The Optimist’s Slaughter
Early on every thinking man makes the conscious or unconscious decision whether
to view the cup of life as half full, or dry as the Garagum Desert. Those whose
cup is half full are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas and the kind of people
to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties. In America they are, according
to Gallup, the majority (64 percent). These are the same folks who wave flags,
join the PTA, bet on the Cubs, and get caught in thunderstorms without an umbrella
and hopefully catch pneumonia. Pessimists, by my estimate, make up about 10
percent of the American population. The other 26 percent couldn’t care less,
and were probably too busy watching professional wrestling to bother answering
the survey. Curiously, Kenyans are the world’s most optimistic people, though
god knows why. And their neighbors in Zimbabwe are the most pessimistic, which
raises the question: what do the Zimbabs know that the Kenyans don’t?
My suspicion is that the reason for the generally low opinion held of the pessimist
is related to his close ties to the critic, the cynic, the misanthrope, the
whiner and the curmudgeon. Personally, the only one of these people I find objectionable
is the whiner. The critic plays a vital role in society by helping us to distinguish
the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff. The cynic – who by definition
distrusts people’s motives – is the type I want checking other people’s baggage
at the airport, though not necessarily my own. The misanthrope is a harmless
cuss, keeping mainly to herself and bothering no one, asking only that you not
bother her. And the loveable curmudgeon is responsible for most of literature’s
best quotations, maxims and aphorisms. But the whiner is another animal altogether.
The whiner has no saving grace whatsoever, and is as annoying as fingers on
a dry chalkboard.
I find the pessimist to be, if not exactly pleasant, then at least sincere.
You always know what a pessimist is thinking, and if you don’t he will likely
tell you anyway. The optimist, on the other hand, has always struck me as an
imposter, walking around with her nose toward the heavens as if she inhabited
a better world than you and me, a land of warm green meadows where the sun always
shines and there is never a drought because of it. Not only that but the optimist
is forever hypocritically criticizing your negativity as though it were some
kind of birth defect. The pessimist does not go around saying, "Quit being
so dadgum happy!" Or "Stop that smiling will you!" But the optimist
has no problem trying to change your natural disposition. "Smile!"
she snaps. "Quit being so pessimistic!" It may also be that I associate
the optimist with the affected cheerfulness of the politician angling for votes,
or the faux-friendly, chirpy male or female who goes into public relations,
used car sales and telemarketing. And anyone who has spent any amount of time
with one of these phonies can testify that once off the clock they morph into
the most cynical, black-hearted bastards in the land.
But even the pessimist can become weary of too much pessimism, and, as in all
things, moderation is key. It would be folly to think that the pessimist is
without hope, without expectations. He simply tempers his hopefulness with common
sense, reason and those lessons gained from hard experience. Every man, from
time to time, has a few good words for his fellows, even the pessimist, but
the optimist goes overboard. She gazes at the world through grossly distorted
glasses, refusing to focus on reality.
Since the optimist has failed miserably in transforming the pessimist through
various methods of harassment and blacklisting, she has come to rely more and
more heavily on pseudo-science and quackery to make her case. Such a study,
undertaken recently by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, found that optimists
live longer and are healthier than pessimists. By reviewing medical records
of 839 people living around Rochester, Minnesota, researchers were able to relate
a patient’s health and longevity to his or her outlook on life, and found that
pessimists are less likely to reach their life expectancy. This presupposes
that pessimists necessarily want to live longer, which is highly debatable,
particularly if you have to spend your life around Rochester, Minnesota.
The godfather of the positive-thinking mafia was the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent
Peale, whose famous book of sermons The Power of Positive Thinking launched
the multi-billion dollar self-help book industry and gave wings to the motivational
speaker racket. Dr. Peale’s book can be summarized simply and succinctly, based
on this one commandment: Pray more and put your faith in God, and happiness
and confidence shall be yours. This kind of simplistic direction went over big
with the Arkansas fishwives, who, I am given to understand, since putting Dr.
Peale’s wizardries to work have never been happier. And I couldn’t be happier
The psychologist Julie K. Norem has done all us critics a great service with
her book, The Power of Negative Thinking. Unlike the Rev. Dr. Peale,
Dr. Norem has her lovely toes planted firmly in the black soil of this world
and helpfully suggests that one sure-fire way to avoid embarrassment, disaster
and heart-break is by "imagining all of the worst-case scenarios."
This is Dr. Norem’s prescription so as not to be taken off guard by sudden and
unpleasant surprises. Conversely, if Dr. Peale were delivering a talk, and suddenly
found his notes whisked away by a cyclone wind and his bloomers set afire, his
positive thinking would scarcely see him through the remainder of his sermon,
which is no doubt a good thing for those of us in the audience.
If pessimism has a spiritual godfather it is perhaps the German philosopher
Arthur Schopenhauer. It has undoubtedly not escaped your notice that the godfather
of optimism was a quack doctor and backwoods preacher, while the founder of
the school of doomsaying was a legitimate philosopher. Likewise, I’m going to
assume you know what Herr Schopenhauer stood for, since it is impolite to talk
down to your readers, and since I myself can’t make heads or tails out of half
of what he’s saying. But since he was a pessimist we can safely assume that
he thought things were pretty rotten in Denmark, or Prussia, or wherever he
happened to be staying at the time.
As a philosophy, I cannot say that I find pessimism very useful in its practical
applications. The fact is I don’t find any philosophies very useful, especially
on a job resume. The pessimist philosopher holds the doctrine or belief that
this is the worst of all possible worlds and that all things ultimately tend
toward evil. I happen to know that the worst of possible worlds is Mercury where
it is always hotter than a July firecracker! As for all things ultimately tending
toward evil, well that may be stretching things a bit. I’d say all things ultimately
tend to suck. Case in point: Have you seen The Simpsons lately?
Going back even farther, we find the Cynics, a school of philosophers who haunted
the back roads and academies of ancient Greece around 4 BC. The Cynics preached
that independence and self-control are essential to virtue. Despising the budding
Greek civilization, as well as money, pleasure, and personal comfort, they advocated
the simple life, which in 4 BC, probably wasn’t all that difficult. That is,
how much money and how many luxuries did a philosophy major in Ancient Greece
really have to give up? "Instead of driving my Mercedes to my non-job I’ll
take the train. Wait, there are no trains. So I’ll walk. Wait, everybody else
is walking too. Maybe I’ll walk backwards. Or crawl…"
Oscar Wilde believed the basis for optimism was sheer terror – that optimists
are simply unable to deal with the likely outcomes and common tragedies of life.
In other words, the optimist lives in a deluded, unreal mind-state whose sunny,
evergreen landscapes in no way resemble the real world. The optimist, it follows,
may be said to have mental health issues, which explains Havelock Ellis’ observation
that "the place where optimism flourishes is the lunatic asylum."
Pessimism, then, tempered with a fine sense of humor and the ability to laugh
at life’s numerous and constant absurdities, may be the healthiest response
of all. And I say that with all of the unbounded confidence and positivity of
a true sourpuss.