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  • Godwin Cotter

The Joy of Negativity

My favorite musical is The Little Shop of Horrors. It's about this evil house plant from outer space that eats people. I can’t say I remember any of the songs. It’s just that its gloomy outlook on humanity and life in general gives me that warm and fuzzy sense of inner peace and contentment.

I don't have much of a green thumb. In the musical, a deranged Venus flytrap kills humans the way I kill house plants. The evil house plant bellows incessantly, “Feed me Seymour”. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Seymour becomes plant food.

The evil house plant from outer space seems to be a metaphor for depression. Depression always wants to be fed. Like Seymour, we often irrationally embark on the path of least resistance and feed the monster. Exhibit A: alcohol. Oscar Wilde noted wisely, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Alcohol is technically a depressant. It does give a short-term high and temporary relief from depression but saddles a person with long term negative effects. (Incidentally, someone told me once how he went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. These things happen when alcohol flows freely.)

For me alcohol is too pricey. Americans might wonder how Canada can afford so many of its social programs. Point number one, look at the tax on beer—it’s easily quadruple the alcohol content. For point number two we lower our voices and speak in hushed tones: we really can’t afford our social programs, even with the tax on beer. We’re just kicking the can down the road. Even more alarming, the day will come when we won’t be able to afford the alcohol. They (I always wonder who they are), they won’t let us pass on our drinking tab to our kids. And I thought kids were our future. We've been had!

When I am abstaining from alcohol and feeling a little down I often will get soul comfort with some apocalyptic thoughts. It is comforting to look around and realize that Canada and the world at large is in free fall on so many levels: moral, financial, spiritual, etc. Civilization as we know it will crash land before I do. Their own train wreck will stop them from observing mine. While I get a quick and easy dopamine hit from the sparkling, cold, and refreshing shot of negativity, there is a danger of developing a drug dependency.

For us pessimists, Christianity has an easy sell job when it is pointing out the hopeless mess we’re in. We’re not like the optimists who believe in progress: the idea that we are all getting more insightful and virtuous than our predecessors. If optimists were to steal a Homer Simpson line, it would be this one:

In contrast, alarmism is something we pessimists get. We are attracted to negativity like a moth to a lightbulb.

The challenge we face is continuing to hope for a blessed outcome, in our lives in particular and the lives of others in general. That doesn’t come easily, perhaps only though conversations with the Lord through prayer and reading scripture.

But that is so hard to do when there are so many religiously packaged dopamine-laced pills of infotainment available. We are lured away from the Lord's voice by an inviting shot of negativity, promising a short-term rush of adrenalin. We don't stop to think that the negativity dose will need to be calibrated higher to give us the same rush in the future.

The character in this comic page is a religious person, perhaps a little depressed and socially isolated; a loner living in an echo chamber of his own ideas buttressed by confirmation bias. Negative conjectures can be neatly fitted together like LEGO bricks to build something that looks impressive. The fragility of the contraption may become apparent in the rough and tumble of daily life, but isolation can prevent that from happening. The character’s zealotry for a cause has outstripped his joy in the Lord.

St. Peter warned, “Be watchful and of sober mind. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” The call to be "of sober mind" brings me back to my earlier ponderings on alcohol. Peter himself was no poster boy for being of sober mind: lopping off the high priest’s servant’s ear, condescendingly remonstrating with the Lord of Hosts, not to mention his blustering proclamation, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” But whether you are seeking sobriety of the mind or sobriety of the body (recall the classic Irish lament, “they speak of my drinking but never my thirst”) the battle is often bigger than us. Time to call on the Almighty, not our favorite coping mechanisms.

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