Horizons: On faith and learned optimism
(POSTED: 8/6/12) Several months ago, I was told that my position as director of pastoral care at The Clare, a continuing care retirement community, probably would not continue as new ownership took over operations. That began a long journey of networking and connecting in the hope of finding new ministerial roles. During the last few months, several interesting opportunities arose. I became very hopeful that even if I were to be let go at The Clare, there would be possibilities in other places. Curiously, every one of those possibilities did not come through. I found myself going through long days and weeks fearing that no one wanted me, and that possibly I would not be able to financially support myself. In denial, I hoped that the new owners of The Clare might keep me on. That hope was dashed a few weeks ago, when I was called in by my current employers and told that the new owners would not continue my position, and that I would be terminated this summer.
So these last months have been filled with stress, worry, apprehension, and low-grade depression (dysthymia). Psychological research indicates that more and more of us are living with anticipatory grief: we are anticipating losses, and grieving them long before they happen. I personally believe many people are living with dysthymia, and they do not know it, or have not named it. I have mentioned before my growing interest in Positive Psychology. This recent development in the field of psychology emphasizes emotional and relational health, rather than disease. A focus area in Positive Psychology is what is called Learned Optimism. Optimism refers to having a positive attitude and approach to life’s challenges. Some people are naturally optimistic. So much of our emotional makeup comes from biological components in our lives, learned components, and cognitive (how we think) components. For optimistic people, these three sources have converged to make them positive people. But research shows us that even if we are not naturally optimistic, even if we tend toward pessimism, optimism can be learned. As we learn how to be optimistic there can be positive results for us in work, achievement, relationships, health, and other aspects of life.
There are some disciplines that we can practice to learn optimism. Among them are: avoid negative environments; nurture a culture of optimism; celebrate our strengths; manage or ignore what we cannot change; learn to reframe negative thoughts, or to find the gift in adversity; change our language and outlook to be more positive; focus outside of ourselves, onto the needs of others; cultivate spontaneity; take better care of our health; and take care of our spiritual and emotional well-being. Learned optimism leads us to consider this weekend’s readings.
Faith in Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit leads to lives of learned optimism. We see this exemplified in the stories of the synagogue official, Jairus, and the woman afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years. Jairus came to Jesus because his daughter was close to death. He believed that Jesus had the power to do something to heal his daughter. Jairus teaches us about a spirituality of learned optimism. When we are facing adversity, problems, challenges, we are not alone: God is with us; God is working in us, in and through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
As the Book of Wisdom teaches us, our God is a God of life. In fact, we all must experience suffering, sickness, and death because of our mortal natures. But the God of the Book of Wisdom wants to transform our limitations, even ultimate death, into life.
In a similar way, the woman with the hemorrhage had spiritual, learned optimism. She said: “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” We are told by Mark that after touching Jesus, she was immediately healed. Jesus said to those around him that he felt power going out from him to heal someone. When he discovered that the woman with the hemorrhage touched him, Jesus told her: “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” Both Jairus and the woman displayed spiritual, learned optimism.
Jesus powerfully displayed spiritual, learned optimism when he ignored the message that Jairus’s associates delivered, that the child was dead. He said to the synagogue official: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” Jesus took Peter, James and John into the home with him. He questioned the people about why they were so consumed with negative energy. He stated that the girl was not dead; rather, she was asleep. He took the girl’s father and mother with him toward her body. He took the child by the hand and said: “Talitha koum.” These Aramaic words are translated: Little Girl, or Little Lamb, arise. Mark tells us that the girl arose immediately and walked around. Jesus told the people gathered for this event to give the girl something to eat.
We see in these two miracles, what lies at the core of the miraculous. First, people have to have a natural or learned optimism regarding the power of God. I believe Jesus took Peter, James, and John into the house with him to flood the situation with faith. These miracles reveal that when the power of faith connects with, intersects with divine power, the more than human happens; the miraculous happens. Miracles happen in our lives many times when faith and spiritual optimism connect with divine power.
I mentioned earlier that one characteristic of learned optimism is growing in the ability to be spontaneous. We certainly see spontaneity in the ministry of Jesus. In the culture of the time, to associate with the woman with a hemorrhage was equivalent to making oneself unclean. Similarly, touching the dead rendered someone unclean. Jesus was not stopped by such pessimistic, empty religious laws and convictions. He saw needs. He knew divine power could help with those needs, and with spiritual optimism he acted. His actions led to miraculous healing.
We grow when we catch ourselves in a mode or style of being or living that is not healthy, or not life giving. Catching ourselves, we have the ability to make life-giving decisions, and to engage in new styles of behavior. Let us pay attention to any tendency that we might have toward pessimism. Let us use the power of faith and prayer to transform pessimism into spiritual learned optimism. When we do this, when we practice this, we connect with divine power; and all sorts of new possibilities emerge.
In the course of this long goodbye at The Clare, in which possibilities that I was trying to make happen fell apart, new opportunities came my way. I was invited to help on the weekends at St. Julie’s Parish in Tinley Park. I was asked to be part of a creative, Vatican II movement called Mayslake Ministries. I was invited to help develop an Academy for Leadership at the College of DuPage. I was not actively seeking these specific new directions, but as I tried to live learned optimism, joined to faith, these new opportunities came my way. Faith, spiritual learned optimism, connecting with divine power always results in new life.
So let all of us move positively into the future, not knowing a lot about the future, but always trusting in the power and love of God – always believing in the possibility of miracles.
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a longtime priest, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.