Toxic Positivity

Or “Why are you so negative?
God wants you to be happy, so be happy!”

There was a term that I haven’t heard in a long time. Pollyanna. “[That person] is a Pollyanna.” It was used a lot in churches to describe someone who was disgustingly fake happy all the time. No matter what. Even at a funeral they’d have a stupid smile on their face and say things like “Praise the Lord, they’re in Heaven now! Let’s celebrate!”

You probably know someone like that, or worse, you know someone who insists that YOU should be like that.

Modern psychology has a term for that: Toxic Positivity. It means to be positive, only ever be positive, and flat out reject anything that might cause negative emotions.

But in churches, it’s worse, even dangerous. Some, maybe even the leadership positions, insist that unless we are constantly, always, blindingly happy and positive, then we truly aren’t followers of God. We aren’t ‘saved’ unless we are always happy. Even when something happens that gives us no reason to be happy.

I have an example from my past, and it’s a little hard to share, but bear with me.

In 2000, my wife had a miscarriage. We weren’t even sure she was pregnant, but we thought she might me, so it was very early on. Miscarriages happen, it’s always a risk when you’re pregnant, but this particular miscarriage was brutal. She somehow drove to where I was working but as we switched seats so I could drive her to the ER, I knew I’d have to hurry.

There was… so much blood. I won’t describe how I had to cover the seat with a picnic blanket we had in the van and how it still felt like I was sitting in a puddle. She passed out as soon as she got into the passenger side and I floored it to the nearest hospital.

She was unresponsive when we got there. They took her in on a gurney and forced me to wait outside while the worked. But it was a small place and I could hear everything going on.

No pulse, no heartbeat, push fluids, give her blood. Do CPR. After that, they rushed her somewhere else and I wouldn’t know for more than 2 hours that she was OK and it was, indeed, a bad miscarriage. To stop the hemorrhaging they had to do a D and C. In essence, an abortion (literally the same procedure, but in this case the fetus was already gone or dislodged from the uterus.

The following days were a blur. I don’t honestly remember much. I had to take time off from my new-ish job to care for her and the children we already had. We homeschooled at the time and were extremely active in our local Christian church.

Which brings me to the point of telling you that story. We loved kids. we wanted a lot of kids. We already had 5, two that were toddlers. We weren’t actively trying to get pregnant at the time, though. (We were using a couple of different types of birth control, which may have led to the miscarriage, but that’s another story.) That, however, didn’t make the loss and the life-threatening miscarriage any easier. We were crushed with emotions and exhaustion questions from the kids and missed work when I had just started a job and caring for my wife when she was on complete bed rest until she healed up… it was a lot and a dark time.

And in comes our church.

For the most part, the church we had found when we moved there was amazing. Caring generous people who took us in when we were new to town, gave us volunteer jobs to serve the church, and gave us a community to belong to in our new town.

But then there was “Bob” and “Jane”.

Bob was the big brother of the church who loved to do things for others. He ran some kind of landscaping/pool care service so he had trucks and ladders and such that he loved to use to clean out people’s gutters or fix their chimneys… things like that. A generous soul, but he was always… and I mean always… disgustingly happy. Aggressively positive.

Jane was the leader of the praise team, also married to the associate pastor. She, too, was overly positive all the time.

Almost everyone we knew was sad with us. They sat with us, listened to us, cried with us.

But Bob and Jane…

This is where positivity turns toxic.

Humans aren’t ‘wired’ to be positive about everything in every situation. Our emotions tell us things about our situations. Think of them as computer programs that serve a limited function. Or apps on your phone, each has a job that the others can’t do. Emotions put our brains in the right ‘mode’ to process what is going on around us. Fear, for example, tells you ‘be aware of your surroundings’ while giving you more focus on sight and sound to determine what near you is dangerous. Pushing fear and other ‘negative’ emotions to the side keeps our brains out of the modes we need to be in to process our situation.

The same is true for grief and sadness. We need to allow ourselves to feel and function in those modes. Through the process of grieving our brains do the work of getting us back to a normal state of being, allowing us to put pain and loss behind us.

But here’s Bob and Jane. Nice people who really want to help us, but they want us to get over our fear and pain and loss by just turning those feeling off and be happy. And they threw bible verses at us. Things taken out of context with no real relevance to what we were feeling, like “The Joy of the Lord is my strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)” and “Consider it all joy when you face trials. (James 1:2)” and many short platitudes from the Psalms that make it clear that all we should feel is happy. Happy happy happy.

And not only that, but also if you aren’t happy while you’re still grieving and resting and not even done bleeding, then you aren’t saved. “Are you sure your faith is in God? Because if it were, you wouldn’t be sad now.” “We might need to talk to Pastor John because I’m not so sure you’re baptism worked. If it did you’d be singing praise instead of crying. I am just looking out for your soul.”

Yes, they wanted us to doubt whether we were, in fact, ‘saved’ because we were sad about having a miscarriage.

Fortunately, my story works out. We ignored Bob and Jane, allowed ourselves time to be sad and grieve and put the episode behind us.

But many others are put in worse situations. People with chronic depression are told to ‘fake it until you make it’ because God doesn’t want you to act sad. If you pretend to be happy, eventually you will be.

Teens dealing with issues around their sexuality or body image are given plaques with ¬†Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) and are told that God just wants you to be happy. Push all that aside and trust these out-of-context verses to teach you why it’s important to act happy. Just pretend to be like all the other happy kids here in youth group and put all that sexuality and gender-identity and depression aside. The most important thing is to be joyful in the Lord.

So they do. The kids trust the youth leaders and others to do right by them so they try to fake it. Unfortunately, for many, because they don’t process their feelings and issues, their brains don’t go through the things they need to keep them well. Mental illness, depression, and suicide are often the result.

It needs to stop.

God does want us to be happy. But not fake happy. Not Pollyanna happy. Not at the expense of feeling our other emotions. We were designed to FEEL. Our brains were made to work through things.

The same Psalms that give us selected verses about joy and happiness also describe fear, depression, anger. The same prophets that said the joy of the Lord is their strength and that God had plans for wrote about mourning and loss. An entire book of ‘Lamentations’.

don’t let your church or anyone tell you that unless you’re happy you’re doing “Christianity” wrong.

What are your thoughts?

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