The title of this post is a little misleading, because negative spirituality isn’t really spirituality at all. Rather, it’s a huge and chosen distraction that masquerades as spirituality but is actually a hugely self-destructive exercise in denial. What is negative spirituality? It’s just what it sounds like – a “spirituality” that has as its major emphasis the criticism of something. Anything will do, but we most often see people involved in negative spirituality involved with fighting the so-called culture war, appointing themselves the morality police, attempting to interfere in the personal lives of others, and concerned with just about anything other than their own lives, spiritual or otherwise. You almost never hear these people supporting anything positive.
This external focus is why I don’t believe negative spirituality to be an authentic spirituality. Authentic spirituality is first and foremost about self-transformation. It’s only after we manage to achieve a certain amount of self-transformation that we can even begin to look outside ourselves to start to transform the world. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that there is much more to transformation than criticism. In fact, true transformation can only occur in a loving, safe, supportive environment – a fact that seems lost on the practitioners of negative spirituality – and at the hands of people who have looked at themselves honestly.
For the last several years, I have lost track of exactly how many, I have been involved with Milwaukee’s Pridefest. This will be our fourth year with a booth in the Health & Wellness area at Pridefest. Every year, without fail, there are “protesters,” who behave much more like hate-mongers than the religious people they claim to be. They show up carrying picket signs with hate-filled slogans like “God hates fags” while truly believing they are doing the will of God. I used to wonder why these kinds of things happen, how we explain the Fred Phelps’ of the world or the ranting of fundamentalist lunatics like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who seem to spend most of their time looking for feet at which to lay the blame for the many things they cannot understand or explain – needless to say, there is quite a lot they can’t understand or explain! I don’t wonder why they do the things they do anymore, I believe I understand.
You see, spirituality is hard work. It’s not a case of receiving pat answers and regurgitating them on command, but rather a case of a life-long journey of self-transformation and enlightenment. There are no short cuts, though I confess that when I was younger I believed there were. What’s more, the spiritual journey requires that I am willing to take an honest look at myself. That can be pretty threatening stuff, especially when the look goes way beyond admiring oneself in the mirror. My wife will tell you that I spend a fair amount of time admiring myself in the mirror, but it isn’t spiritual practice (though it is extremely gratifying).
To really engage in spiritual practice I have to look at my emotions, my fears, my inadequacies, my successes and my failures, my joys and my pain – in short, I have to look at every corner of my life and be willing to admit that some of what I see isn’t everything I hoped it would be. It’s much easier to decide to focus outside of ourselves and scream judgmental vindictive than to look at our own stuff, but it isn’t spirituality – it’s a shallow journey in self-deception that’s bound to leave us feeling empty.
Anyone who has been around a negative person knows that they aren’t much fun to spend time with, even if their negativity doesn’t cause them to become hate filled. My mother is one of those negative people. A friend of mine once described her negativity as having the ability to suck the energy right out of any room she entered. I hadn’t looked at it that way until he said something, but he was absolutely right. At my wife’s wedding shower my mother sat in the corner being minimally interactive and looking angry – she wasn’t angry, she just looks that way because she is so negative. It was so bad that someone asked my wife who that woman was and what she was mad about. I think we all know somebody like that, and we all recognize that spending time with them is no fun. When the practitioners of negative spirituality reach the point where they are unable to head to the streets to spew vitriol, most of them will find themselves very lonely, indeed. That’s very tragic, very sad, because no matter how unpleasant they may be they are still human beings and therefore of value – even Simon Cowell has some redemptive value, though I can’t imagine what.
Negative spirituality is but a symptom of a larger problem. We have become impatient. Remember how long it used to take to load a five and one-quarter inch floppy disc or boot an Apple 2E computer? Today we feel we are waiting forever for a page to load if it takes five seconds, when not so long ago we could make a pot of coffee while waiting for our computer to boot – and not so long before there were no personal computers to boot! As a culture we operate at a break-neck pace, but spirituality isn’t break-neck. As mentioned above, there are no short cuts, no CDs that we can listen to in order to cut years off of our journey (no matter what Sounds True says), no way to rush what is a very organic – and, let’s be honest, at times very boring – process. Spirituality isn’t for the faint of heart. If you want to find the faint of heart, look outside any Pridefest this Summer. They’ll be the people carrying picket signs outside the gates.