“Think, and think, and think,” Art advised. Art Brayfield, former head of the American Psychological Association, learned but reclusive, liked my thoughtful sermons and occasional…
“The secret of fortune is joy in our hands.” Emerson
They’re out to get you. Who or what? Circumstances. Whether they are malevolent or benevolent depends on what you look for. Just as a paranoid person sees and hears mean forces conspiring to trip him or her up by saying cruel things, so does a pronoic person tend to see friendly, celebratory forces out to make life a bounteous pleasure. Go through life with cracked eyeglass lens and you’ll see a fragmented, cutting world. Go through life with rose colored glasses and things look in the pink. If you believe we’re all fallen, that life is suffering, that God might send you to hell, you’re liable to cringe, put up with lousy lives and worse governments, and obey mean, bossy moralists. If you believe we’re all in this life together, that God loves you, and that gradually it is getting better for everyone you’re likely to live fully and well, acting decently and generously with others as we improve. What you see is what you get.
I enjoyed Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia – How the Whole world is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings despite a certain irritation with his relentless positivity. It is a fun read, full of philosophy, psychology, facts, and anecdotes.
He does admit reasons for negativity, but he wants us to process them rather than dwell in them. “Our age,” he says, “suffered from a collective obsessive-compulsive disorder: the pathological need to repetitively seek out reasons for how bad life is.” We tend to mistake gloom for deep thinking, then turn to shallow TV for relief from our own negative obsessions. We look for sentimental fantasies with happy endings, just before the commercial. Or we turn to New Age gurus high on narcissistic comfort, pious one-dimensional appeals to sweetness and light. Whether we wallow in them or transmute them into joy in our hands is ours. Meanwhile, we fret about our Gross Domestic Product numbers, utterly unaware of other metrics, like Bhutan’s seeking of Gross Domestic Happiness. There are negative aspects in life. Paranoia feels familiar, but is it wise to fear the worst, expect it, and create it?
Brezsny says pronoia is the antidote for paranoia. “Cynicism is idiotic. Fear is a bad habit. Despair is lazy.” Instead, our objective is “to explore the secrets of becoming a wildly disciplined, fiercely tender, ironically sincere, scrupulously curious, aggressively sensitive, blasphemously reverent, lyrically logical, lustfully compassionate Master of Rowdy Bliss.” He says to ask yourself, “Am I ready to stop equating cynicism with insight?” Do we grow proud of our struggle and pain? Do we wallow in affliction, mayhem, trouble, and tragedy in our stories? It’s a bad habit, a pity, an attention-getting device, a weak way to get love.
Nietzsche loathes that way too. Don’t pity others or yourself, but rather, dare to live up to your most audacious authenticity. How did Nietzsche get in here? Perhaps as some sort of unconscious balancing, I found myself reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra while reading Brezsny. The notorious German philosopher (1844 – 1900) is as difficult and stern as Brezsny is happy-go-lucky. Neither seemed whole to me, for both seemed too taken with their own dramatic position.
To make matters more rounded, I also read many essays in the new field of Positive Psychology. Martin Seligman and other psychologists noticed how psychology had come to be centered on pathology. Fixing sick minds was all they were to do. In the early 1950’s the first edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) had about a hundred pages and disorders. By the fourth edition in 1994 it had grown to almost 900 pages and 300 disorders. However, such words as “affiliation,” “altruism,” and “humor” were used only as examples of defense mechanisms. There were no ways to categorize integrity, well-being, satisfaction, and so-forth. Beyond getting mentally ill people to function “normally,” such understandings on how to live really well, better than ever, up to our highest potentials – was simply not addressed.
Part of this dwelling on pathology was due to it being the only thing that paid. Insurance companies needed a disease number to pay out on, not a person’s frivolous, endless desire for self-fulfillment. Research dollars mostly go towards studying mental illness, not optimal wellness. This also led to an elaboration of ordinary life difficulties into full-fledged psychological diseases. Too shy? Talk too much? Think about sex a lot? There is an industry of counselors, advocacy groups, pharmaceutical companies, and licensed psychologists to help fix you, if you have the insurance coverage and/or the money to pay them.
The Positive Psychology people began the arduous work of defining, researching, refining, and delivering the good news of our optimal human potentials. How healthy, happy, and whole can humans be? How to approach the elusive topic scientifically? While promising, this approach also seems academic, with carefully defined, amply researched papers tentatively offering cautious statements recommending further research. Laudable, but it leaves us languishing for laughter and love while we live.
So there I sat between a happy-go-lucky flower child, a grumpy, persnickety German atheist, and a pile of academic papers on how to study and foster optimal human functioning. Each seemed to veer off into its own imbalance, leaving me in the middle trying to translate it all into something useful for you and me. While grateful for all three legs of this positive stool, I realized a fourth leg really helps stabilize our stance.
Universalism is the old liberal Christian position that there is no divine hell and that God wants us all to be happily whole. Hell is really born of the imaginations of mean zealots eager to inflict hideous tortures on those who won’t live up to their stern interpretations of godly living. Taking scattered words in the Bible that really apply to the grave or a burning garbage dump, these bossy theologians magnified their judgmentalness into a fantasy religious horror show. The Universalists also differ by taking the example of Jesus seriously. If this is God incarnate, or at least a man divinely guided by God, his message is mostly kind, forgiving, and healing, not mean, judgmental, and painful. God is moving us towards universal salvation, not an ongoing division between the chosen few and the damned many.
Despite ample scriptural proofs, orthodox Christians declared Universalism a heresy (just as it did for the Unitarians). But heresy means “to choose.” Universalists chose to believe and live differently than the prevailing Calvinist Christian assumptions of their time. Those views are still active in the underpinning of our psyches and society. We inherit the guilt of Adam in our fallen condition. Fallen and flawed, our lives are full of toil and trouble because they’re supposed to be. Instead of fixing our woes directly, we’re to instead have faith, enduring our troubles here in order to inherit a divine reward in the afterlife. There’s the chosen and the damned, the winners and losers, and the winners show financial evidence of being chosen. Poor people get what they deserve now and will go to hell if they don’t believe in this preposterous but popular scheme. The Universalists popped this pious pretense and reminded our culture that we’re here for the goodness of life, all of us.
The Unitarians had a parallel heresy. Instead of the convoluted view of the Trinity that isn’t in the scriptures, they saw God as one, not three-as-one. But more than their view of the Trinity and the nature of the Christ, it was the ability to think for themselves when reading scripture or hearing an authority that grew to the pro-intelligent, anti-dogmatic stance that it holds today. Nietzsche would be less bothered by Unitarian ministers than by Christian priests.
But Nietzsche makes a crucial observation about fixing religious thinking: “What the mob once learned to believe without reasons – who could overthrow that with reasons?” Scriptures, studies, and rationality don’t easily change notions and emotions entrenched via scattered scriptures, irrationality, and centuries of dogmatic authoritarianism. Sartre can say we can choose to create ourselves, and Tillich can echo we have the “courage to be,” but the momentum in our culture, conditioning, and conditions tends to keep us fallen even if we have it in us to rise to our innate glory. Nietzsche says we have felt “too little joy: that alone, my brothers [and sisters], is our original sin.” Positive psychologist Seligman also rejects the “fallen” premise: “This “rotten-to-the-core” view pervades Western thought, and if there is any doctrine positive psychology seeks to overthrow it is this one.” Brezsny agrees, saying of Original Sin: “I spit on it.” He admits our flaws, but points us beyond them:
All of us are eminently fallible nobodies. We’re crammed with delusions and base emotions. We give ourselves more slack than we give anyone else, and we’re brilliant at justifying our irrational biases with seemingly logical explanations. Yet it’s equally true that every one of us is a magnificently enigmatic creation unlike any other in the history of the world. We’re stars with vast potential, gods and goddesses in the making.
We yearn for heaven forgetting we’re made of the heavens. Long after the Big Bang, a dwarf sun went supernova, spewing out all the larger atoms that make up our planet and our bodies. The simple became elaborate and the elaborate became us. Who knows what positive potential there is in us? Would happiness and a good life for all be a miracle, or is it part of our inherent teleology?
In 1,000,000 B.C. it was a miracle to kindle fire… In 5,000 B.C. a wheel was a miracle… In 1700 an engine was a miracle… In 1950 space travel was a miracle. (Byod in Brezsny, 262)
Brezsny, Nietzsche, and Positive Psychology all would agree with old Abe Lincoln, “Most people are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.” Rob Brezsny claims bliss is a habit we can cultivate. Nietzsche reminds us it takes interior daring and willfulness; you rise above conditions and conditioning to be the real you. This is in keeping with what Jesus is said to have said by Thomas, “If you bring forth the genius within you it will free you. If you do not bring forth the genius in you, it will destroy you.” Live up to yourself. Brezsny seems flowery, but he speaks to something beautiful in us that wants to bloom:
Let me remind you who you really are: You’re an immortal freedom fighter in service to divine love. You have temporarily taken on the form of a human being, suffering amnesia about you true origins, in order to liberate all sentient creatures from suffering and help them claim the ecstatic awareness that is their birthright. You will accept nothing less than the miracle of bringing heaven all the way down to earth. (185)
Nietzsche is similar.
This I teach: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth… affirm it, and no longer to sneak away… It was the sick and decaying who despised body and earth and invented the heavenly realm…So they sighed: “Would that there were heavenly ways to sneak into another state of the being and happiness!” … Remain faithful to the earth… with the power of your virtue. Let your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth… Lead back to the earth the virtue that flew away… back to the body, back to life, that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning.
You incarnate in our shared earthly realm the attributes formerly projected on to the heavenly. Such wholeness and holiness isn’t just imagined, it is manifested in our being and actions. Pining for a heavenly afterlife while ignoring and destroying our earthly life seems a double sin. Coming fully alive while we live, caring for ourselves and each other and our planet – these are our birthright and duty. This is not a wisdom owned by any one tradition, for it appears in many. Lin-Chi, a Taoist, reminded us, “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”
What we believe and practice creates our personal and social reality. Trust, generosity, and joy are as accessible as suspicion, stinginess, and troubles. Though we’re immersed in the pop nihilism of anxious news and angry dramas, we don’t have to succumb to these “fallen” scenarios. Brezsny says:
We will succeed. We will overthrow the doom and gloom fixation and make the cause of zoom and boom irresistible. Our parties will be better than theirs…. We’ll dream up tricks to create an environment in which it’s more fun and interesting to talk about wise bliss than clever cynicism. (162)
Steps towards this come from our religious traditions. For instance, the Tibetan Buddhists’ Four Dignities of the Warrior’s Path include the relaxed confidence of being comfortable in one’s own body, perkiness and joy instead of cynicism, outrageous objectivity while living free of feeble hopes and paranoid fears, and the inscrutability of evading the pigeonholes of simplistic definitions that impede our inventiveness. It also comes from the Positive Psychology movement. We are not just arenas for illness, we’re a crown of creation, capable of ingenuity, open-mindedness, love, bravery, integrity, zest, compassion, justice, art, music, humor and joy. Even the old German atheist helps round out our mission, “Do love your neighbor as yourself, but first be such that love themselves.”
Living from a deep and honest sense of self, choosing the endorphin-producing happiness of hedonic living, being glad, grateful, and giving – these are the new tools of persons and society moving towards an elegant ease, an enjoyment of life shared by all, universally getting better.
I close with Emerson. He has more gravitas than Brezsny, less sternness than Nietzsche, and more apt advice than Positive Psychology. Emerson is right: “The secret of fortune is joy in our hands.” This joy has to be sought, praised, practiced, and placed at the core of our beings and doings. We manifest happiness by wanting it, praising it, practicing it, and promoting it. Far beyond thinking about it, when joy is incarnated in our experience, our fortune is finally as wonderful as it was always inherently capable of being. We are starstuff, gladly glowing with love, joy, and happiness. As Emerson said, “a true [one] belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things,” for “life alone avails, not the having lived.”
Reverend Brad Carrier
for the UU’s of Grants Pass (Oregon)
© March 13, 2011