Or, An Essay Towards a Contemporary Definition of Pessimism
Is the opposite of a ‘successful life’ a ‘failed death’? Can one fail at death? If the ultimate end of being alive is dying, might we rightly mark death as a sort of culmination?
You’ve likely heard the distinction between optimism and pessimism expressed by the glass tumbler image. It is not unuseful when trying to explain the difference to a child. But the position of ‘pessimist’ becomes more nuanced as a person endures repeated misfortune.
For instance, a person can have a terrible attitude in their dealings with other people. They can be gruff, insulting, and just generally unpleasant. And I find that even in the presence of people such as this, when I make a sincerely pessimistic claim, they will defend their version of hope. It surprises me when I meet a person whom to me seems unhappy express a greater anticipation of the good to come than the evil that is.
I do not think it’s too extreme an induction to say that Americans generally have no time for pessimists. “Negative Nancy,” “Naysayer,” or “Wet Blanket” or “Kill Joy,” or “Energy Vampire.” Of course, not all these signifiers denote the same reality. And one could easily convince me that the pejoratives don’t even refer to true pessimists. I use them, though, to draw attention to the negative connotation attached to my tribe.
In college, I used the meteor as my metaphor for the nameless and all pervading terror that puts its inky, vaporous tentacles on every experiential event that may be subject to memory. I used a great deal of ink from an inexpensive pen on a glossy folio to detail what the devastating reality of a meteor brought to earth would look like. It is possible that some day all intelligent life on earth will be eradicated by a meteor.
Most of my intellectual obsessions are actually a retreat from reality. It is only recently I’ve realized I can perversely combine the two: studying civilizational decline and collapse.
Joseph Tainter, one of the experts on this subject (collapse), has stated in a presentation that social complexity is paid for by an increase in annoyance. He gave the example of long waits at the added security checkpoints in airports. I would assert that we also pay for complexity by increased anxiety. Why are there added security checkpoints in the first place?
This is perhaps one reason why workplace bullying and group intolerance are becoming less tolerable and liable to punishment. People are already fraught with terror in general for some of the following reasons:
- They are never going to be loved by another person
- They are no longer loved by another person in particular
- Their college degree is virtually useless
- They have gone into debt to obtain the college degree
- They have to compete in Olympic level competitions in order to secure a good paying job
- They are uncertain if they are going to be able to keep their good paying job
- They are uncertain that if they are loved by a person and have a good paying job and have kids, if they are going to successfully not damage their children
- Assuming all the above works out moderately okay, they are unsure if their children are going to ‘put them in a home’ when they become inconvenient to take care of
My point is that there are more justifiable reasons to be ridden with anxiety than there are to feel safe and content. This is a facet of pessimism.
I’m hesitant to quote any technical definitions of pessimism. The trick of honest pessimism is that it presents best when it is inadvertent. In other words, pessimism is not concerned so much in asserting itself as it is in revealing the truly horrifying facts of life.
Philip K. Dick once said, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Cioran wrote: “the limit to every pain is an even greater pain.”
A Russian proverb states: “If you wake up in the morning and you don’t feel any pain, you know you’re dead.”
Pessimism doesn’t deny good things happen, but it is profoundly suspicious in claiming that good things are the norm.
It is beyond the power of one person to systematically tally all the good and bad events that befall humanity over a statistically significant period of time (I would wager it is also beyond the competence of a philosopher to definitely characterize any event as inherently good or bad). No one can empirically verify if more good things happen in the world than bad, or vice-versa. An optimist, who is much more defensive of their optimism than a pessimist is of their truth, will assert that it depends on what you dwell on. If one merely dwells on the reality of the situation, I can’t understand why an optimist persists in their opinion. Unless there is neurobiological evidence to suggests that, according to our senses, we really do occupy different worlds.
I think of the phenomenon of failure as structurally similar in its features to collapse. In failure, our attempt to meet certain criteria are not met. In relationships, a failure is when the other party sees what you’re putting down, but refuses to pick it up. In employment, failure is when you get fired or just never advance. In academia, failure is when you find that knowledge you love, but simply do not posses the genius or work ethic to master the particular knowledge. In family, a type of failure is when you realize you are the black sheep and no one else feels the same level of anxiety in your presence as you do in theirs. In friendship, failure is when your friends forget to or choose not to invite you to reindeer games. In creativity, failure is when you have a tremendous yearning to write a nameless something, and you sit there in front of the paper, spurting sawdust and and feeling sleepy. In life, failure is enjoying sleep more than activities.
But once you fail, the anxiety of success is over. You are simply alive (unless you failed at life, in which case, you don’t have to worry about success ever again).
A sincere pessimist doesn’t begrudge the dogged optimist their instability. He or she perhaps looks at it wistfully. Timidly reaches out his or her hand, but catches themselves, closes their hand, and retracts it slowly, and covers their breast with it. “No,” the pessimist says,”no, I do not want the sort of stress that being happy entails. If I pursue happiness or not, either way, I’ll pay for it with suffering, just like all the other times I did or did not do something. I think I’d rather read a book, instead.”