-tempered and optimistic and the rest of us are genetically predisposed to be grumpy grinches. The action often comes before the feeling. You can FEEL bad-tempered and still choose not to ACT bad-tempered. You can train yourself to hold your tongue when all you can think of is negative or uncharitable words to say. You can train yourself to speak words of hope and encouragement (take another look at all the ‘b’s above.) Speak the truth aloud and eventually you will internalize it. Make a list of things that you are grateful for every day, the positives in a difficult situation.
2. Surround yourself with people who are choosing hope too. If there are negative people who often bring you down, speak to them and tell them you need something different in your life. Speak words of hope to them, and be persistent even when they are resistant to change. I went through a period of life when I struggled with anxiety and negative thoughts, but I had people around me who told me again and again, “You’ve got this! Everything is going to be okay!” I was like, “No! It’s not! I can prove to you why everything is NOT going to be okay!” But they didn’t give up on me. And eventually I began to hope again too. Hope and joy are catching too!
3. Go for regular Confession: This seems unrelated, but every time I have been struggling in a bog of negativity, and then gone for Confession, the darkness lifted. It was like drowning and then reaching the surface and taking a big breath of air. It is probably because negativity is related to the spiritual realm; despair, accusation and hopelessness the favourite language of the Prince of Liars. It takes weapons of light to fight weapons of darkness.
4. Face your fears: Spend time in prayer, and be very honest about the things that you are afraid of, the people who are negatively influencing your life. Journal about it. And then read the bible. There are some powerful hope-filled words in there! ‘ALL things work for good, for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.’ ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’ The truth is that God has won the victory already, so no suffering in our life in permanent; no person has the power to steal my peace and joy. My future IS full of hope, because I am headed for heaven. Life on earth is short, and that is not something to be afraid of!
5. Do things that make you happy: Sometimes our lives ARE hard, and we carry heavy burdens. We may live with people who are difficult, or maybe we are stuck in a job that does not satisfy. Maybe we are at a time of transition, where a lot of things are uncertain. Maybe we have big battles we are fighting at this stage in our lives. This is ALL THE MORE reason to make place in your life for joy. Sing songs aloud, do some zumba with a friend, paint a picture, go for a walk, watch a (non-depressing) movie, do some praise and worship. Don't wallow in idle pits of despair. Remember why life ISN’T sad and bad and scary.
6. Make a change: Some things about our life we can’t change. But some we can! If you’re stuck in a depressing job with negative co-workers, look for a new job! If you live in a negative environment, look for a new home, with new roommates. Make new friends. Read new books. Listen to new music. Spend your leisure time in new ways- serving others. If the negativity is more deeply rooted, go for counselling. Pray, ask God for guidance, and act! Don’t be afraid to try something new.
In the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, 'I plead with you--never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.'