The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Archive for May, 2010


Posted by Ron George on May 15, 2010

Spring cactus, La casita, Boerne

There’s something enabling about having one’s personal experience resonate with that of great authors.  It may sound perverse, but I took William JamesVarieties of Religious Experience on vacation last month, and I found myself sharing a piece of humanity with the likes of Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan. We’re pessimists who cannot ignore and must give an account of our misery and that of the world in general.

James believes this is a more accurate view of the world, although he doesn’t discount the power of optimists who prefer not to look at evil and its disciples; indeed, who accuse pessimists of being morbidly ill. There’s clearly room for both species, and James says there’s a dose of both in all of us; but James worries about the comeuppance inevitably faced by those who believe a healthy mind is always that which habitually eschews the negative to seek the silver lining. Melancholy happens, James argues, no two ways about it. He wonders whether healthy-minders are sufficiently equipped to deal with it.

I’ve never been an optimist, and I’ve always felt a little bad about being gloomy or moody or whatever it is that puts me more at that end of the spectrum. Melancholy, however, is a transient state. It doesn’t have to be “healed.” James says it’s a way of understanding one’s predicament, something of a struggle that keeps the human organism alert and, perhaps, even alive. It doesn’t look that way from the outside, but mentally and emotionally digesting one’s place in the universe is a form of engagement that makes one tired and, sometimes, depressed. It’s annoying, too – but it also generates perspective. It’s one of the ways we have evolved for dealing with our complex being in the world, body and mind.

Birdbath, La Casita

Who doesn’t like hearing confirmation of one’s bias? I like hearing William James say pessimism is healthy. You don’t hear that very often nowadays. James even suggests that slipping into the depths to find one’s way out is preferable to perpetual optimism, which he finally concludes is a prescription for disillusionment and, ultimately, the same kind of despair suffered by pessimists – except that optimists may not know what to do with it. James says disillusioned optimists often fall into hopelessness. Despairing pessimists, on the other hand, believe that while there doesn’t appear to be any hope, they know in their heart of hearts that there’s always hope, even when it seems unlikely.

Pessimistic hope may be no more than wondering “What comes next?” but that’s still a species of hope, and it may not sound like much to optimists who know, somehow, on the basis of belief, that the future is always bright. Maybe that equips them for dealing with concentration camps and genocide – but maybe not. Pessimists acknowledge from the outset that such evils are not only possible but probable, given what we know of human history. It’s just a matter of when not whether the next catastrophe will occur (see, “Earthquake in Haiti”).

On a more personal scale, pessimists know it’s just a matter of time before adversity comes knocking – not whether but when. We try not to live in dread of it, though; we’re just not surprised when it happens, and in a sense, we may be even more delighted than optimists by unexpected blessings. Optimists often shrug when miracles happen: “So, what else did you expect? God’s in charge here.” Well, replies the pessimist, maybe not. What about all those people in Haiti who weren’t miraculously dug out of collapsed buildings 15 days after the earthquake? Throwing starfish back into the sea one at a time ultimately doesn’t save millions stranded high and dry on the beach. It means a lot to the single starfish, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves. Band-aids and index fingers don’t repair a dike about to be overwhelmed by the storm. Catastrophe is inevitable. It’s not a matter of whether but when.

If it’s true that most of us are hybrids, then perhaps a kind of equilibrium works in our favor when life happens: Our inner pessimist warns us to be prepared for inevitable catastrophe; meanwhile, our inner optimist reminds us that dawn is inevitable, too. Likewise, our communities of meaning – family, friends and neighbors – nourish us with what might be called pessioptimism, the sic-et-non, yin/yang equipoise of soul that gets us through the good, the bad and the ugly with our eyes wide open.


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