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Positive Psychology

August 2016

I’ve recently received the final draft – now properly edited and set out – of a chapter I was asked to write for a Reader in Positive Psychology, to be published in 2017 (Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology—a Synthesis for Social Change). Positive Psychology is a relatively new discipline and seeks to understand what gives people the determination and inner strength to go on in the face of the overwhelmingly negative evidence which is daily presented to us. I am by nature an optimist. I tend to think positively, looking to find solutions to problems rather than allowing those problems to burden and overwhelm me. But I also recognise the fact that, in many aspects of my life, there are always loose ends which I never quite manage to get hold of or tie up. Living with uncertainties and with unresolved issues is part of our human existence.

To put it bluntly, despite our dreams of and hopes for a just and loving world where people of different nations, faiths, ethnicities and cultures can live together peaceably, the evidence suggests that this is always just round the next corner. And the brutality of reality, the sheer overwhelmingness of negative evidence, should be enough to convince us that our deepest longings are unachievable. Add to this the environmental catastrophe awaiting us in the coming century, caused both by human activity and the forces of nature - and the prospects for any positive vision of the future wear rather thin. And yet, we press on, in the hope that a better future can and will be created.

The title of my chapter, by the way, is The Brutality of Reality. In it, I try to address the subject of work. The mundane level of the workplace is, in most people’s experience, anything but mundane. It shapes how and where they live, their values and attitudes, their standard of living and their hopes for the future. In times of economic uncertainty, conformity to the prevalent culture of the employer or sponsor may seem the wisest course of action. Questioning, challenging or whistleblowing may turn out to be personally counter-productive in the longer term.

My chapter looks at work in the broader context of how we cope with the pressures of everyday living. And one of the people I cite is Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German-born political theorist who escaped the Nazi Germany and settled in the USA. She was present at the trial and conviction in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and the architect of the Holocaust. She coined a poignant phrase: “the banality of evil.” The way people were imprisoned, abused and slaughtered in the death camps of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and elsewhere had become, for Eichmann and so many others, routine, normal, commonplace - banal.

We are rightly quick to condemn such appalling behaviour, and yet we are daily presented with human suffering broadcast into our living rooms, making us almost banal about the suffering we see on our TVs. We watch as children starve in Somalia, refugees flounder in the seas off Greece and Italy, families clamber through the rubble of their homes in Syria – and yet we deplore the sheer cheek of people thinking they can just turn up here in our country to live or work.

The great British EU membership debate has done the world a massive disservice. Too many of our politicians – on both sides and within each of the main parties - have shown themselves, again, as people we just cannot trust. But some vital issues have been raised, not least to do with immigration and how we respond to the global refugee crisis.

Maybe a dose of Positive Psychology can help – but not without recognising the brutality of reality. We just don’t have a fairytale existence where everyone is nice to each other – much as we may wish for it! In the final section of my chapter, I write about a small piece of research among Afghan managers and professionals working in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the face of the reality of brutality – the ever-present danger of suicide bombers and violent criminals in an atmosphere of corruption and lawlessness – I found incredible resilience and a widespread determination to rebuild their shattered country.

My faith is what inspires me, but it also gives me a strong dose of realism and helps keep my feet on the ground. The Jesus I follow chose not to impose his rule by force or certainly didn’t try to deceive his hearers with false promises of prosperity and success. He specifically reminded them, repeatedly, of the cost of discipleship, the brutality of reality!

Because living in a small nation under the oppressive rule of Rome was tough. And in that context, Jesus urged people to live by faith, in hope and – most of all – through love, whatever their situation. And finally, he did what no other religion has ever dreamed of happening to its founder and focus – he accepted death, the ultimate proof not of divinity but defeat.

But that was not the last word. The brutality of reality, of defeat and despair, has been transformed into new life, resurrection – with the conviction that justice will out, love will triumph, the poor, the weak, the helpless and hopeless will be raised up.

The best example of Positive Psychology is Jesus’ Resurrection. It gives us real hope that, despite the brutality of reality, things can be different and better, our lives can be meaningful and our world can indeed move towards its true vocation and fulfilment.

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