The Appreciative Inquiry into Life
If you look back through my high school journals you will see a guy conflicted between being someone he thought he should be compared with the failure he thought he actually was. Perhaps this is typical of any male journaling their way throughout high school, but part of these sentiments and feelings came from the evangelical strand of Christianity.
Evangelicalism and the reformed brotherhood that has taken hold of its mainstream the last ten years is often spent discussing the comparison of who we are versus who Jesus wants us to be (answer: not who we are). This is even further emphasized by circles who firmly step their feet into the Calvinistic, totally depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God camp. They spend their time quoting David’s ‘woe is me’ Psalms, Paul’s ‘why do I do what I hate‘ speech, and unleashing more self-hating poems than all the songs featured in Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary.
This theology of deprivation is matched by a God who has chosen each of us, even though he hates us, and thus celebration is initiated. This celebration can be quite deep and some of these people are some of the most grateful people I know. However, some of this can lead to a deep sense of shame within people. We cannot believe that we won’t commit more of our lives to God even though He has done so much for us! (This actually leads to another unique discussion within evangelical circles where Christians feel as if they cannot take credit for any of their own talents, because they, being evil, cannot do any good. So all credit goes to God in everything, even being good at sports!)
With this, the Christian is constantly hounded by a constant pressure of living up to God’s standards (even though by theological grounds they literally cannot); this pressure is even exists in scenarios where people believe that they do not have to live up to God’s standards, but merely should want to – an easy way to lead to guilt accumulation. Small groups and spiritual discussions inevitably lead into this sort of talk where people confess that they haven’t spent enough time with God or that they have committed (insert sin here) lately.
To get to my point, I am going to talk about something else I’ve discussed here before – the idea of appreciative inquiry. Now appreciative inquiry (AI) is an idea meant for groups of people, supposed to spark creativity and new ideas, but I thought I would force it into a personal spiritual situation (if you want to read an academic overview and critique of AI, go here).
AI’s basic viewpoint is that rather than taking things from a negative angle, it is much more constructive to build off of the positive that already exists. Look for the places that are already producing instead of highlighting the deficits and from there you can make something greater. The underlying perspective is that in most communities there is already some sort of life force that is causing it to exist and stay afloat. By focusing on all that is wrong, negative results will come forth.
Before I continue I must say I am going to try to avoid making this a positive thinking piece, where all your problems will go away if you think about good things. I am certainly no Joel Osteen (I dwell in the sadness), but there is something to this. Wracked by guilt for so many years, it feels good to let go of the shame that constantly hounded me. Maybe I’m a character from Dr. Strangelove, letting go of worry of the atomic bomb as it’s about to strike, but being set free from the narrative of total depravity has been a blessing.
Narratives and how we inquire into those narratives affect how we perceive ourselves and our own story. When we continually see ourselves as depraved beings who will never measure up, what will come out of it? When we continually tell our children to pray prayers so that hell no longer hangs over them or exhort them with tales of them being incapable of choosing good, where are we leading them? (Sidenote: In a conflict class I took, we studied an almost completely non-violent society whose strategy of avoiding conflict was to insult their children so that they would not develop an ego, negating any sense of pride or indignation of being treated a certain way, because, well, they were entirely unimportant compared to the society as a whole. So I suppose there could be some merit to this way of parenting, but certainly to a Western mindset it sounds strange.)
Appreciative inquiry posits that when the little micro narratives we hold – that when combined make up our being – are changed, the macro narrative will also bend in that direction. When our micro narratives tell us we are incapable of good, generally not worthy of love, and are failures, our macro narrative shifts to one deeply sensitive about a lot of small things.
When are micro narratives begin to tell us that we are capable of good, of making beautiful things, and loving people, perhaps those characteristics will abound. When we become wrapped up in a larger story of mercy, justice, and love rather than one of shame and guilty pleasure our lives will expand into greater things.
I say this all while acknowledging that repentance and humility are two of the most important traits a person can have – we must recognize that we are not more important than other people and when we screw up we should seek reconciliation. But when we ask questions of ourselves, let’s look at the ways we are contributing to life, for we are beings wrapped up in a cosmic tale of love, grace, justice, and beauty. Let us not be overcome with shame at our failures.