It’s good to ask, too: What exactly is this “negativity” that we want to get rid of? Sometimes “negative” is just right.
A friend is writing a book about peace, health and serenity. The mind, the body, the spirit–they can all work together in harmony, she says, to bring you to the place you want to be.
My first reaction was repulsion and suspicion.
What’s wrong with me? What the heck do I have against serenity?
Well, when I actually read the manuscript, I was reassured. But let me explain.
It’s true, of course, that if you attain real peace of soul, it can redound to the good of your mental and physical health. You might sleep better, eat better, indulge in fewer unhealthy forms of escapism—what Jacques Philippe calls “the narrow circle of inadequate coping strategies by which people too often attempt to handle fear.” (Called to Life). And if you’re mentally and physically healthy, that will remove certain obstacles to peace of soul, no question.
Still, there are pitfalls.
The first one is counterfeit peace. As Philippe points out in the best little book ever written on the subject—Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A small treatise on peace of heart—the devil also wants you to feel a certain kind of peace, or ease, or what Pope Francis once called ”the thousand and one varieties of anesthesia that this decadent civilization offers.” (Encountering Christ) The devil is fine with your feeling serene when things are wrongly ordered—for instance, when you’re about to commit a sin that you ought to be agonizing about, but aren’t.
It’s like my Ann Arbor pastor, Fr. Ed Fride, used to say: while you’re in the throes of temptation, there’s the Snake, right by your side, reassuring you: Relax. This is no big deal. Only a puritan would get worked up about this. Everybody does it. Then, after you succumb, it’s more like: I can’t believe you did that! What kind of a monster would do such a thing? There’s no hope for you now.
So sometimes a lack of serenity is a good and wholesome thing. It protects us from incurring guilt. That doesn’t mean we ought to be preoccupied with our own rottenness –- that, after all, is just as self-centered as the more obvious kinds of pride. True peace is for those who walk in the truth -– and also, luckily, for those who keep on messing up and keep on trustfully starting over.
The second pitfall is using God as a means to peace. Certain authors of a therapeutic bent fall for this one. God, or “faith,” or “spirituality” becomes one more tool or technique to have on hand so as to achieve a feeling of well-being, or clothes that hang nicely, or freedom from the disquieting drama of facing unpleasant truths.
The third pitfall is the new-age-y, faux-Eastern approach that treats all religions as morally neutral paths to more or less the same destination, to be mixed and matched to taste. This approach brushes off the real incompatibilities between, say, a religion that says suffering is an illusion and one that sees it as something real that can be united to Christ’s pain to save us from eternal misery. But there’s a difference between obliviousness and detachment. There’s a difference between opening up your mind and heart to God and emptying them so they can be filled with -– or used by -– whatever benevolent or malicious powers might be out there.
It’s good to ask, too: What exactly is this “negativity” that we want to get rid of? Sometimes “negative” is just right. Sadness in response to my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, or horror at the latest mass shooting –- these fit the reality. The aim in that case is not just to dull or ignore such feelings, but to address them.
And not just to address the feelings! We might well have a duty to do something about the thing that’s causing the distress. For example, if the homeless guy at the subway entrance is making you uncomfortable, you can get your serenity back by forgetting about him, or convincing yourself that his problems are no concern of yours, and anyway, they’re probably his own fault, and furthermore …. But that’s just another pitfall.
Anyway, I wish my author friend well as she navigates the “serenity lit” landscape.
We could use some wisdom on the subject.