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?
Optimism is a false way of life
If I have to hear "it will all work out in the end" one more time...
Optimism is based on deluding ourselves into thinking that all will end well when it may very well not (what to make of all the tragedy befalling others around the world?) At least in the West, there is a strong cultural bias toward optimism. We face 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; we are no longer bound by pure natural selection.
Pessimism isn't any better
Pessimism relies on the delusion 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. And for their part, the media are all too happy to peddle hyperbolic narratives that draw views through fear. Self-described "religious prophets" eagerly predict the end of years. Doomsday prophecies hold a certain allure, if only so we can lambaste their lack of hope.
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
There's no need to choose one extreme or the other. 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.
This is a work in progress for me. 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.
Drafted: September 7, 2014
Refined: October 16, 2014
Revisited: January 22, 2016