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A Message from Duncan- December 7, 2022

A Message from Duncan- December 7, 2022

The Ps of the Lord Be With You

(and also with you)


There were once identical twins. They were alike in every way but one – one was a hope-filled optimist who only ever saw the bright side of life. The other was a gloomy pessimist, who could only ever see the downside of every situation.

Their parents were so worried about the extremes of optimism and pessimism in their twins they sought advice from a parenting specialist.  She suggested a plan to develop each child’s shadow side. “On their next birthday give the pessimist a shiny new bike but give the optimist a pile of manure.”

It seemed an extreme strategy, but the parents agreed.  So, it’s the twins’ birthday and here comes the pessimist to unwrap the most expensive, top of the range bike a child has ever owned. But when she sees the bike her first words are, “Thanks, but I’ll probably just crash and break my leg.  So please take it back to the shop.”

Now it’s the optimist’s turn to behold her present.  She closes her eyes, and her parents lead her into the backyard, where stands a ten-foot pile of manure.  She opens her eyes and squeals with delight.  She rushes to the pile and leaps onto it and starts digging with her hands, giggling and whooping.  “Yay”, she shouts, “I just know there’s a pony in here somewhere.”

 So much of how we feel in life – hopeful or hopeless, optimistic or pessimistic, settled or anxious, peaceful or worried, bitter or accepting – is rooted in how we interpret the bad things that happen to us.

Dr Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has done groundbreaking work on what he calls ‘Positive Psychology’.  He believes that happiness is influenced by how we treat misfortune.  It comes down to three P’s: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization.   See what you make of his theory:

When something unpleasant or harmful happens, we have three questions to answer.

  1. Is this bad event just one more link in the chain of misfortune and unhappiness that is my life?  Or is it a temporary blip that will disappear soon, and leave me peaceful again?  Permanence.  Optimistic people believe that bad events are temporary, and they bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover.  However, when an optimistic person experiences good events, they believe that they are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events. Optimists point to specific, temporary causes for negative events.
  2. Is this failure a sign that I AM a failure?  Or is it a single event that doesn’t say anything about my life generally.  Pervasiveness: Optimistic people place their failures in a box, separate from the rest of their lives.  Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred. So, they failed the math test.  All this means is that they are poor at math.  It doesn’t mean they are bad at everything, or complete losers.  However, pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole.
  3. Did this regrettable event occur because I deserved it?  Or was I just the victim of things outside my control?  Personalization: Pessimists take their misfortunes personally.  If bad things happen to them, it is because they caused them.  They are therefore to blame for their own suffering.  Optimists, however, blame bad events on causes outside themselves. This makes them more confident. Optimists also quickly internalize positive events while pessimists externalize them.

Seeing our suffering, misfortune, and failure as temporary, specific, and impersonal makes it easier to move on from them, and to accept them peacefully in the meantime.  Acceptance is a gift.

So, how about this message for Advent?  There are so many things that our outside our control.  Face it, not much that happens to you today will be something you have total power over.  That gives us plenty of opportunity to think deeply and prayerfully about how we are going to interpret that painful event.  Being God’s faithful and hopeful people means that we receive our circumstances with acceptance.  We can do this because we know that God loves us, that we are incredibly important to him, and we find our identity in being his child.  So, when we fail it does not mean that we are losers.  When we suffer it is probably not our fault.  When something unfortunate happens it not will be God’s plan for us to live forever in the deep suffering caused by that loss.

May the God of Advent wait grant us a deeper knowledge of his love for us.