In Defence of Pessimism

I’m spending an awful lot of downtime right now, waiting on Peace Corps to decide that the paperwork is finished so that they can actually get around to taking care of me.  So I’ve been doing odd things; most recently, I picked up a mandolin and have been spending hours learning how to play it.  I’ll be a bluegrass star by the time I get back to South Africa, at this point.  But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking, about a million and one things.   So first thought, for this post: I’ve been told by various people that I need to be more optimistic, often by people who seem downright offended that anyone take a negative view to things.  And I’m kind of sick of it.

We all know the standard “glass half full/empty” scenario.  And in such a scenario, it may very well be rational to take the glass to be half full.  After all, one might as well be happy, all other things being equal.

But I, as a professional pessimist, don’t take the glass to be half empty.  Other things are *not* equal.  My claim, rather, is that the glass is darn well near gone.  The optimist might claim that the glass is half full, or even entirely so.  This is mere delusion.  It is an emotional security blanket that might give her peace and comfort, but at the cost of her ability to actually engage the world as it is.  Polyanna-ism is highly selfish.  

Other optimists might rather say that we should be grateful for the water we have instead of cursing what we lack.  As long as they also act on that latter knowledge, I guess that I have no serious quarrel with them; it is when they again wrap themselves up in “gratitude” to feel better while ignoring that lack that I have my concerns.

The pessimist claims that the world is actually in a bad spot.  She does not merely say that it can be viewed as such, but rather that things are actually messed up.  And recognition of this mess, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, is a necessity to doing anything about it.  She might be factually wrong.  In that case, give her facts and evidence to show her otherwise.  But to deride her for being negative and critical, as if such were in itself a vice instead of active engagement with the world, is to showcase one’s own emotional inability to cope rather than make any statement about the pessimist.

In the end, emotions don’t tell us about the world.  They tell us about us.  Feeling good, feeling bad, feeling something to be true or false, are mostly meaningless when we assume that they refer to something more than, well, how we feel.  Which is not unimportant, and is ignored at one’s own peril; but to take them as our compass to the world would be like me saying to myself: I am madly in love with that woman, therefore we will be together one day.  The fact that a view makes someone feel bad or out of place is not in the slightest bit a piece of evidence that such a view is wrong.

So please, I implore my readers, don’t put people down for pointing out the uncomfortable.    Thank them for having the courage to do so, and honestly assess whether they might be correct.  Challenge them in turn if necessary, but never let comfort and peace of mind seal you off from the world.

And speaking of being sealed off from the world, I’m still sitting here, playing music and writing blog entries, probably for at least another month (though who knows? It’s not like I’ve had any clue about what was going to happen the rest of this trip back).  Send me messages and emails and music and, I don’t know, funny pictures or something.

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Cynical Optimism

As part of my preparation, I’ve also been hunting down some more negative reviews of Peace Corps. I had read Village of Waiting a while back, and posted my review of it. Here are a couple other more negative articles I just read, for the sake of full disclosure: here and here.

But of course, even reading this, I plan on going into PC. I wholeheartedly accepted my invitation and look forward to the next couple of years, difficult though they may be. And perhaps even ineffective as they may be. Why?

First, much idealism is misplaced. People don’t often do great things – and those that do, are often assassinated or endure years of imprisonment in the meantime. Doing something small is the best that we can hope for. This is a lesson I learned hard from university teaching, even here in the US (and while we usually don’t have the problems of corruption that one sees endemic in much of the rest of the world, Marquette had all the problems of overadministration and fruitless bureaucracy one could hope for). So there is nothing to complain about when one finds that only small projects succeed, or that most of a classroom is unruly.

Second, human beings take as much power as they can get and do whatever they can with it, to either cover up mistakes or to benefit themselves. Of course I hate what people do with power. But when I’m truly honest with myself, I’m not sure that I would do better in their position. It’s part of being civilized apes. This is the actual world we live in. And we only succeed by responding to the world as it actually is. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and so on are only remembered as great because society around them sucked and they took that suckitude seriously. If we can’t find something to do in the midst of corruption and ineptitude, then we can’t actually do anything to help the world when and where it is needed most.

Third, failure is instructive. If I spend two years not getting through to anyone at all, then I plan to document and study those two years the best I can. I am a researcher and I plan to use that skill. I have benefited from hearing about the problems I will most likely face. I plan to make my problems clear to others so that they can build the next step. Two years of “failure” would just be two years spent figuring out a solution. Since we all only make small contributions to the world and since all real change takes time and preparation, such a study is just as important as anything else. After reflection, I have learned much from my failure as a university professor, perhaps much more than I would have from a year of success.

Fourth, there are three main goals of Peace Corps. Only one is development of the community. The other two are teaching people here in the US about the culture I’ll be entering (a primary function of this blog), and teaching people in that culture about the US. I hope to leave a mark on the community – that would be fantastic. But something is still gained by learning about how another section of the world lives and works. Culture isn’t all music and dancing. Sometimes it is alcoholism and poverty. But in learning that, I can decide to do something about these issues in the rest of my life. Following one’s passion on its own is silly and self-indulgent. Follow where your interests, your ability, and some need intersect.