I repent for the sin of misguided positive thinking. While I’ve experienced the personal consequences of this misstep for decades, it wasn’t until the past few weeks that I began to recognize the larger implications of a country full of well-intentioned positive thinkers like me.
I thought I was doing the right thing — the faithful thing. Making lemonade out of life’s lemons. Finding the silver lining. Basking in the glow of the bright side.
As soon as I could smile, I started smiling. Perpetually. I believed that it was my responsibility. Agree. Nod. Chin up. Do not slander. Do not complain. Maybe you have developed similar inclinations.
But what if much of our positive thinking is more of a deception than a valuable personality trait? What if our brains have been so intent on finding what’s good that it has become nearly impossible to articulate what’s hard, bad, and unjust? What if our commitment to positivity has paved the way for people and systems to manipulate and abuse?
For anyone who still has a pair: Please join me in removing your rose-colored glasses. In all sincerity, I know it’s scary. I am finding comfort in the wonder that without those glasses, I now have access to a whole new palette of colors with which to experience life.
We’re living in a time in which it can feel hard to know what’s true. Up or down? Left or right? Fake or real?
Part of what is making it hard to navigate life right now is our cognitive conditioning to zero in exclusively on the “bright side.” Many of us have accepted the myth that if we can just avoid acknowledging difficult realities, we’ll be immune to their consequences. This magical thinking is not only a falsehood; it’s also dangerous.
Can you imagine an airplane technician whose reports only noted the functional parts of the structure but refused to look at what was broken? Or picture a dentist who only celebrated your cavity-free teeth but declined to look at decay? We depend on people to be able to identify what’s broken because the broken parts are also real. A healthy society depends on human beings who are well acquainted with reality. All of it. Filter-free.
Releasing misguided positive thinking isn’t about giving up joy. Instead, being able to be present with what’s real makes more space for authentic joy, hope, care of neighbor, and creativity. So many possibilities open the moment we release the need to be upbeat at all costs.
Letting go of perpetual positivity isn’t about becoming mean or hard. Your ability to recognize injustice is not rude; it’s brave. It's necessary. Your deep wonderings about the systems you’re participating in every day aren’t bad. They're imperative. Make space for it all; let it simmer in a big pot of reality stew.
Positive thinking is, indeed, powerful. But just because something is powerful, that doesn’t make it true or good. Lies can be powerful, too, and misguided positive thinking is a lie. It’s a dangerous delusion, and we're seeing the tragic implications of many such delusions played out in front of our eyes every day.
We can find other uses for lemons. This lemonade is too sweet.
"Holy Everything" is a weekly column by Emily Carson. She is a Lutheran pastor. Visit her website emilyannecarson.com.