What’s not wrong? This is a question each of us needs to ask daily, particularly in light of the human tendency towards what psychology calls “negativity bias”: a tendency to focus on, and remember, the bad rather than the good.
If we continually ask “what’s not wrong?“, Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says, then “seeds of peace, joy and happiness will be planted in us, and they will become strong”. In this way, he says, we cultivate the precious elements of happiness, practise “right mindfulness” and stay in touch with what is healthy and joyful in each of us.
The Jesuits have a similar practice of “right mindfulness” called the examen. This is a daily evening reflection that includes bringing to mind the blessings and graces of the day. This is a wonderful exercise in recalling the good things that have happened throughout the day and giving thanks for them. It is an exercise that itself brings great blessing, the gratitude that flows from it dispelling the darkness of negative thoughts.
Training the mind to focus on the good things is a skill needed more than ever at this time of pandemic, ecological destruction, inequality and growing fear, prejudice and hate, when it would be all too easy to despair.
While being tragic for many, the pandemic has also produced much that is good. One of my favourite stories is of the 20-year-old university student cooking free meals for hospital workers. And, of course, the whole community is indebted to the selfless goodness of the Good Samaritans on the frontline of caring for those with COVID-19.
Alex Dekker quit his job to make meals for hospital workers during the height of the pandemic.Credit:Chris Hopkins
Many are also questioning the assumption that we should simply return to the old ways of doing things, and wondering how the common good can be better served.
In these dark times, theologian Matthew Fox urges us to become “hunter-gatherers of goodness”. He has been greatly inspired by the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich, who also lived at a time of pandemic – the Black Death, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population. Some scholars believe that Julian’s near-death experience at the age of 30, which resulted in a vision of the crucified Christ, was due to a broken heart over the loss of her spouse and child to the bubonic plague.
Julian spent the rest of her life reflecting on her vision of Christ, and wrote about it in the first book by a woman in English, Revelations of Divine Love. Despite the horror of His suffering on the cross, Christ assures her that evil and suffering do not have the last word and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. Her vision also convinces her that God is “absolute goodness” and that “God is everything that is good; the goodness in everything is God”.
Fox says that “dwelling on goodness is dwelling on God, and it’s putting ourselves in the presence of the divine”. This, he says, is the “original goodness” of which Thomas Aquinas spoke and which is described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, which says of creation: “This is good. This is good. This is good. And it culminates, even after human beings have come on board, in ‘This is very good’.”
Roland Ashby is a Melbourne writer.
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