Negative Thoughts

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I’ve long disliked “positive thinking” advice. I’m not talking about cultivating an optimistic attitude or imagining a good outcome when you go for a job interview. I mean positive thinking of the Oprah variety–the notion that we create our own reality by “envisioning” success, as taught in Rhonda Byrnes’ book The Secret. I never read The Little Engine That Could to my kids when they were little.

Anna Nussbaum Keating says it better than I can in a recent piece in America. Her reflections are triggered by experiences teaching in a homeless shelter. She thinks that Julian of Norwich knows more about suffering than Rhonda Byrnes.

In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian offers no causal explanation for suffering. While she acknowledges human sinfulness, she also recognizes an unjust and fallen world in which all people suffer. In Julian’s vision of the parable of the lord and the servant, a lord sends his servant on a journey. While traveling, the servant stumbles and falls in a dell. Trapped in the dell, injured and alone, the servant suffers greatly. Instead of being angry at the servant’s clumsiness or sin, the lord mysteriously loves the servant more than ever. In this radical accounting, suffering is not simply negative, at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is sometimes the means through which humanity is drawn impossibly closer to God’s self.

Jim Manney
Jim Manney
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is What Matters Most and Why. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


  1. I’ve always preferred this bit from Julian than the more frequently quoted “all shall be well”:
    He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’


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