Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Jeremiah 29:1,4-7, Luke: 17:11-19 ~
How many of you consider yourself an optimist? A pessimist? Abstentions? Well, you may be surprised to hear this, but we’re all pessimists! It’s how the human brain is wired. Let me explain.
When you think about the evolution of our species (or, any species) it makes sense. If you don’t want to be eaten by something larger or more powerful, it’s important to remain alert, constantly alert, to external threats. We must stay safe to stay alive. We also have to eat to stay alive, but, as Clinical Psychologist Rick Hanson explains:
If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.
To our brains, they certainly do. In fact, in Hanson’s words, “our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Meaning, bad news sticks; good news slides off. And, while this may be a good way to stay alive, it’s not such a wonderful way to live. Or, as Hanson writes, it’s “a great way to pass along gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”
So, what are we pre-programmed pessimists to do?
Well, psychologists who study this phenomenon, call it the “negativity bias.” On the one hand, it’s a relief to know we all share it. It’s just the way our brains are wired. We don’t need to feel bad that “the news” stresses us out, or that small irritations in our personal relationships seem like such a big deal, or that we have a hard time receiving compliments. It’s just the way we’re wired.
The problem is… it doesn’t make us happy. Or, to rephrase, it makes us feel pretty crappy. So, while it may be a relief to know it’s not our fault, it’s still not okay. Now that we don’t have to worry about being dinner for Saber Tooth Tigers these habits of mind are frequently more harmful than lifesaving.
Think about it. When you leave the house in the morning after a squabble with a family member or housemate, does it impact the rest of your morning? Or, when you read a Facebook post about the most recent Presidential Tweet, do you spend awhile consternating about the dystopia lying in store? Or, perhaps you have a snag in your nylons or tie as you enter a job interview or Match.com encounter. How hard is it to get off your mind even though you’d rather focus on making a good impression to the recruiter or first date?
I’m not saying we all share the same degree of negative bias. I am saying it’s hardwired in our brains. And in this modern world without Saber Tooth Tigers, it does more harm than good. We get stressed, we react irritably to people who have nothing to do with what’s bothering us, our blood pressure rises, our digestion suffers. Again, it’s not our fault our brains do this, but it can be helpful to recognize, because it turns out we are capable of making different and more positive neural connections.
Which is actually what this morning’s scripture readings are about. Oh, I know, Jeremiah in the first millennium BCE and Luke in the first century CE had no idea what a negativity bias was, much less a neural pathway. But they did understand human behavior. They were able to see what worked and what didn’t. And it was quite clear to them that people who went about their lives in the usual way had a difficult time loving both their neighbors and their selves (commandments found in both the Old and New Testaments). So, Jeremiah and Luke wrote about following a different way, creating a new Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, governed by a different set of rules; in fact, quite different from those of whichever Empire happened to be in power.
Jeremiah wrote during the Jewish people’s exile from Judah to Babylon. It was an awful time: the Jews were banished from their homes and businesses and farms and schools and sent to live as refugees in a strange land. Remember the Bob Marley song? “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yay-ay, we wept, when we remembered Zion?” Well, there they were, weeping and wailing and feeling, understandably, quite negative, when Jeremiah proclaims:
5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Note that his message was not one of failure or browbeating or self-flagellation. It was carpe diem! You’re in Babylon, so be in Babylon. Don’t put your lives on hold until you can return to Judah. Build yourself a house, plant a garden, get married, have children. Believe in the future. Do good in and for the world. And more: seek the welfare of those who have done this to you. Stop hating and blaming them. For it is in seeking their welfare that you’ll find your own.
What a challenge! And to think we thought Jesus was the one who came up with the idea of loving one’s enemies… No. He came by it honestly, though, from his own Jewish tradition.
And then there’s the passage from Luke, in which ten lepers (the social pariahs of their day) come near Jesus and ask for healing. He heals all ten, then sends them on their way so the temple priests can declare them “clean” and they can, presumably, return to their lives.
Which I’m guessing nine did. But there was one leper who had a double mark on his head. Because, not only did he have a socially unacceptable disease, he was also (gasp!) a Samaritan; you know, that group of people enough like the Jews to be hated by them. So, this guy knew he wasn’t going to get a blessing by the temple priests. He wasn’t going to return to life as usual. Thus, he took a pause. And had the time and space actually to see what a miracle had been wrought. And was so overcome by the beauty and generosity of this gift he couldn’t help but run back to Jesus and thank him. “Dude, you healed me. This is awesome. Thank you, a thousand times!”
Or, something like that. The point is, when we take a few steps back from our circumstances, when we come out of our Saber Tooth defense posture, we have the opportunity to see how utterly amazing and miraculous this “life thing” really is. What a gift, a generosity of abundance.
But it can be so hard to see! Because there really is a lot of awful stuff going on. I know. And I have no doubt I’m taking it seriously enough, because I have a brain designed by evolution to see the negative in neon colors, a brain with a negativity bias.
Yet, somehow, this frees me up. Since I know I won’t miss the negative, I can focus on perceiving the positive, sensing the truly amazing world all around me. I can feel the warmth of my dog’s fur, hear the wind in the trees, smell the soup in the pot, see the brilliant yellow white of the full moon, and taste my steaming mug of coffee with cream. And then, I can allow it to energize me so I’m far better able to face, even positively affect, any nastiness in our world.
Psychologists claim the way to counter our negativity bias is to “practice” focusing on the positive, thus helping our brains balance out the information they receive, store, and release. I mean, isn’t this what the tenth leper did? He noticed he was healed and took the time to feel delighted, to express gratitude! He actually focused on and appreciate the amazing gift of restored health before rushing on to his next task and getting sucked into the never-ending cycle of must do, didn’t do, and should have done.
But it can be hard to remember to look for, highlight, and appreciate the positive. Thus, I suggest we begin by doing so just once a day, committing to a daily gratitude practice. I’ve preached about this before, and some of you have tried it and told me how effective it’s been. But this time I want to insist, because evidence-based research shows it really can change your brain!
How? Well, once a day (choose a time and stick to it), create a list of ten good things that happened. At the beginning, it may be hard to personalize, so you could say, “the sun rose,” or “the garbage was collected.” Two pretty important items! As you continue, you may want to get more personal, such as, “the barista at Starbucks made my drink exactly the way I asked,” or “someone at the most crowded intersection on my commute paused to let me in.” Two wonderful moments we might typically take no time to highlight amidst the negative experiences our brains are more prone to emphasize.
The point is to train our brains to focus on and remember the positive. As we do, we begin noticing more and more examples in our lives.
Friends, I know, it’s been a tough week. And I was sorely tempted to preach about Syria, or oligarchy, or hate speech. But the tough times and tragedies will always be here. And trust me, we’ll have no problem seeing them. But the wonderful, the beautiful, the good are always with us as well. And I strongly believe if we practice seeing and begin trusting them, we’ll be that much more able to contribute positively to a world that surely needs us. In the words of the great Vaclav Havel:
I am not an optimist, because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is the feeling that life and work have a meaning… regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you… I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me. I am thankful to God for this gift. It is as big as life itself.