Friday, August 10, 2012

The Joyful Pessimist

 It's all over, folks.

The planet is trashed, the economy is in the toilet, If cancer doesn't get us, it will be done by the drive-by (or cinema) shooters or the suicide bombers.  Every sign of hope turns to shit. Wars of liberation and democratic revolutions unleash sectarian hatreds, and globalization fuels ethnocentric nationalism and religious strife. Obama sells out to the banks, corporations and Israel, and sends drones to assassinate "terrorists" without benefit of trial. The spread of digital technology brings expensive gadgets that addict us no less than the illegal drugs that are destroying the minds of those unable to bear much reality.

It's not all fun and games, as the above ditty might indicate. Back in the Cold War era, it was assumed Nuclear Annihilation was the earth's biggest threat; now we know that human-caused Global Warming can do the trick.  The jolly mathematician, Tom Lehrer, wrote humorous songs about serious subjects that amused worried political and cultural activists in the 1960's.  The pessimist's anthem, "The Merry Minuet," sometimes mistaken for a Lehrer song , was written by Sheldon Harnick, lyricist for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
They're rioting in Africa
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man
Can we laugh about Armageddon? Can we live joyfully in the present moment while the sky falls and the universe turns to dust?  I think so.

I began to reexamine pessimism as part of my critical analysis of the false hopes and optimism of other-worldly religion (see last blog post), and what I see as the necessity of living fully, and joyfully, in this world.  One day I found a trove of videos on YouTube of Eva Cassidy, a notoriously shy singer who left us with only a few recordings after her untimely death from melanoma in 1996.  In a documentary for ABC Nightline, friends describe how Cassidy had to be helped onto the stage for her last performance two months before she died.  The song she choose to sing was "What a Wonderful World."

Aside from hearing her beautiful voice, I was deeply moved by the choice she made of this song, a hymn to the wonders of life.  It affirmed for me the possibility that one can choose, out of the deepest darkness, to live in the light.  There was nothing optimistic about it, for hope on your death bed is a pointless luxury.

Pessimism has certainly got a bad rap.  Most people understand it as a black mood or attitude, a negative disposition, a psychological state perhaps resulting from an unhappy childhood.    The term comes from the Latin pessimus which means "the worst," and it's been called the most un-American of philosophies because America was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the pursuit of happiness.  But Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political philosopher at UCLA, believes pessimism is not the same as skepticism, cynicism and nihilism.  "Pessimism is a substitute for progress," he writes in his 2006 book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit.

Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton called "sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin," while progress historian Howard Zinn echoed the fears of political activists by writing that "pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act."  Even the saintly Helen Keller thought that "no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." To admit that one is a pessimist is to declare for the dark side.

Mark Twain, however, believed that "the man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little."  Robert Oppenheimer, "father" of the atomic bomb, is reported to have said, "The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."  Marxist Antonio Gramsci, jailed by Mussolini in the 1930s, wrote, "I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will." Finding the right balance between an understanding of pessimism and of optimism is the key.

"Optimism," writes Dienstag, "makes us perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments. It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment." This to me is a very Buddhist prescription for living in the present moment.

Conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton sees optimism as a liberal plot in his small book, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope.  Optimism and hope are behind all the social engineering projects of everyone from the Nazis and Mao Zedong to Barack Obama's mildly democratic schemes.  The desire for improvement is an abomination, an escape from the true values of tradition.  But this conservative spin on pessimism is only partly true. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, warned against both "reckless optimism and reckless despair."  She pointed out that "Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition."

At my age, it's easy to give up hopes and plans for the future.  Having a good poop in the morning is often the most I can wish for.  My 60's generation condemned pessimism as the evil of negative thinking. But I've always had difficulty with pollyannaish Power of Positive Thinking.  Anyway, I've think that hubris is the greater sin.  Hubris was the attitude of the first farmers who abandoned foraging for food because they'd learned how to control the growing of plants and the domestication of animals.  It's been all down hill since then. The development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a byproduct of World War II, is only the latest phase of the war by optimists on the planet.  When I was teaching environmental issues to undergraduates I was made constantly aware of the unintended consequences of technology.  Today, in addition to iPads we have drones and the reality of hands-off warfare.

The recognition that optimism and hope are false friends does not preclude actions in the present that may benefit the future.  Recently I joined a group of tenants from my condo in the planting of mangrove seedlings along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand to prevent erosion.  Such this-worldly realism also does not turn one into a dogmatic materialist.  Our lives become meaningful not only by performing such concrete deeds joyfully but by also by listening and contributing to the stories and myths that give them significance.

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