Hats off march’ to promote literacy
March 23, 2023
Poem: Because I Am
March 23, 2023

Stay connected to the positive

Q: Archbishop J, what have you learnt from your fast from negativity 

I have been happily surprised to learn that so many are fasting from negativity for Lent this year. People of different walks of life and different outlooks have spoken to me about the challenge, and about the grace that has come in seeking to “look on the bright side”.

For many the challenge has been real; it has helped them see the addiction to negativity that has been part and parcel of their lives.

On St Joseph’s Day, someone said to me: “Thank God, I can speak negatively today.” So, I asked why. “Well, you do not fast on St Joseph’s Day,” said the individual, with a hearty laugh.

I was also surprised by the visceral reaction against the call to fast from negativity. It was not a disagreement with the idea, but a full-blown gut reaction to it, with all the emotion that come with it.

Why the visceral reaction? In some ways it was like taking candy from a child, or coke from an addict. It was instantaneous, visceral, and angry.

This reaction led me to reflect on our sweet T&T, more deeply than I had in a long while. It was this that led me to look at the possibility of trauma, as one paradigm that sheds light on our national discourse. This paradigm has opened new questions for me, about a true analysis of our nation and, more importantly, a way forward.

Negativity a temptation?

Among those who had that instinctive reaction to the idea of a fast from negativity, many surprisingly saw negativity as a necessary requirement to be a good citizen of Trinidad and Tobago.

The argument goes, if you give up negativity then you will be complicit with all that is wrong, and the nation will get worse. This was stunning. I didn’t see this coming. So much so, I went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of negativity. Britannica defines it as, “an attitude in which someone considers only the bad qualities of someone or something.” While the Cambridge describes it as, “an attitude that is not hopeful or enthusiastic.”

If we look at both definitions, then negativity is about looking only at the bad, undesirable qualities—as such it is a paradigm, a way of looking at the world—and also an attitude.

Vocabulary.com amplifies the attitude: “Negativity is a tendency to be downbeat, disagreeable, and sceptical. It’s a pessimistic attitude that always expects the worst.”

Emotions in themselves are neither negative nor positive. They are! When we do not deal with difficult emotions they grow in their impact on us, and we turn them negative. Negativity comes when we make a habit of avoiding, dealing with, and managing our emotions.

There are two hormones that are directly connected to daily life and our mood. Dopamine which makes us feel good and when secreted at reasonable levels leads us to a warm and fuzzy feeling. The other is cortisol, secreted in stressful situations to aid our response to the threat.

When the cortisol secreted is high, the brain tends towards more stressful emotions. Our inability to express, manage, and learn from our emotional responses moves us to sheer negativity on steroids.

In a 2017 study by CC Brown, et al., ‘Cortisol Responses Enhance Negative Valence Perception for Ambiguous Facial Expression’, the authors write: “Elevations in cortisol were associated with more negative ratings of surprised faces, and with more direct response trajectories toward negative ratings. These effects were selectively driven by the stress group, evidencing that increased stress reactivity is associated with a stronger negativity bias during ambiguous affective decision-making.”

In short, high stress situations lead to higher cortisol, which lead to stronger negative reactions. Hyper-negativity is a result of our high stress and the trauma which surrounds us and is within us from our common past.

We need to see negativity as an addiction from which we need healing. It is highly attractive and engaging, but it always leaves us depleted and unsatisfied. Like a drug, we crave it more. Negativity is not a civic responsibility. It is a disease.

Joy of the Gospel

In the Catholic tradition, negativity runs counter to the disposition expected of a Christian. Pope Francis has tackled negativity head on in Joy of the Gospel. He says:

When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfilment. For “here we discover a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others. This is certainly what mission means”. Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… (Joy of the Gospel,10).

Further on in the exhortation, Pope Francis states even more directly how negativity is opposed to the Gospel. He says:

And so, the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the grey pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”.  A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”.  Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelisation! 83.

Any Christian response to our times must be characterised by joy and hope. Negativity, as it is usually understood in the English language, is not a Christian attitude. In fact, it is the opposite.

On this topic, Pope Francis goes so far as to say, “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’,” (85).

Holy moments

John Brandon, in his article on inc.com, proposes an experiment: “Each time your brain switches to a negative thought after a conflict or some dissonance at work, bounce it into a positive reaction and a positive thought instead. Do that all day long and even take notes about what you had to bounce for the day” (‘Science Says There’s a Simple Reason You Keep Thinking Negative Thoughts All Day’). In other words, make it a Holy Moment!

In 1991, when he won the Calypso crown, Black Stalin’s second tune was: ‘Look on the Bright Side’. In our darkest hour as a young independent republic, the shaman invited us to move from negative thoughts and to dwell on the half-full glass—to see the brighter side of our social reality.

Go and listen to the song again.


Key Message:

Negativity is a disease that stops us from becoming the best version of ourselves. This is different from negative experiences that we are called to address and change.

Action Step:

For one day do the bounce with your negative thoughts. Switch them to positive thoughts instead (Holy moments). Also, listen to Black Stalin’s ‘Look on the Bright Side’ .

Scripture Reading:

Galatians 5:19–25