Monday, January 14, 2008

In Praise of Pessimism

I do not subscribe to the modern obsession with optimism: with being optimistic and, with projecting it. I am, in fact, slightly suspicious of people who project optimism, unless it is naïve; like that of childhood, or of youth. A fifty year old optimist is a perversion of nature or a politician, which amounts to the same thing.

Over the years, I have become used to friends and strangers responding with- why are you such a pessimist? On several occasions, their reactions have been strong enough to throw me into grave self doubt. Am I wrong? Despite the doubt however, I have never wavered from my instinctive feeling that pessimism is, at least, as positive a force in life as optimism. Pessimism is real, it is meaningful and, above all, it is honest. Optimism on the other hand is often chimerical and, is frequently used to subvert individual and social integrity: to sell dreams of an alternate reality to those who are unhappy with their current one and, who know that they have been shorn of all power to alter their situation. It is used to sell war to those who are at peace, to sell brutality to those who would otherwise remain, merely, callous, to sell passive acquiescence to those who would otherwise revolt.

What is wrong with pessimism? When things are bleak is it not better to see them as they are and, to say them as you see them? Pessimism is not loss of hope. They frequently coexist. It is not depression. And, even depression need not necessarily signify loss of hope, at least not a complete loss.

Pessimism is not defeat, or defeatism. Robert Bruce could not have been optimistic of his chances when he waged his final battle against his enemies. In my view, he would never have won that last battle had he not been realistic and, pessimistic.

Pessimism does not mean you stop making an effort. History is replete with examples of people who overcame “insurmountable” odds. What about Helen Keller? What about Gautam Buddha? I don’t think either of them would have been optimistic about their chances when they started on their quest. Let us not forget that Siddharth the prince must have been just like us when he left home: full of confusion, anxiety and despair. He could not have been optimistic about finding answers to his questions. On the contrary, it seems to me that the path to nirvana must have frequently filled him with despair, what to speak of mere pessimism.

Pessimism, in fact, can and often does, lead to great achievement. Those who decry it are probably people of shallow faith. They fail to appreciate the dogged, determined, stubborn quest for survival that actuates life. They refuse to see that pessimism is the missing link that adds to make up the critical minimum mass necessary for the chain reaction to begin.

If you are not on a high then you are low, is the way most people think nowadays. Or, if you are not riding a rainbow then you are depressed. This is one of the reasons for the rampant proliferation of psychiatrists, counselors and anti depressants in the west and nowadays, in India too. All of a sudden we are surrounded by selves unable to cope. Each of us would probably have also felt that way at least once in our lives till now. Why is this? What happened to the much touted ability of homo-sapiens to adapt, change and, cope? Maybe is this is a pointer to the end of the road for “people”. But I think not. It seems to me that the pessimism-optimism binary is contributing to the exponential increase in the psychological fragility of people. Maybe, having survived several millennia of evolution and change without being hooked to this binary, we are finally tired of the effort required to live with without too much chimera for support.

Besides a fundamental rejection, I also object to the optimist-pessimist binary for the ease with which it lends itself as a tool for manipulating people. Some manipulators are "good" and they help those they manipulate with the help of this binary but the overwhelming bulk of the manipulation is bad, very, very bad. We are now well and truly in a cycle of - increasing fragility leading to a bigger handle to the manipulators (the bad ones), leading to increasing fragility ..... This increasing fragility of self suits the people who control the levers of today's world. The more people have to struggle with maintaining an equilibrium of sanity the less likely they are to join in dissent and other "harmful" activities. Have you noticed how society acts on the assumption that it has the right to a greater say in the lives of people who are struggling with their selves? And, most of the time it gets away with this invasion into people's autonomy because the need to be accepted is one of the most overwhelming.

In a culture of “hope”, those who benefit from it frequently sell lies. False hope is worse than no hope. The fallout of failure is much worse when false hope is dashed, as is bound to happen. The world is drowning in the reaction of people whose hopes and expectations have been dashed. Levels of violence, cynicism and despair are at an all time high. Is it not better to take a realistic, hard headed view of things, acknowledge the extreme difficulties of the long and arduous path to be traversed and, ask people to be prepared to forge ahead step by painful step. I think this is the only way that we can rebuild our shattered society into a semblance of wholeness? I am unable to persuade myself that my view of the world (current or future) is negative, though I do have to guard against negativity like anyone else.

We Indians (and other pre-modern people) have a much better alternative to this see-saw. Our culture suggests that we cultivate a state of mind called “sam bhav”. It connotes a neutral state of mind. Neither high nor low. Take things as they come. Don’t expect good fortune, or bad. I should think such a mind is no more difficult to cultivate than any other disciplined mindset. To paraphrase Herman Hesse, we must learn to think, to fast and, to wait.

To conclude, pessimism is not the death that it is usually touted to be. It is not the darkness of abject despair. It is the expectation that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, the hope of which keeps you going long after reason, and optimism, would have made you give up. It is life. Optimism on the other hand is, frequently, manic.

1 comment:

dan said...

You have a most interesting blog and your ideas and thoughts are wonderful to read. You are in India. I am in Taiwan. From USA long ago. 1949. Re your ideas on pessimism and the email about the man with no hands who fixes bicycles.....I see that in Taiwan every day, too.

Wonder if you have ever heard of my idea of polar cities for survivors of global warming in some far distant future? See my blog here:

As in the future, everyone in India might have to migrate north, say year 2500 or so. What do you think of my pessimistic/optimistic idea? Google the term "polar cities" to learn more and then email me at danbloom GMAIL dot com,
would very much like to chat by email with you on this.