It started off as ‘positive thinking’ and more recently it has become ‘appreciative inquiry’ and is a major component of positive psychology and asset based community development. Although I am supportive of these approaches because I believe that an optimistic bias in life is much more conducive to individual and community health than is pessimism, I have found in both my psychology and community development work that such a positive bent can be an exercise in denial rather than facing up to the complexities of reality.
To address this problem, over the years, I have developed an approach to thinking about life that is based on looking for the positives but that takes the fullness of reality into consideration. I have called it Reality Based, Hope Centered, Positive thinking.
Any and every situation has both negative and positive elements to it. Pessimism focuses on the negative and optimism on the positive, often to the detriment of the other. Reality based thinking takes the whole picture into account, no matter how hard it is to see the other side. We often need help from other people with differing perspectives to guide us in our search for a broader understanding.
The story is told of two shoe companies who sent salesmen to a remote island. Upon arriving one of the salesmen got in touch with his boss and requested a plane ticket home as soon as possible. He was wasting his time there as no one wore shoes! The other salesman excitedly contacted his boss and requested as many boxes of shoes as he could send. This is a fantastic situation… no one has any shoes!
Reality can be viewed from very different perspectives and we need to try and get the whole picture.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Philippi he was in prison and facing martyrdom. He mentions that his life is on the line and that he was very thankful for the support he was receiving from the Philippian Church. He had some other nasty stuff going on around him as well. There were people copying his mission but with self-centered motives and a man called Epaphrus had been sent from the Church to assist Paul in Prison. He had become so ill that he nearly died. Paul doesn’t deny the reality of these things, in fact he faces them honestly and with due concern.
However, he also sees the positive in the midst of these nasties. He is thankful that his imprisonment is giving him the opportunity to preach to a captive audience, especially the guards who are with him 24/7. He is thankful that the message is getting out, even if it is motivated by jealousy and ego enhancement, and he is grateful that Epaphrus didn’t die and that he can go home to Philippi with some good stories. The letter is known as a letter of joy because Paul repeatedly talks of rejoicing and being filled with joy. He’s not a masochist sitting in the corner of his jail cell playing happy clappies with his guards, but he is able to face the negative realities from the perspective of the positives. This is reality based thinking, with all of reality being taken into account.
The contemporary expression of positive thinking known as ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ is well motivated as it encourages the community to speak of the assets of a neighbourhood and use these strengths as the base for development of the community. It is a strength based approach and mostly a healthy approach to communal (and personal) wellbeing. However, a well-rounded Appreciative Inquiry has got to be open to the weaknesses and problems of a community as well. When it does that, it enters into the world of Reality-based thinking.
This can be applied to the Church as well. As an organisation we are facing many challenges that are serious and life threatening. We are perceived as freeloaders, untrustworthy, and irrelevant to most Aussies. One form of denial of these realities is to blame everyone else and refuse to look inwardly at ourselves to see where we have gone wrong and to be committed to make adjustments, radical adjustments that are more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic which gives us a better view as we go down.
Then there are the positives that are also a part of the reality of being Church today. We have people and place resources in every neighbourhood across Australia, people and places that can be used for the benefit of our neighbourhoods, to the glory of God. We have a message of relevancy when understood properly, a message of hope and meaning, of belonging and forgiveness. We need to learn the right ‘language’ to communicate this but it sure is relevant.
Then there’s the neighbourhood. We too often seize on all the negatives (from our perspective) and play down the positives. When we are open to finding good in the world around us its surprising how much actually exists! Just wander the neighbourhood with eyes wide open and revel in all the good stuff.
In the midst of reality, in all its complexity, hope will be found. Sometimes that’s because the addition of a particular perspective, like Paul’s seeking out the positives in his situation, makes all the difference. Sometimes it will be because the added positive will provide a light at the end of the tunnel that gives hope for getting through the darkness. At other times it will be something that provides meaning and purpose, which can bring hope in the darkness.
Whatever the case, the hope arises based not on a denial or even a downgrading of the negative but on the basis of the fullness of reality. It is the opposite to the depressive triad, which claims “this situation stinks, I can’t handle it, and it’s never going to get any better’.
Out of this fullness of reality and a growing sense of hope we choose to dwell upon that which is positive. Paul addresses this type of thinking in Phil. 4:8 where he says we should be thinking about the true, the noble, the lovely, the admirable, the excellent and the praiseworthy. Most translations finish that verse with ‘think upon such things’ but a better translation of the Greek is ‘cause your mind to dwell upon these things’. It’s not a denial of reality but a choice to dwell on the excellent and the praiseworthy in any and every situation, just as Paul was doing at the time of writing the letter to the church in Philippi.
A Neighbourhood Case Study
This particular neighbourhood is riddled with crime, especially street and domestic violence, arson, and illicit drugs. It is repeatedly in the news as a neighbourhood you want to avoid. The Herald Sun loves it. Neighbourhoods surrounding it warn their kids to stay away. This is a true story about an Australian neighbourhood but we’ll make up a name for it. We’ll call it Smithville.
I met with a group of residents from Smithville and asked them to describe their neighbourhood. What are the realities they are facing? It didn’t take long to get a board full of negatives along the line of that described above. It took some digging but they did start to share about some positives as well, and the realities of their neighbourhood became a bit more hope full. The positives were usually about a local church based neighbourhood centre that really made a difference and people felt safe there and that they belonged.
I then got them to dream, to talk about hope for the future, about what their neighbourhood could become and what it would take to get there. A lot of discussion flowed and people started to take up projects that would use some of the assets they were discovering. They made an agreement to keep on meeting and to talk up the positives so they wouldn’t get so depressed about living in Smithville.
There’s a lot of appreciative enquiry in that, a lot of positive thinking, but it’s based on the fullness of reality, the complexity of living in a world that is filled with both good and evil. As they chose to dwell on the positives and allowed hope to grow, good things started to happen. That’s what I call Reality based thinking.
- What are your reflections on the concept of reality being complex and the need to acknowledge all of the realities in any situation, person and/or place, including the ‘bad stuff’?
- Think about your neighbourhood and discuss the realities, the hopes, and the positive themes to dwell upon. Where does your faith community fit in all of this?