When we speak of religion and spirituality often people associate such ideas with an “other world” perspective. Yet, for a spiritual path to work we should find it rooted in the reality of our experiences, not in some idealized but unreal notions.
Hence a quick look at what I call the spirituality of pessimism.
Barbara Ehrenreich speaks of this in her new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which sounds fascinating. One can also understand relentless optimism as undermining spirituality.
When we face difficulties, someone telling us that they must spring from something we did wrong – we didn’t eat right and thus we got cancer, God forbid; or some corners of the fundamentalist Jewish world, a tragedy happened because we had incorrect scrolls in our mezuzot (see explanation below) – neither helps us, nor offers a helpful spiritual understanding of the universe.
If our actions truly could avert every difficulty, then we would possess supernatural powers. Furthermore, this supports a theology of the rich, who must be wealthy because they deserve it, and those who suffer must have done something to deserve that as well. Both of these perspectives – a sense that we can change everything, and a sense that thus everyone is getting what they deserve – deny the universe any real power beyond humans on the one hand, and pervert a fatalist idea that our fate is determined by our position of birth.
A spiritual path should work to connect us with that which dwarfs us in the universe, with those powers beyond our understanding and control, from which we may gain solace and strength in troubled times, and celebration in better times. When we place ourselves at the center of the universe, with no power above us we act out of great hubris, or what one scholar called, functional atheism (continuing to live in the Mississippi flood plain expecting there to never be another flood could be an example of this denial of a power greater than ourselves).
Grappling with what we really find in the universe, even when it may not be “all good” causes us to reflect deeply on how we deal with the good and the bad. This promotes growth, thought, and innovation on personal and communal levels, which a notion that “all will be well should we only think good thoughts” tends to avoid.
Healthy pessimism helps us grow as people, and as communities, just as healthy optimism does – let’s aim to keep them both in perspective.
Note on mezuzot – a mezuzah, the Hebrew plural is –ot, is a small container affixed to the doorway of many Jewish homes which contains, in very tiny calligraphy or print, the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that say, “and you should inscribe these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Some Jewish sects claim that difficulties and tragedies may stem from flaws in the text on the scroll in the box of a family’s mezuzah.