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If you’re always complaining then try being more negative

November 11, 2012

Sometimes people think that my work leads to a form of negativity in which we find ourselves lost in a sea of melancholia. The death of the idea that there is something that can render us whole and satisfied sounds, for some, like it sustains and supports a type of eternal complaint against life. But the point is the dialectic opposite: those who constantly complain about their lives are not too negative, rather they have failed to be negative enough.

To clarify, I am talking here of a type of negativity that is insatiable. The type of negativity found in those who are never able to enjoy their existence, regardless of what happens. Those who find it all but impossible to experience depth in their material circumstances (as opposed to legitimate protests against concrete injustice).

In these situations the problem is not that there is too much negativity, but rather that the individual has failed to fully enter into negativity. For behind the claims that ones life is unsatisfactory lies the notion that there is a life, just out of reach, that could offer that satisfaction.

By redoubling this failed negativity to the point where one is freed from the idea of a satisfaction-just-out-of-reach, one is able to enter into a type of material affirmation of the world that exists beyond the superficial nature of both optimism and pessimism.

The individual who is able to loose themselves from the notion that there is some ultimate purpose to their life frees themselves from the negative melancholy that comes with being unable to find that purpose (or the naïve optimism that comes from thinking that they will).

The secret, as John Caputo would say, is that there is no secret. Instead the challenge is to discover and deepen love. For love not only affirms the world, it produces a surplus in that joyful affirmation: acts that enact liberation.

24 Responses to If you’re always complaining then try being more negative

  1. Jas Gray says:

    You’ve nailed me. Again. I’ve been blaming my passion for teaching like yours as leading me into a place of meaninglessness about my own life. But I’m the one feeding that “meaninglessness” by being reluctant to go beyond it…to abandon trying to find meaning and living life from wherever that is. But that’s just scary. As always, thank you for your words :-)

  2. Nate says:


    Have you listened to Bob Dylan’s recent albums? (I’m most familiar with Time out of Mind, Modern Times, and Tempest). You both see in almost the same way, I think, and are together leading me on quite a journey. : )

    Time out of mind seems to be an album about this tipping point between the depressive melancholy of always chasing the horizon and the negativity you speak of here–that which leads into full embrace of the world. Time out of Mind bears striking resemblence to the book of Ecclesiastes where it is said that “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity [hebrew “olam”] into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The word “olam” in Strongs concordance, is defined as “time out of mind”, or that which is perceived to exist “beyond the horizon” (a song on Dylan’s “Modern Times”).

    Throughout all of his albums since then the ongoing theme, to my ears, is this idea of being in love with the unattainable, with the eternity God has placed in the hearts of men. There is a lot of sadness, regret, and anger as he deals with the frustration of not having that which is longed for, regrets about what he has done to others while chasing it (see the video for Duquesne Whistle), and a renewed energy to, in love, embrace the world fully in the time he has left.

    I could go on and on, but every son he has written since the late 90s is a multi layered poem about the dangers and evils unintentionally enacted by chasing happiness, the peace unintentionally found by giving up striving to find happiness, and the pain of crucifixion that is always the resukt of quitting the race and choosing to love people who are different from those who think you are one of them.

    Tempest is all of the above, plus Bob’s own version of your “Insurrection” pointing out the inherent failure of placing one’s hope in a religious/Deus Ex Machina God.

    i thought you would especially find interesting the song “Tempest” (on the album of the same name) in which Dylan’s sings about the Watchman on the Titanic (a reference to Ezekiel, the watchman over Israel who God would hold accountable for the sins of Israel if he failed to warn them) who lays dreaming that the titanic is sinking and, in his dream, is trying to warn people, even as in reality people are drowning all around him.

    I only hope that I can be much more like Mr. Astor, giving up my seat on the rescue boat, that like the sleeping watchman!

  3. Margaret says:


  4. Sura says:

    Hi, well I read and reread your article and I would agree in general that people need to accept life as it is and not always be going after the carrot dangling in front of their nose. But I am not sure how one goes deeper in their negativity to get there.

  5. Stephen says:

    Then should we approach negativity not as a symptom, but as a tool to be used?

  6. TokenChristianHeretic says:

    I think this could extrpolated from the Bible too. I’m thinking of the horridly existential Job.

    I said this elsewhere and quite independently from this article:

    No human being can ever be totally free. There I said it. We can rebel. We can distribute power. We can abolish property and state. But no human being will ever be totally free from domination. This is the point of permanent revolution. Both Bakunin and Trotsky came up with this idea independently.

    I consider Job in the Bible. Job eventually comes to learn that no human being can ever be righteous before God, that God’s Purpose cannot be thwarted, and that it is up to Man to promote God’s Cause. It is God that gives us life and steadfast love, and yet it is God that shows us death and despair. No matter what we do we will be smited by God. It is He that dashes the innocent on stones, it is He that blinds the the blind and cripples the lame, and it is He that will kill you. However God forces you to ask a question: is it God that oppresses the alien, is it God that slaughters the innocent, is it God that is responsible for the horrors of this world? If it isn’t He then who is?

    You are.

    Just like every single other person in this world, you are responsible for the violence, the hate, and the oppression. God will not answer your prayers, God will not save you in your time of trouble, and God will mock your calamity. So your existence must be a rebellion. Camus once put it this way: the only real serious philosophical question is whether one should kill one’s self or not. That is the essence of permanent revolution. Through rebellion you promote God’s Cause and yet, who has resisted God’s strength and succeeded? Our lives are futile. Our existences wretched. Whether it be by the trampling seas, the wails of battle, or through pestilence and age: God will smite you down.

    So my question to you Mr. Rollins is this in relation to your recent article about unbelief: Does unbelief hide negativity? A lot of Christians and other anarchists I meet are quite frankly frightened of my bleak worldview. I mean faith for me means rebelling against the horrors of this world. Because that’s what I think it means to be a Christian. I’m in pursuit of a world where people will come to love one another as Jesus taught.

  7. Nate says:

    Pete is great at subtly twisting language to be provacative and to try to speak about things that are beyond the reach of language. I suspect that what he is doing here is not encouraging those who are caught up in a victim mentality to ramp that up even more, but to move beyond a complaint that the world is unfair to a place where the unfairness of the world is assumed and pursuit of fairness can be abandoned as hopeless. This abandonment of one’s pursuit of happiness is precisely what is necessary to actually embrace the world and, in actively grounded Love, liberate others from their pursuit. If there is happiness and satisfaction to be found, it is a fleeting accident that happens within self-giving love and hospitality for the other.

  8. Timothy says:

    I think Nate may be on to something with his response. I have noticed within myself that when I focus on the negative, I lose focus on the more important aspect of life – love of the other. The take away for me from Pete’s post is that behind all of the negativity is a cry for something more – something that will fill the void within. That something is love, compassion, reaching out to the other wheresoever the other may be.

    I meet people every day who speak in “negative” ways and I hear something more than merely complaints: this is the soul crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words we find on the lips of the dying Jesus. Perhaps we find the ultimate negativity on the cross – where we also find salvation.

  9. seth says:

    Apparently Rollins, Caputo and Po from Kung Fu Panda are tracking the same here. “The secret is that there is not secret.” This thought has stuck with me ever since I saw the movie.
    Po unrolls the dragon scroll which is supposed to reveal the secrets of the universe only to find that there is no secret. The lesson is driven home when he learns his fathers secret soup recipe has no secret ingredient. Po realizes he has to accept his destiny, not b/c he now understands better (has learned the secret), but b/c he has learned to love that which is (his father, his teacher, his town, etc.).
    Anyway…that’s what happens when you have a seven year old around.

  10. James says:

    [well, sorry, delete the prev 2 comments – I cant get the format to work??]

    I’m back with my response to these things:

    I think in Pete’s post and the comments following, we are just only talking about life here as we know it, confined within what I call the “cosmic-fishbowl.”

    We are all stuck within what we call the Universe/the world, whatever — and if
    that’s ALL there is, then I agree at face-value with the post:

    “The individual who is able to loose themselves from the notion that there is some ultimate purpose to their life frees themselves from the negative melancholy that comes with being unable to find that purpose (or the naïve optimism that comes from thinking that they will).”

    (This does seem on further thought to echo the sentiments of eastern/ Buddhist philosophy, not biblical faith) which is a separate topic. . . But, the other point to be made is that if there IS any purpose, it is only to be found *Outside* of earthly existence. I don’t think it’s naive to want/believe you have a purpose, only if you think by *self-discovery* that it can be done. And that’s the point of Jesus and the cross.

    What we do here, how we live and love, does matter! But it doesnt “affirm the world”, or anymore free us by “acts that enact liberation” — from the confines of our Fishbowl-like existence.

    So, TokenChristian has said it:

    “No human being can ever be totally free. We can rebel. We can distribute power. We can abolish property and state. But no human being will ever be totally free from domination. This is
    the point of permanent revolution.”

    SO, elections in USA [ where I am] for change & hope, people’s choices/decisions, that inane+criminal Guy Fawlkes anarchy grp in UK, etc. — its not negative enough — it all *still* presumes that We as humans, somehow can do Anything to change life?!! But what good is “permanent revolution”
    either? It too is all Vanity, if thats all there is. [ Eccles.]

    Yes I agree that We are the Problem. But God?

    “God will smite you down.” HA – the meaning of “smite” is very interesting! Connected to “being smitten”, which of course has connotation to being overcome – with intense loving feelings – in love – desiring intimacy. . . that God would *ravish us*! [ some British poet maybe said this? ]

    Again from Mr.Token:

    “Camus once put it this way: the only real serious philosophical question is whether one should kill one’s self or not. That is the essence of permanent revolution. Through rebellion you promote God’s

    NO, the only Real Ques. is really: WHY am I here, and even having the question WHY? since no matter, live, die or rebel, You cant change Anything! But if you are dead, you cant then take “responsibility” to make up for your part in the horrors of the world, can you? [ DUH]

    And what odd idea is this, that “rebellion” promotes God’s cause? Rebellion or slavery– neither one advances anything! We’re all still prisoners of humanness– who can set us free from our earthly bondage of sin and death?

    “There is No Freedom apart from God, who alone is Outside of time & space existence. There I said it. EveryThing, EveryOne else is confined to a closed system of life, how ever you define it. To have this realization is not ultra-negativity, but gives me hope from outside
    myself. (from Me.)”

    True faith connects us with the Outside, though we still live here, and now we
    work here (not rebel) to re/create & renew life. No offense, but don’t believers know and teach this? Isn’t this Christianity101 ?

    To me, unbelief *masks* negativity [ if that’s what you meant ] that has not been fully acknowledged, maybe the point of Peter’s post. What it means to be a Christian is to be connected to Jesus-God, not be in pursuit of anything else here, however noble.

    Each person has to come to a more “deeply negative” place about the end of themselves and this life, BEFORE real change can happen.

    • TokenChristianHeretic says:

      James, I think you missed the point of my post.

      >And what odd idea is this, that “rebellion” promotes God’s cause?

      Jesus’ life was one of rebellion. Yes, Jesus was all about the Kingdom of God, but it’s also true that Jesus did not passively withdraw from the world either. Christianity teaches us that our God is Jesus. For some Christians that means theologies like penal substitution and for others it means the radical ideologies of Muentzer and the Diggers. Generally, I think one’s conception of Jesus and His Purpose is subjective as all hell and that’s why we have 30,000+ variants of Christianity.

      >now we work here (not rebel) to re/create & renew life

      Destruction is a creative endeavor. My opposition to state and capitalism aside, this doesn’t mean I am optimistic about the revolution at all. Day after day, supposed comrades and fellow Christians confirm to me that we are a petty, violent, and manipulative species, unable to ever grow beyond being human. I doubt alright. I understand that it’s just another absurdity to lie to myself about.

      >What it means to be a Christian is to be connected to Jesus-God

      Maybe. But what does that connection mean? This is the most important question for Christians to ask themselves. Is Jesus a tyrant to simply be obeyed, is Jesus the king who commands peace, or is Jesus something more than that? Who is Jesus to you? I understand Jesus as a liberator and peacemaker who strove to create a world built on love and that is the example I strive to follow.

      I think I shouldn’t have read Camus and Job together now that I think about it.

  11. Nate says:

    Timothy and Seth – Yeah, exactly what I was trying to say. I had completely forgotten about that scene in Kung Foo Panda! Good catch!

  12. Nate says:

    For anyone thinking hard about all this, about what it means to follow Christ in the world as it is today, I strongly urge you all to read “The Crucified God” by Jürgen Moltmann.

  13. Steven says:

    uhh… isn’t this a Buddhist perspective? Life means suffering… the origin of suffering is attachment to things, people, ideas that by their very nature are impermanent… suffering can be overcome by giving up useless craving and learning to live each day or each moment at a time – i.e. not dwelling in the past or the imagined future.

    • Peter Rollins says:

      It’s an idea that has connection to various traditions. Eg you can find versions in Existentialism, psychoanalytic work, various religious and humanist traditions. My own work is however slightly different to Buddhism (in the Westernised form that you mention). My own work is not about giving up desire but rather loosing us from the power of Death Drive. My work is more based on the continental tradition, especially in relation to Hegel and Lacan

  14. Jenn says:

    You write:

    “The individual who is able to loose themselves from the notion that there is some ultimate purpose to their life frees themselves from the negative melancholy that comes with being unable to find that purpose (or the naïve optimism that comes from thinking that they will).”

    To that, need I remind you:

    Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 18: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.”

    also, Ecclesiastes chapter 2, “21For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

    24A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

    Then you wrote:

    “The secret, as John Caputo would say, is that there is no secret. Instead the challenge is to discover and deepen love. For love not only affirms the world, it produces a surplus in that joyful affirmation: acts that enact liberation.”

    and if you’ve read John Caputo, then surely you remember 1st Corinthians chapter 13:

    “2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,b but have not love, I gain nothing. ”

    I guess what I’m trying to say is.. you sound like.. you’re. Like you’re just repeating what you read in the Bible. Why then wouldn’t you tell people to just read the Bible?

    And, also, I’m curious about what you think of the statement: “There are absolutely no absolutes.”

    Do you believe the Bible is absolute truth?

    Is it so humliating to believe the Bible is absolute truth? That humans are wrong about everything? That we’ve deluded ourselves?

    Now I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, I’ll never argue myself for being some MENSA member, no. I can tell you though, that if it’s true, that God is going to judge us all when we die, if it’s true that Christ died, I have a lot to be thankful for, and yes, I’ll be singing of God’s mercy forever in Heaven, if it’s all true… because Lord knows, I sure need myself some mercy. Just sayin’.

    • Timothy says:

      Very good post, Jenn. I appreciate your take on theology and your deeper way of expanding this debate. Perhaps our whole culture should expand the debate on absolutes. The recent election cycle in the US showed us just how far firm absolutes get us. It will be interesting to see how a theology that is reframed in light of your observations would take us…

  15. Timothy says:

    I don’t know why Pete keeps getting so much response about “Buddhist” ideologies in his writing. I don’t see that. There is suffering and a need to end that suffering in most if not all of the major religions. I am not an expert on all of them, but as far as Christianity is concerned, I think Pete nails it most of the time. Perhaps the disconnect with Pete lay in his broad understanding of Christianity through the lens of Continental Philosophy – or is it vice versa? Pete may not be “orthodox” in the way that the word has been defined in the past 2 millenia, but isn’t that what makes his message so pertinent and meaningful? I’ll admit, as a theologian/spiritual leader, I am lacking in the area of philosophy to the extent that Pete has studied. The world may be in better shape if we were to learn more from Pete’s POV.
    God’s peace,

  16. James B says:

    It’s true that it is better to live in the moment, each day as it comes and not dwell and aim but just ‘be’. I believe Jesus shows us often in the bible how we should live life and it could almost be one big improvisation. Often situations and incidents in his everyday life were turned into an opportunity to bless and change someone’s life. E.g. the woman at the well.
    This is something I’m slowly learning. To stop looking for meaning in things that make you depart from the present reality you are faced with, to live in what’s in front of your face.

  17. chris says:

    have you read gillian rose and her take on hegel (as you mention hegel)? it would seem to me that the post above is an example of a naive, totalizing reading of hegel that exhibits, in rose’s terms ‘bad faith’ i.e. refusal to engage in the material world which is difficult and violent. a refusal to go on ‘staking oneself’ and a flight into gnosticism and a consequent ‘abberated mourning’ which one can never escape.

    I think she is right when she says, against the postmodern ethics (evidence din your post as deepening a nebulous abstract love and mention of Lacan) that,

    The Other is misrepresented as sheer alterity, for the ‘Other is equally the distraught subject searching for its substance, its ethical life. New ethics would transcend the autonomy of the subject be commanding that I substitute myself for ‘the Other’ (heteronomy) or by commending attention to ‘the Other’. Yet it is the inveterate but occluded immance of one subject to itself and to other subjects that needs further exposition. SImply to command me to sacrifice, or to commend that i pay attention to the others makes me intolerant naive and miserable. The immanence of the self relation of ‘the Other’ to my own self relation will always be disowned.’

  18. Ryan says:

    Perhaps all one needs in order to experience real trauma/despair/meaninglessness is to travel to a strange small town and lose their wallet there! That will wreck a person’s grasp on the hope =)

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