Positive Negativity


Prayer – Louis Untermeyer

GOD, though this life is but a wraith,
Although we know not what we use,
Although we grope with little faith,
Give me the heart to fight—and lose.

Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout;
From sleek contentment keep me free,
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit—
But always let me see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.

Open my ears to music; let
Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums—
But never let me dare forget
The bitter ballads of the slums.

From compromise and things half done,
Keep me with stern and stubborn pride;
And when at last the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.

In an adult forum yesterday, we discussed the second stanza of this poem among other “voices” that seemed to echo both an ancient biblical time of semi-depression and the current moods of people in our society. What appealed to some in our forum was the oxymoron of “buoyant doubt.” We probably think more normally of doubt as something which weighs or drags us down, a force from which our spirits need to be lifted, and doubt can be just that, but can it not also be buoyant?

Certainly, doubt can be misused to block progress, feign sophistication, or defend against commitment. I think, however, that Untermeyer suggests positive uses of doubt and negativity.

What is our obsession with being the greatest? Why do we insist upon calling ours the greatest nation on earth rather than doing what we can to make it better, fairer, and more humbly strong and cooperative among the nations of our world? We Christians, at least some of us, seem prone to doing the same with our religion, which can make us more partisan than faithful. Maybe I have already suggested an answer to my own question. Repeatedly calling our own (our nation or our religion) the greatest makes us sound loyal without requiring deep thought, inconvenient commitment, or personal sacrifice. We can take pride in being part of the greatest without needing to shoulder adult responsibility for the human imperfections, failings, and sins of what we over praise. A friend and teacher of mine calls this phenomenon “borrowed pride.”

I hadn’t seen this poem of Untermeyer’s in many years and didn’t realize I missed it. The positive force of negativity is something we seem not to understand very well and almost to fear, but maybe we need to face that fear to discover that self-critical thoughts do not have to weaken or destroy us but can help us grow stronger as well as more honest. Mere optimism is a hollow substitute for hope and commitment to the struggle of pursuing it.