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.