there is a state-wide meeting at our denominational headquarters this week. i haven’t been able to make it to one of the meetings and, frankly, i’m not heart-broken over it. i love my colleagues and relish the opportunity to see them, but these meetings have become just too awkward for me.
the biggest reason is that i have adopted a liberating ritual that seems to be off-putting to my peers. when someone asks the question, “how’s your church doing?” (an exceedingly common occurrence at these confabulations), the customary response is to stand up straight, puff out ones chest, paste on a smile, and say “great!” like tony the tiger. i, however, have spoiled the party. I have transgressed convention. i have resolved to tell the truth.
it feels great to me. everyone else seems to have a problem with it.
when one of the brethren asks, “how’s your church doin’, randy?” i usually say, “not very well.” or if i know the person well (or am feeling especially naughty). i’ll say, “it sucks.” i might be overstating slightly, but the reactions i get are priceless and vary wildly. after a pregnant pause (which is typical…i’ve found that candor catches preachers off guard), some grin, slap me on the back, and say, “no, really” or “you’re such a kidder.” others are quite taken aback. i get the sense that their first impulse is to clasp my head in their hands and begin casting out devils. i’ve had a few look at the floor and say, “yeah, man, i know what you mean.”
imagine my relief when i saw the article in a recent issue of time magazine entitled, “Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking.” this article, written by john cloud, suggests that norman vincent peale was all wet.
A study just published in the journal Psychological Science says trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are.
The study’s authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position. A great deal of psychological research has shown this, but you need look no further than any late-night bar debate you’ve had with friends: when someone asserts that Sarah Palin is brilliant, or that the Yankees are the best team in baseball, or that Michael Jackson was not a freak, others not only argue the opposing position, but do so with more conviction than they actually hold. We are an argumentative species.
And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect — called cognitive dissonance in official terms — a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.
aha! now i know why my pastor buddies panic when they get anything other than a glowing report: they need people to help them prop up their optimistic delusion. that, and they’re afraid i might be telling the truth.
let me say that i am not unhappy. i am doing god’s will and i am quite content. but i think it’s hilarious that people are actually offended when i suggest i am something less than overwhelmingly successful. rather than admit that my church is not growing and that, in fact, we are smaller than we were last year, it’s better for everyone concerned if i lie. and when i cheerfully own my situation, people get offended. the state of denial is a warm, comfortable place in which to live.
by the way, how’s your church doing?