misunderstanding pessimism: a manifesto of sorts

The NYT has run a number of articles lately on optimism and pessimism, including one entitled, “Is your Dog an Optimist or a Pessimist.” Which was an incredibly depressing article. Another, which ran today (but disappeared before I could find it again) spent a lot of time explaining why optimists live longer. Go figure.

Actually, what the article said is that optimists take better care of themselves. In the expectation of longevity, they eat better, sleep better — and don’t head for the chocolate when things get rough. They’re less likely to have high blood pressure or to die from heart disease or diabetes.

Seems to me that having diabetes in itself would be the big bummer. Maybe we have a cause / effect disjuncture here. Maybe the pessimists have simply experienced the pain first hand — or been raised on it. Maybe pessimists were raised on what “they” did to “our” people? Inquisitions. Holocausts. Colonialisms of one kind or another. Genocides.

But for those we have Viktor Frankel, don’t we? And I won’t let the optimists claim him. While it is true that finding meaning in one’s suffering can make it more bearable, this surely, is not the same as optimism. It means, I think, that activating our intellect — analysis of one kind or another — engages us more than it helps us ‘endure.’ Existential therapies focus on the big four: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

But does contemplating these make us pessimists or philosophers?

I have a personal grudge against optimism. I admit it. My problem is that optimists use words like ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ more often than is empirically warranted. It seems to me that ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are seriously fluffy categories. I know this sounds a bit grumpy, but hear me out.

I think about it as the five faiths:

Faith in others.

Faith in self.

Faith in society.

Faith in the planet.

Faith in the universe.

Faith in others: In this regard, there is an expectation that others will step up to the plate, unasked or even unexpected, and ‘do the right thing.’ What this ‘right thing’ is, however, is some fantasy in the individual’s mind. It’s the guess-what-I’m-thinking bit. The just-take-care-of-me bit. The read-my-mind bit. I’ve fallen into this trap myself. Assumed that others understood what I thought was obvious. But no. What we really need here is a little less faith in others, and a lot more clear communication with them instead.

Faith in self: Another sloppy category. This one is better handled with preparation. And doing one’s homework. With paying attention. With diligence. Research. Elbow-grease. Self-reliance. Yes, sounds grumpy again, doesn’t it. But diligence is actually fun, and so is research. The difference between having faith that one will have a good birthing experience, for example, and actually preparing for childbirth — well, it’s obvious which one has the greater survival value for both mother and child. Faith has nothing useful to offer here.

Faith in society: Currently out of fashion, whether on the left or the right. On the other hand, ambulances and fire trucks still show up on the scene. Public schools still exist to some extent. Maybe what’s needed here is a little less faith in society and a lot more taxes to pay for services we expect society to provide. I’ll throw in here (though you probably heartily disagree) a universal draft, for citizens of all genders, all levels of physical capacity. There’s nothing like a draft to make us think long and hard about what is really worth fighting for.

Faith in the planet: (aka faith that the ecology will work itself out): This was James Lovelock’s big mistake, was it not? In The Gaia Hypothesis, he postulated that the earth was a self-managerial system that kept itself in equilibrium. He described an intricate system of checks and balances, only to discover thereafter that it didn’t work. He subsequently wrote The Revenge of Gaia, as if the planet had changed its mind. He claims we’ve reached the tipping point past which we’d better take action. The planet can no longer return itself to equilibrium. This book, which feels hastily written because according to Lovelock we no longer have much time — posits one necessary solution. But Lovelock’s solution is so distasteful, that his book, well, it’s just not doing that well, is it? People still want the warm and fuzzy solutions. Sorry — not warm. That, after all, is the problem.

Faith in the universe: In which we meet the god-conundrum. I’ll leave this one to the likes of Dennet and Dawkins. Suffice it to say that those immersed in ‘faith in the universe’ are not the ones who spend their nocturnal insomnial hours looking up websites called things like “how the world will die” — nor are they up in the middle of the night doing the research to figure it out. Nor are they writing the articles. And meaninglessness is not a category that keeps optimists up at night, enthralled and energized.

They’re the ones sleeping like babies.

In our house, that’s only Vlad, our kitty. The dogs, after all, maintain a vigilance worthy of our admiration, not our psychological profiling.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

5 replies on “misunderstanding pessimism: a manifesto of sorts”

I am caught a bit in this myself. I post (clearly too much, but alas) various bits that reflect internal struggles with depression, anguish, loss, addiction, and the like. music lyrics are often great mediums through which to understand the self as they resonate, literally, with multiple parts of the self. I have a friend who repeatedly calls my posts pessimistic, depressing, self-indulgence, morose thinking, but I don't see it that way. it is like self-research, delving into the depths to try to understand rather than just "put on a happy face." I can't stand shallow requests, cliches, admonitions to just "look on the bright side" – so, what? ignore the struggles of the self? bury it and act like an automaton? and another thing – my SON is actually struggling with facing death right now, before he falls asleep for the past two nights. Rather than give him a story of "faith" in whatever to appease him, i'm trying to let him work through it. is there anything more abhorrent than a vacant-faced person filled with vacuous soundbites of faith but lacking in any informed understanding of self, others, the earth, and the universe? if that's the case – color me pessimistic!!!

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