August 20, 2008

The Joy of Pessimism

Blessed are the pessimists, for they shall never be disappointed! (Unknown)

It is sometimes claimed that there are only two kinds of people, optimists and pessimists. And we all know which group is preferred... at least by the optimists! Everyone wants good news, we are told; people don’t like bad news. It sounds like a truism; but is it? With the state of politics in the modern world, any candidate for public office simply must train himself/herself to speak nothing but positive comments... except when speaking of political opponents, of course-- in which case, they can stoop as low as they want. But everything their party does is described in glowing, positive terms, regardless of how atrocious it may be. The future will always be bright in the rosy eyes of our politicos, who will be punished mercilessly by the media if they should attempt to speak words of reality.

In business and personal life, optimism is again exalted, especially in recent years of high-priced seminars by ‘motivational speakers’ who assure us that we will get what we speak, so make sure to keep it positive. Yes, the ‘law of attraction’ somehow converts our words into physical reality, or sends energy waves into the ethers to locate just what is needed and somehow transports it into our lives. Great, isn’t it! That should be plenty of incentive for anyone to become an optimist.

So, what’s wrong? Am I against optimism? Am I saying that pessimism is better? No, not exactly; but I do have serious reservations about the unbridled optimism that has become the ideal of the modern, successful person. And I have doubts about the media that demand good news from our politicians, while the newspapers and TV media seem to thrive on bad news, because that’s what seems to sell. Optimism is good as a basic outlook on life, and has been linked to better health and other tangible benefits. However, as the world moves forward into perilous days, those who favor an optimistic view are in grave danger of operating under dangerous delusions. In fact, I’m not supposed to even raise the prospect of a dark future, since that is pessimistic, and might be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’ You see; there’s the rub. The optimists seem to believe that a sunny outlook will somehow make it so, despite the present evidence pointing towards potential disaster. I could cite any number of indicators that point towards the inevitable conclusion that the human race is heading for a date with calamity, the primary question being ‘when?’. Yet an inveterate optimist would take either (or both) of two possible strategies: either ignore all the ‘bad news,’ and carry on in bliss; or, acknowledge present difficulties, but place all trust in the ‘homeostasis of history,’ and the vaunted ability of humankind to somehow surmount all difficulties and not just survive, but thrive. (By homeostasis of history, I mean the belief that all things carry on as they always have, moving along the currents of progress.)

A few decades ago, all predictions about the Future were glowing portraits of a techno-utopia where ‘modern miracles’ would be available at the touch of electronic buttons. Then, around the mid-1970s, the rosy applecart was rudely upset by a research paper sponsored by the Club of Rome, entitled The Limits to Growth. For the first time since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, someone took a broad look at the trends of modernism and projected them to their logical future... and it didn’t look good. In fact, it looked like a catastrophe of some sort, within the lifetimes of the authors of the report. Of course, most people who even heard about this study filed it under pessimism, and therefore, to be regarded with one of the two strategies mentioned above. As it turned out, the dire predictions of that report have not yet occurred. Therefore, any optimists who harbored uneasy doubts feel quite confident that they will never occur. My contention is that this view is dangerous to the health of humanity. Consider a favorite analogy.

The 20th century opened with great optimism engendered by the scientific revolution of the preceding century. People assumed that soon, everything in the universe would be figured out, and utopia would be quickly ‘evolved’ in the coming decades. Before the catastrophe of 1914 came along, there was another iconic event that epitomizes the plight of modern, technological man. In 1912, the zenith of technical achievement was a steamship called the Titanic, and it’s story, among other lessons, tells us something about human psychology. The designers of the Titanic were optimists-- they skimped on life-boats and life-rafts, since, after all, their ship was unsinkable. The captain and senior officers were optimists, and when informed about ice ahead, they kept ‘full speed ahead,’ as if nothing could slow their progress. The uber-rich passengers on board in first-class were optimists, and putting their faith in the crowing platitudes of the steamship company and its naval architects, they partied into the night. Perhaps the only pessimist on board before the fateful collision was the duty watchman who spotted the ‘berg and notified the bridge in good time. Of course, optimists scorn those they label as pessimists, and they dislike even listening to their ‘negative carping on everything.’ We all know how the story ends, thanks to renewed interest by James Cameron and his famous movie made at the end of the last century. (It is curious that a high-degree Mason like Cameron should make a movie that seems to illustrate the broad outlines of the looming fate of spaceship Earth and its crew and passengers.)

The movie presents in miniature the perils of wild-eyed optimism-- that it simply blinds us to unpleasant realities that we’d rather not have to deal with. So, it is my argument that a lot of what optimists dismiss as annoying pessimism is actually ‘realism’ staring us in the face. Reality is not always pleasant, and as society has progressed into what we now experience as modernity, our reality is less and less pleasant. I think that is one reason for the outburst of optimism in these early years of the new millennium-- as we feel greater unease, we seek desperately for the assurance offered by optimists that all will be well... if only we keep up the positive outlook. You can see that, in this regard, optimism is closely linked to denial, or phrased in softer language, rationalization. It appears that, despite the popular profession of optimism, many persons are suppressing strong feelings of pessimism. We are seeing more cases of mental disease than ever; more stress-induced syndromes, more physical disease, despite all the promises of medical science. Curiously, even some of those prognosticators who foresee a global catastrophe looming in the near future (as in 2012, for instance) frame their dark visions in glowing, positive terms, portraying their disasters as a jump to a new dimension of consciousness, hence a positive experience for mankind. While optimism and its precursors are aimed at avoiding unpleasant reality, what is really needed is the realistic assessments of pessimism to have any hope of beginning to address the problems that threaten the future of human life on Earth.

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