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Pessimism
 

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.

― James Branch Cabell

On a Christmas visit long ago, my mother made it known she needed to buy a pair of navy-blue wool slacks while she was staying with us. She then lived in a small town two hours north of Phoenix and had little opportunity to shop for clothes back home. My wife was busy making Christmas preparations and wisely begged off joining my mother and me on a shopping expedition. I drove my mother to the mall, which had numerous women’s clothing outlets. Even before we arrived, my mother was steeling herself for disappointment. She noted how difficult it was to find clothing in her size. (She was tall but wore standard sizes.) Every store we entered, my mother would announce in advance that she wouldn’t find what she was looking for. We returned home empty-handed several hours later. My mother reported with grim satisfaction that we had not found the navy-blue wool slacks she wanted, just as she had expected. By this time, I was fit to be tied. If she was so certain she wouldn’t find what she was looking for, why had we wasted the afternoon looking?

A few days later we took my mother to dinner. It turned out the restaurant was next door to a clothing store that specialized in classic women’s styles. My wife suggested we pop in to see if they had any navy-blue wool slacks. Even though my mother was certain they would not, especially not in her size, my wife persuaded her to give it a try. I waited out front. Sure enough, my mother found what she was looking for, and the store even offered to ship her purchase back home, so she wouldn’t have to carry it on the plane.

We all tend to become caricatures of ourselves as we get older. This was certainly true in my mother’s case. She always had a pessimistic streak, but she became reflexibly so on all matters great and small in her old age. By this time she had been diagnosed with depression, which undoubtedly had a lot to do with it. She had not had a happy childhood. Her adoptive parents had been divorced when she was three -- this at a time when divorce was still regarded as a major scandal. Then her adoptive mother had died of congestive heart failure when she was 15, effectively leaving her as an orphan. My mother had learned the hard way that hoping for the best only laid you open to serious disappointment when the worst arrived.

As it happens, Alain de Botton, a leading contemporary philosopher, has put his imprimatur on my mother’s approach to life. “Embrace a philosophy of pessimism,” he advises. “Every human will disappoint you, and you'll do the same to them.” Writing in Influence magazine, he maintains,

The greatest part of our suffering, at work and elsewhere, is brought about by our hopes (for health, happiness and success). Therefore, the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to recognize that our griefs are not incidental or passing, but a fundamental aspect of existence that will only get worse.

As de Botton himself readily acknowledges, eschewing the bright side has long philosophical precedent behind it, starting with the ancients. “What need is there to weep over parts of life?” asked the Stoic philosopher Seneca. “The whole of it calls for tears.” Nietzsche quoted Silenus, the mythological companion to the Greek god Dionysus, saying, “The best thing is never to be born at all. If you're born, best to die quickly.” In a similar vein, Montaigne later observed, "Man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched."

De Botton believes philosophy’s pessimistic streak is at least partly rooted in Christianity. True, Christians have tended to regard life on this side of the grave as a “vale of tears” (a term that actually originated in the Old Testament). However, you can also make the case that the Apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s founders, is also a great apostle of hope. He regarded it as one of three cardinal virtues, along with faith and charity. “We rejoice in our sufferings,” he wrote, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Such sentiments were eagerly embraced by the early church, which was savagely persecuted by Jews and Romans alike.

St. Paul’s brand of hopefulness bears no relation to the dewy-eyed optimism of Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. Professor Pangloss, you will recall, kept babbling on about all things being for the best in the best of all possible worlds – this in the teeth of one unrelenting disaster after another. Paul’s starting point was suffering, and he made no effort to sugarcoat it. The Risen Christ had anointed him to be the apostle to the Gentiles with the promise, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." And so it played out. Paul was beaten, stoned, vilified, shipwrecked, jailed and eventually martyred by the Romans. If indeed suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, then surely Paul was not disappointed.

Perhaps it has occurred to you that Paul might simply have been a masochist. We would do well to remember that the Greeks included hope among the evils unloosed on the world when the lid was removed from Pandora’s box (actually a jar). As Nietzsche explained it, “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”

Why make a virtue out of hope when the most sensible course of action would be to cut our losses? In terms that any poker player would understand, we need to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Hope really has nothing to do with it – nor, for that matter, does pessimism. Hope just causes us to play a weak hand, while pessimism keeps us from playing a winning hand. We must to play the odds. Is the glass half full or half empty? Neither. What we need to realize is that it is just half a glass of water.

Alain de Botton, “How to Turn Pessimism into the Positive,” Influence, May 7, 2017
Psalm 84:6
Romans 5:3-5
Acts 9:15-16
Freidrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

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