Optimism: is it always good?

optimismAfter I had written about my melancholy/depression, I allowed that my default position about events is not optimism, but pessimism. My friend Cee had heard the benefits of optimism.

And indeed, if you Google “Is optimism good?” the first thing one might find is this quote from Kids’ Health: ” Optimism Is Healthy. It turns out that an optimistic attitude helps us be happier, more successful, and healthier. Optimism can protect against depression — even for people who are at risk for it. An optimistic outlook makes people more resistant to stress. Optimism may even help people live longer.”

So it’s settled. Wait a minute. The next article is a 2015 piece from the Washington Post stating that “Researchers have found a really good reason not to be an optimist.” It references an NIH study.

That Wapo article: “Optimism isn’t merely unhelpful at times—it can be demonstrably counterproductive. Telling someone ‘you can do it’ when they actually can’t doesn’t change the outcome, and it makes them more likely to exert time and effort on a fruitless task. There might be no clearer example than the fact that optimists spend more time looking for Waldo, but are no more likely to find him.” But the piece allows that pessimism is not curative either.

Ben Franklin

I had mentioned to Cee that I had long been attracted by a portrayal of Ben Franklin, on, of all things Bwitched. His character [said]… that “he always going through life expecting negative outcomes so that when something positive happened, he would be pleasantly surprised. It was a punchline that was supposed to be funny – the canned laughter told me that – but, to me, it made SENSE… ‘Perhaps I’m an optimistic pessimist — prepare for the worst, but when the very worst doesn’t happen, I’m pleasantly surprised.’”

I’m more vulnerable when I’m optimistic. I’m thinking of someone in a particular position who despised the action of a perpetrator, and rightly so. When they were in the same situation as the previous villain, I was optimistic that they, remembering how crummy they felt, would act differently. Nope, they performed the same damn way. As bad as the mess was, it was my optimism that bit me in the butt.

This is why, for instance, I’m not disappointed in politicians anymore. If they end up being better than expected, I’m pleased. But if they have feet of clay, well, what did I expect? I suppose this sounds cynical, but it tends to regulate my highs and lows, which in the main, works for me.

So the fact that I was optimistic that we’d be out of this damn pandemic by now is why I crashed emotionally a bit. This commercial really spoke to me.

Agent Orange versus my optimism/pessimism

The Trump adult male scions – THEM I need a name for; any ideas?

Arthur could hardly find any questions at all to ask me for Ask Roger Anything:

What the hell should we call the Orange Guy? I personally don’t want to use his surname, title, or anything else that would indicate respect for him that I don’t have. What’s the alternative(s) without being too childish?

I think this is a personal decision. I’ve seen Drumpf (based on the family name) which carries over to the proto-Nazi activities such as vilifying the press, and I briefly used that, but it’s a pain to spell. Others drop the T from the surname and refer to him as Rump because he’s such an ass.

I was quite taken by Hair Furor, but it works better in writing than in spoken word, because it sounds exactly as it’s SUPPOSED to sound.

Currently, I’ve settled on Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam war to destroy the enemy’s plant life but which managed to harm or kill innocent civilians and American troops, because I find him toxic. A guy named Michael who I knew for only a short time died from it in the early 1980s. I’m not married to that term, but it’ll do for now.

All things considered—interpret that as you want—are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future? If pessimistic, what are a couple things that if they changed might make you more optimistic? And if you’re optimistic, what’s your secret?!

Yes. I mean I’m optimistic because my faith requires it. I don’t mean this in a doctrinaire way, but rather how I take being a Christian. I believe, honestly, that people can change, that we all have a shot at redemption. I’m pessimistic because, despite my faith, that’s what I tend to default to, from painful experience.

Melancholy gets in the way too, and it’s not just me: Americans who voted against AO are feeling unprecedented dread and despair.

I’d be more optimistic if I thought we were all dealing with the same facts. There was this story about the Trump adult male scions – THEM I need a name for; any ideas? – involved in some unsavory pay-for-play scheme, for the second time since the election.

Someone, who I know personally, chimed in and said it was “Fake news. Fake news. Fake news.” And she said, “Research it.” I said, I did. And she said, “Please, check with Trump sources,” by which time the boys were backpedaling, not knowing HOW their names showed up on the invitation.

I wrote, “They realize they’ve been caught doing something egregiously wrong and try to change the narrative, to be kind. You do not seem to understand the definition of ‘fake news,’ which [contains] articles that are false, written to deceive. These are mainstream news sources [TIME, the Wall Street Journal] playing the appropriate role as the fourth estate, ignoring a politician’s spin…”

I also cited Mark Evanier, who noted: “You get the feeling we’re facing four years where the response to every single criticism of the Trump presidency will be that it’s a lie, the evidence is phony and even it were true, we don’t care what anyone says.”

And it went on from there.

John Ziegler, conservative radio host: “Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with.” The quote was in a New York Times story about how conservatives are now using the term “fake news” for anything they disagree with. And even educated people are buying into it.

We can’t fight climate changeGLOBAL WARMING if we can’t agree it’s happening. Plus the nominees for Cabinet positions under Agent Orange are anti-environment, anti-labor, anti-education, et al. How optimistic do you want me to be? Still, we try.

Only slightly off topic: NO one should ever use the phrase “Do your research” on social media without a link to the research THEY are referring to. As a librarian, I need to know WHAT sources someone is quoting that I need to investigate. I’m sure I’ve written that before, but after the aforementioned incident, I feel the need to reiterate it.

Jaquandor asks a similar question:

Is it just wishful thinking that I increasingly see Trump as the somewhat accidental victory of a dying worldview?

I find in AO’s victory, and some right-wingers in Europe, including the Brexit vote, a return to tribalism. When the world is scary, with bombings and shootings and stabbings and trucks being used as weapons, I suspect that there will be a certain desire for a “good old days” that doesn’t exist, that closing the borders ultimately won’t fix.

I would like to think of it as a dying worldview, but I’m not convinced I’m right.

I think things are likely to get pretty cruddy short-term

Now THAT I agree with!

The family saw a production of Camelot at the Capitol Rep in downtown Albany on Christmas Eve afternoon. It was EXTRAORDINARILY good, with knights and ladies and even the leading lady doubling as instrumentalists. But in the end, I was incredibly sad.

That ideal of working things out under the rules of law, and brainpower, lost! War won out. And this was a day or two after Agent Orange called for a nuclear arms race.

…but I remain optimistic long-term. Am I dumb to think that?

Well, no, you’re not dumb. Without hope, what is there?

At our most recent Christmas Eve service, I read aloud Isaiah 11: 4a, 5-9, which contains the familiar, albeit misremembered, passage about the wolf and the lamb. Either it is a prophecy, or it is an entreating that we help make it happen. Either way, I am not without hope.


A faint, yet perceptible streak

redhotblueA few months back, I was thinking about how Independence Day has traditionally made me cranky. I was going to do a piece called The Wrong Question/The Right Question, and I even asked folks to help me.

Some examples:

The Wrong Question: Whether we need voter ID.
The Right Question: Whether we have polling places open long enough, and staffed well enough, to accommodate voters. Failing that, whether mail voting would be a credible solution.

The Wrong Question: Whether people on food stamps should use them for buying steaks.
The Right Question: Why many of the working poor make so little that they’re eligible for food stamps.
The Wrong Question: Let’s worry about wacko conspiracy fantasies.
The Wrong Question: Let’s worry about reality-based conspiracies.

The Wrong Question: Why don’t we spend more on war?
The Right Question: Why don’t we spend more money on infrastructure?

Then the piece got scuttled by something I don’t usually look for in me: a faint, yet perceptible streak of…I’m afraid to say it, lest I jinx it…bridled optimism.

Since I have a difficult time articulating that, I’m going to suggest reading The Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality “identifies the pillars upon which healthy social structures can be built.”

Toni Morrison called for a return to citizenship spoke to me.

But the piece that sounded most like the voice in my ear had to be “We are in a revolutionary moment”: Chris Hedges explains why an uprising is coming — and soon. Yes, as he notes, “If things unravel [in the U.S.], our backlash may very well be…a very frightening rightwing backlash.” Or:

If you look at what’s happened after Occupy, it’s either spawned or built alliances with a series of movements; whether it’s #BlackLivesMatter, whether it’s the Fight for $15 campaign, whether it’s challenging the TPP [even though TPP unfortunately seemed to have succeeded]. I think they are all interconnected and, often times — at least when I’m with those activists — there is a political consciousness that I find quite mature.

Just last week, same-gender marriage was affirmed: “The petitioners, far from seeking to devalue marriage, seek it for themselves because of their respect — and
need — for its privileges and responsibilities.” Oh, and Obamacare survived.

I’ve had that first song from West Side Story stuck me my head, but I need to alter the lyrics:

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something hope it’s good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
ButPray it is
Gonna be great!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Bewitched and Ben Franklin

“Defensive pessimism” – that sounds about the right description of my philosophy.

I know some people who appear to be unrelentingly positive, seeing the 3/4s empty glass as 1/4 full. I appreciate those people, as long as they don’t seem to be wearing rose-colored glasses.

I was commenting on someone’s blog – more on that anon – and I was reminded of one of those peculiar childhood memories that, I believe, color my view of the world to this day.

It was an episode of the 1960s television program Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

I recall very little about the particulars, actually. Couldn’t tell you which Darrin was in it, Dick York or Dick Sargent. We had a black and white TV, so I couldn’t tell you if it was broadcast in color. Don’t even particularly remember the plot.

I DO know, though, that Benjamin Franklin appeared, for some reason. His character was offering up all sorts of aphorisms. One was that he always going through life expecting negative outcomes so that when something positive happened, he would be pleasantly surprised. It was a punchline that was supposed to be funny – the canned laughter told me that – but, to me, it made SENSE. (The exact quote from the show, according to here: “I’m more optimistic than pessimistic. Or perhaps I’m an optimistic pessimist — prepare for the worst, but when the very worst doesn’t happen, I’m pleasantly surprised.”)

Last month, in her V is for Visualization post, Meryl at Departing the Text wrote:

Studies suggest…that optimistic affirmations designed to lift one’s mood, often achieve the opposite effect.

…The Power of Negative Thinking essayist, Oliver Burkeman suggests that there is an alternative approach to help us find that sometimes elusive (holiday) cheer: “…both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier.”

According to Burkeman, Albert Ellis (a New York psychotherapist) rediscovered this key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: “the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.”

Stoics called this worst-case scenario therapy “the premeditation of evils” and they believed that doing this would remove the anxiety “THE FUTURE” relayed. According to Burkeman, modern psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy which she terms “defensive pessimism.”

Burkeman further posits that: “The ultimate value of the ‘negative path’ may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by the craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.”

“Defensive pessimism” – that sounds about the right description of my philosophy. On the other hand, I think that worrying is highly overrated.

This begs the question: was Ben Franklin portrayed accurately in a sitcom a half-century ago? This quote is attributed to him, according to several sources: “I’d rather be a pessimist because then I can only be pleasantly surprised.” So, kinda sorta, yeah.