How I view the future

We frame views about the future in a dichotomous way. Either you are optimistic or pessimistic. You need to make a fundamental and overarching judgment about how things will end up. So which will it be?


I am not optimistic

Optimism is a false way of life, based on deluding ourselves to think that all will end well when it may very well not. There is a strong cultural bias toward optimism - there is immense pressure to see the rosiest possible outcome even when that outcome is a distinctly unlikely one. I've heard that there's a biological advantage to optimism. But that doesn't make it morally correct or even factually accurate. Nature picks winners and losers by a somewhat different scale than human society does.


I am not pessimistic

Pessimism is a false way of life, based on deluding ourselves to think that all will end poorly when it may very well not (surely there is some good with all the bad). There is a strong cultural bias against pessimism, although it has been fetishized in certain circles. Doomsday prophecies hold a certain allure, if only so we can lambast their lack of hope.


There are various problems with these two philosophies:

  • They are inconsistent with reality, since there is plenty of good and plenty of bad out there
  • They demand making a firm decision about a future that is incredibly complex and inherently unknowable
  • They demand making a firm judgment of human nature as either fundamentally righteous or fundamentally flawed, when in fact we regularly see strong evidence for both conclusions
  • They lead to a black and white way of thinking that is dangerous to mental health (contributing to depression and anxiety) and decision making (disallowing the possibility of compromise)
  • They lead us to make character judgments about people in the other camp, as I often do myself, viewing them as either overly sanguine or excessively gloomy, clouding our ability to empathize and preempting discussion of substantive issues


I am realistic

I believe there is plenty of good and plenty of evil out there, and that people can embody both extremes, sometimes even at the same time. I believe our future is messy and indeterminate and that it will include various triumphs alongside plenty of moral lapses. I have a responsibility, difficult though it may be, to assess situations based on their merits rather than a rigid structure of upward or downward forecasts. This is more intellectually honest and more psychologically healthy.

I will be the first to admit that I have found this difficult, because I have historically lean toward pessimism. I often jump to the worst possible prediction, assuming that "it won't happen," "it will go poorly," or "I'll fail." Overcoming this requires the self-confidence not to be limited by past experience. It requires an honest look at facts. And it requires a realization that I need not always be pessimistic - that, as a matter of fact, I can be realistic.

For someone who has been pessimistic for years, realism feels overly cheery. To view a situation based on its merits seems to give it too much credit. This is the struggle. I won't say there's an easy or quick way out. But I won't call it impossible either.