When the Unity and New Thought movements began, optimism and positive thinking were taken to their extremes. The Law of Mind Action was applied to every event. If something good happened, it was the result of that person's ability to remain positive. Conversely, bad things came to be viewed as the result of some flaw in consciousness. This complete emphasis on optimism in all situations became a major criticism of the movement. Although William James (1902), a contemporary of the Fillmores, certainly praised the religions of healthy-mindedness for their optimism and scientific method, he concluded that New Thought's dismissal of evil was wishful thinking. He argued that healthy-mindedness won't always work "because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth" (p. 163). James further outlined the functionality of negative situations: "Since the evil facts are as genuine parts of nature as the good ones, the philosophic presumption should be that they have some rational significance, and that systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try to at least include these elements in their scope" (p. 65). So while some religions have been criticized for setting people up to accept their own misery by using theories of divine retribution or the promise of a better afterlife, Unity has been criticized for just the opposite: not allowing people to accept their own misery.
Although it took almost a century, Unity's flexibility has allowed the movement to address this criticism and become more accepting of life's painful and negative experiences. Unity does not deny that some of life's circumstances can be painful, but it advocates approaching the hardship with optimism because it brings necessary spiritual lessons. Chris Jackson, the Vice President of the Unity School of Christianity, explained at a retreat in 1996 how he learned that constant optimism was not always a positive approach. Although the story is lengthy, it is a good illustration of the philosophical change in Unity, embodied in the story of an individual. Jackson grew up in Unity, became disenfranchised with the movement in college and returned after contemplating suicide. After becoming a leader in the Unity movement, he went through what he calls a successful and "materialistic phase" for 15 years. His world shattered when his wife told him she wanted to leave him.
That suffering was something that in Unity I had never really been taught to deal with. I was taught that if you are doing it right, your life would be good. If you were thinking the right thoughts, if you were making the right moves, if you were feeling the right feelings, then your life would be this beautiful cosmic demonstration of all that and you would not have any problems. So whenever a problem would begin to emerge, I would immediately stuff it behind me and literally barricade it in the back of my consciousness. Well, what happened was that the dark side of my life became extremely jaded with positive affirmation. . . .
I want to say that it really depends on how you have been introduced to Unity and to spiritual truth teachings as to whether or not you've had a similar experience. What I'm telling you is for me, the absolute positive approach was mandatory. There was no room in my belief system or life experience for negativity of any kind. And when it occurred, it was so wrong that it had to be stuffed away immediately. No one, including myself and my friends, could hold it all.
The issue was not accepting myself as a whole person, virtue and vice, pain and pleasure, joy and tragedy. The issue was: You look good. You're a leader in this movement. You need to be a constant, walking, talking example of the power of positive thinking in one's life. So what my wife was bringing to me, in the form of what seemed to be excruciating tragedy and pain, was actually the greatest gift that a person who loves another person could ever bring. . . .
I will always be grateful to her because she ripped aside a whole humungous set of preconceived ideas about how I was supposed to be, exposing me to a raw wilderness that freaked me out big time. But it let me stop trusting things I had been trusting and start to find some new handles that I could really begin to work with. . . . That to me is love. (1996)
Jackson went on to explain that his wife's decision caused him to question the materialistic way he had been living and the things that he had thought were important. In addition, she made him deal with the pain in his life that he had tried to ignore for so long because he had never been taught another way. Through this experience, Jackson said he learned that negative feelings can be valuable tools.
(In Unity) the tendency we have is to want to go from being a louse to being Jesus Christ, just like that. . . . It doesn't work that way. What happens is we say "Oh, I love everyone. Everyone loves me." And then along come some people and we say, "Gee, I don't like the way that made me feel. I don't like that person. I'm feeling anger toward that person. Wait, no, that's not true. I'm following the Jesus Christ way of life." What do we do? Throw it away, stuff it back here. That's not the real path. The real path is to take each day, each moment of my life, and move one step closer. I have no idea what is ten steps down the way, 20 steps down the way. I can only take it one step at a time. But I can trust... I can trust life.
I'm not saying you change the way you feel. You may still feel hatred. You may still feel anger. I'm just saying to simply recognize, even if your rational mind won't buy it, but be willing to observe with the possibility that this person might be bringing you a gift.
But please be very real with this. Don't just say "Well, I hate this person but they're bringing this gift into my life, I'm so grateful." Give yourself the opportunity to beat the pillows, to curse, to carry on. If you're dealing with the loss of a loved one or something like that, give yourself the chance to curse God, to feel that loss. That's all very real, honest human emotion. And if you're not willing to give your humanity its due, then you will never be able to experience your spirituality.
Although Unity still advocates optimism and believes that pain brings "gifts," the movement no longer teaches that negative feelings are wrong. On the contrary, Jackson pointed out that it was only by acknowledging the negative feelings that he could uncover the gift that his painful situation brought. This message that negative emotions are permissible and even necessary was prevalent at the retreat, providing an excellent example of one of the ways Unity has changed to fit the needs of its constituents. Jeanne, who was active in the movement until the early 1980s but then left for several years, said this change was welcome.
Unity is constantly changing, and there was one where they hold the person responsible for their illness and what happens in their life to the degree that they — it's like a double-whammy on a person that they get sick and they say well, 'what is in her consciousness that brought that to her.' The extremes that some of it is carried to that I don't think is true anymore. There was a time when they did carry it to that extreme, and I thought that was pretty cruel. . . . To me there isn't enough allowing of negative emotions, and to me it's real important to allow those as well as the positive. For most people in Unity it's up, up, up. Everything is positive. I was so happy today to hear him say that tears are okay, they're good. Because to me tears are very important. I have to acknowledge the negative before I can go on to the other. There's some tendency to kind of cover that up. That to me would a negative: that the negative emotions are discouraged. . . . I think it's been in the process of change for the past 5-6 years. And I think it's for the better. That's another reason I'm back here, because I can see that it has changed and is still, I'm sure, in the process of change.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.