When God Resisted Toxic Positivity


The Blog That Speaks: When God Resisted Toxic Positivity

My phone recently rang.

The out-of-state number was unfamiliar.

The caller identified himself as a pheasant hunter who had known my dad.

This was not the first such call I had received since my dad’s death in 2017. After my father retired, he asked me to help him advertise about the opportunity to hunt pheasants on his land for $X per day per gun. Thus, not surprisingly, my current caller informed me about the hunter-landowner relationship he had with my father for approximately twenty years, and the caller was wondering if he would be able to continue said arrangement now that Dad was gone. During the course of the conversation, the caller spoke of meeting my mother, to which I replied, “My dad was never the same after she died,” and he agreed. He, then, recounted a story of my father accompanying him to hunt pheasants in a harvested soybean field. White-tail deer hunting season had corresponded with my caller’s trip to South Dakota that year, and since my father had a license, he decided to take advantage of this hunter’s walk through the field. My dad parked his pick-up at the end of the field so that if the hunter scared up any deer, my father had a much-cherished opportunity to fulfill his tag. A doe did jump up, but it was a long shot; nevertheless, my father fired his rifle, using the pickup to steady his hand. When he missed, the hunter heard my father say matter-of-factly, “I guess that one got away.” My caller, then, chuckled at the thought of it.

While this story may be classified as humdrum to many, those who grasp the innerworkings of grief and mourning will understand when I say, “I reveled in hearing this story as it drew me close to my mom, my dad, and the farm. It fostered within me the longing to turn the clock back to a time when I could go home once again.”

The third weekend of October is an unmemorable weekend for many. But for me, it provides a cornucopia of memories as it is the opening weekend of pheasant hunting season in South Dakota. The cool, crisp, clear autumn air reinvigorates your being as you step into the outdoors, and you are greeted by sounds off in the distance . . . the flapping of pigeons’ wings after they are disturbed from their perch . . . a cow gently beckoning to her soon-to-be weaned calf . . . and the distinct calls of Ring-necked pheasants, summoning to one another.

And I remember the farm . . . my dad . . . and his love for hunting.

In recent months . . . during the pandemic . . . my mind has frequently returned to the farm and my parents. Such is not only the case during my waking hours. Scenarios that involve the farm, my dad, and/or mom are composed even while I am off in the land of Nod. It seems both my conscious and subconscious seek to make present that which is absent.

The reasons for such strong yearnings could vary. Maybe it is a part of my ongoing grief journey, grieving the losses of my parents and the homestead. The losses remain, which means grief also endures . . . for the rest of my life (see The Vulnerability of the Journey).

It also could be the desire for safety and security during this time of uncertainty, instability, and unpredictability that the pandemic brings. The farm and my parents represent that for me; thus, the current chaos stirs up a deep longing for protection that my brain associates with one particular time and place—home.

Perhaps my current fixation with the homestead and my parents is because current losses bring to the fore other losses. That is, grief triggers other experiences of grief, even from years gone by. Like a domino effect, one loss precipitates the memories of other losses. Since a pandemic has generated an abundance of losses (see Drowning in a Sea of Grief), both tangible and intangible, previous experiences of loss may also surface.

But whatever the reason, my sharing of the aforementioned story is an expression of my grief, and you, as readers, are joining me on this journey. By reading this blog, you have created space to listen. As such, this space has become sacred as you have taken into yourself a part of me. In some small way, you, as readers, are participants in my journey towards wholeness.

Such an exercise of telling and listening to stories about loss/grief provides an opportunity for healing. I am of the school of thought that distinguishes grief from mourning. Grief is an inward experience of loss. Mourning is taking our grief and making it public, which is how wholeness and healing transpire. Therefore, if we are to heal from our loss/grief, it is necessary that we convey our stories and that others listen to them without judgment, blame, or advice. This is how our grief moves to mourning and then healing.

Currently, we live in a period of history that has generated copious losses accompanied by extensive grief. Many are overwhelmed by grief as is evidenced by notable increases in mental health issues, alcohol and marijuana consumption, and drug overdoses. Thus, the question for us is not whether or not we experience loss and grief since none of us are immune. Instead, it is a question of: How are we creating space to acknowledge and hear stories of loss and grief? Unfortunately, we are erecting barriers that prohibit us from these healing acts. In this blog I have chosen to briefly highlight two such barriers.

The first barrier that keeps people from listening to or telling stories of loss is the negative connotation surrounding such stories.

This particularly appears in the phrase Debbie Downer. Originally a character in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Alive, it is now a common phrase that identifies someone who relates negative feelings and stories. Unfortunately, some have become so anxious about being labeled a Debbie Downer that they resist telling their story or they preface their story with “I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but . . .” For me, the use of such a phrase signifies self-judgment. When I blame, label, or judge someone else or myself, it is an indication of a need that is being unmet (see When Jesus Was Needy), and in this case it is the need to mourn. In other words, our need to mourn is a longing for someone to enter into a sacred space in which we express our loss/grief, and thereby connect with the other.

Seeking to avoid being a Debbie Downer, some turn towards positivity.

Unfortunately, not all positivity is helpful but rather toxic, which is the second barrier to telling or listening to stories of loss/grief. Toxic positivity is defined by psychologist Konstantin Lukin as believing that

“keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.”[1]

Toxic positivity is most commonly seen in the use of such platitudes as:

  • Look on the bright side.
  • Don’t worry. Be happy.
  • God is in control.
  • It’s fine. It will all work out.
  • Just keep positive.

The result of toxic positivity? Clinical psychologist Natalie Dattilo comments,

“We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which then produces feelings of things like shame and guilt . . . We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It actually stalls out any healing or progress or problem solving.”[2]

In short, toxic positivity does not provide space to mourn for our losses.

But, if we are to heal and if there is to be movement in our grief journey, it is essential to provide such a space where our stories may be told and where we are present to the other’s story.

I long to be a person that provides such a healing space. For this reason, each morning I remind myself: Each encounter I have today is sacred. It is my hope that my brain neurons will become wired together so that I will genuinely see every encounter (whether the communication is via text, email, social media, or speech) as an occasion for healing—both for the other and for me.

Perhaps . . . we are only a story away from healing.

As a person of faith who is a pentecostal, sacredness of an encounter with another carries an added dimension. It is sacred because it is an opportunity to participate with God in God’s healing of the world. We have the possibility to tell God’s story of joining us in our losses to heal humanity when we join others in their stories of losses via listening.  

As believers, we frequently have been informed that telling God’s story involves verbalizing the four spiritual laws with those who are not Christ-followers. However, if we are to have “a spirituality that tells a story,” writes Michael Gorman, it means that we have “a dynamic life with God that corresponds in some way to the divine ‘story.’”[3] God’s story is that God, through Jesus Christ, brings healing to all dimensions of life by entering into humanity’s story of suffering as a human. Thus, by becoming human, God’s healing is not only spiritual, but it is all inclusive, embracing physical, relational, mental, and emotional aspects, too. Jesus does not heal others by staying outside of humanity and speaking into our lives. Jesus does not stand outside of us, saying, “Don’t be a Debbie Downer but be positive.” Instead, Jesus is human and divine so that healing flows from inside of him. By identifying with humanity, uniting with us, God heals us. Therefore, if our lives are to correspond to the aforementioned divine story, we will enter into others’ stories of loss/grief via listening.

The Apostle Paul captures this divine story and our participation in it in Philippians 2:4-8:

Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,

who though he existed in the form of God

did not regard equality with God

as something to be grasped,

but emptied himself

by taking on the form of a slave,

by looking like other men,

and by sharing in human nature.

He humbled himself,

by becoming obedient to the point of death

—even death on a cross!

This is the overarching divine story, and as Paul instructs the believers of Philippi, we are to tell a similar story through our very being.

Holy Spirit, we acknowledge that we tell a story with our lives, our very being. Grant us courage and strength today to tell your story by entering into another’s loss and grief, thereby generating healing. Amen.


[1] Konstantin Lukin, “Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side,” Psychology Today, August 1, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-man-cave/201908/toxic-positivity-dont-always-look-the-bright-side, (accessed October 17, 2020).

[2] Allyson Chiu, “Time to Ditch ‘Toxic Positivity,’ experts say: “It’s Okay not to be Okay,’” The Washington Post, August 19, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-man-cave/201908/toxic-positivity-dont-always-look-the-bright-side, (accessed October 16, 2020).

[3] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), Kindle Edition, loc. 73.

Currently, we live in a period of history that has generated copious losses accompanied by extensive grief. Many are overwhelmed by grief as is evidenced by notable increases in mental health issues, alcohol and marijuana consumption, and drug overdoses. Thus, the question for us is not whether or not we experience loss and grief since none of us are immune. Instead, it is a question of: How are we creating space to acknowledge and hear stories of loss and grief? Unfortunately, we are erecting barriers that prohibit us from these healing acts. In this blog I have chosen to briefly highlight two such barrier

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