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Personal Essay: Pessimism

On Pessimism.

An essay on the subject of 'pessimism,' written for a personal essay workshop class. Spring 2011.

I've always thought the question of "Is the glass half empty or half full" is a little biased.

Look at the matter from a technical standpoint. It's a glass. A glass, as a single entity, is not made in a factory containing anything other than air. A glass, by default, does not come with water in it. Thus, the state of a glass containing any amount of water is to be noted -- any amount of water in comparison to the glass' neutral state (0) is a positive (+) amount of water. Thus, any intelligent person would have to say that the glass is at the least half full, if not also half empty. This is the answer I would give if posed with the question.

This is not to say I am an optimist in any way. I'm a pessimist.

Actually, no. It would be more accurate to call myself a pejorist. Because:

1) pejorism, the belief that the world can only grow worse, is a specific subcategory of pessimism.
2) a 'pejorist' sounds more exotic than a 'pessimist.' (Yes, I am that shallow in some aspects.)

Pessimists have always had a bit of a bad rap in polite society. Not for no reason, I suppose. I have to admit that it would be a bit unpleasant to be stuck having dinner with someone who can only discuss the dirty spots on the tablecloth instead of the delicious food that is being served, and someone who constantly waits for it to rain during a picnic wouldn't be the happiest camper to hang out with.

But look at some of the things famous people have said about pessimism and its followers:

"Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power." -- William James
"Pessimism never won any battle." -- Dwight David Eisenhower
"Pessimism is an excuse for not trying and a guarantee to personal failure." -- Bill Clinton

Pretty harsh, no?

Not that optimists are let off scott free, of course. Mark Twain, for example, is recorded as having said, "Optimist: day-dreamer spelled more elegantly," while Oscar Wilde said "The basis of optimism is sheer terror." Society as a whole has become rather cynical as of late, I think. A good illustration of this phenomenon I once saw was a comic comparing the science fiction of the previous generation, and the science fiction of the current generation. In the past, the future was viewed as sleek and shiny and full of brilliant chrome surfaces -- like if the world was designed by Apple. Modern science fiction, on the other hand, tends to picture the future in a post-apocalyptic, ruined mess. Where have our hopes for a beautiful, streamlined future gone?

At this point, some definitions may help:

Taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, optimism refers to "hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something." A looser definition would be that an optimist always expects the best possible outcome in any situation. Pessimism, on the other hand, as defined by the English Collins Dictionary, refers to "the tendency to expect the worst and see the worst in things." A pessimist, therefore, would expect the worst possible outcome in any situation.

A cynic is unlike either of these two -- a cynic will, under no circumstances, believe that anything good is ever happening to him. Both optimists and pessimists will acknowledge when something good is happening, the difference lies in their perception of this 'good thing.' An optimist, who was expecting the very best outcome, will often be disappointed by a lukewarm-good result. A pessimist, who expected nothing good in the first place, will be pleasantly surprised by any result that is even remotely positive.

-- so why, exactly, are pessimists so often called weak and cowardly?

I suppose one can call pessimists weak only in that they would rather not deal with the constant disappointment that being an optimist entails? (Along similar lines, I certainly respect optimists. I have a good Christian friend who I think is about the most optimistic person I've ever know, and I have never once seen her downcast or miserable. It must take an absolutely godly amount of patience, persistence and strength to live in such a state of perpetual hope despite the constant disappointments that the world provides.)

But the line between being cowardly and simply well-prepared is so thin, if not non-existent. A man who prepares to be robbed by setting up burglar alarms and fences is not called cowardly, he's called intelligent and practical. And yet a pessimist, who prepares for the worst in life by steeling himself beforehand, is dismissed as a sub-par member of society. As radio broadcaster Paul Harvey put it, "I've never seen a monument erected to a pessimist."

(I would hope that he's wrong. Most pessimists, I think, never admit that they're pessimistic precisely because they'll be dismissed as unpleasant and/or incompetent.)

One of the problems, I think, lays in the way that pessimists and their similarly bitter ilk (cynics, misanthropes, malists and nihilists) are portrayed in popular culture. Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh series of books and cartoons, of course, is one of the more famous examples of a highly nihilistic and pessimistic character -- a character who is infinitely gloomy, impossible to please and borderline mean, especially in the original books. At best, he is portrayed as a too-wise character who has simply been given the short end of the stick all his life, and at worst, he only serves to bring down the good mood of the other, happier residents of the Hundred Acre Woods.

Eeyore: Everyone around here is always smiling. I wonder what I'm missing.
Eeyore: (Smiles)
Eeyore: Now I'll probably get laugh wrinkles.
Other iconic pessimistic characters in popular media include Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Oscar the Ground from Sesame Street, and Grumpy from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. These characters may be intelligent and practical, sometimes even witty in their deadpan sarcasm, but are rarely ever likable.

This is a gross misrepresentation of what a real-life pessimist would be, I think. Not that I am calling myself a prime example of a modern-day pessimist, but being prepared for the worst does not have to imply any sort of gloomy personality -- personality and mind-set do not always go hand-in-hand, and I think I'm capable of preparing myself for a sudden thunderstorm without acting as if my puppy has just been struck by lightning. I imagine optimists also must have some difficulty with the way that they're often portrayed in film and books as somewhat dimwitted for being so hopeful about the future, even if they do usually get their happy endings due to perseverance and hard work.

Stereotypes, of course, are the problem. Like they are for everyone.

Although I must admit that living as a pessimist (pejorist!) does have its difficulties -- most often when it comes to getting to know other people. Anticipating the worst when it comes to schoolwork, job interviews, presentations and the like are not impossible to deal with. After all, every problem has a solution, it is only the matter of how difficult that solution is to find or carry out.

People, on the other hand, are so much more versatile that if one lives under the assumption that people will always be the worst they can be, life grows more complicated.

There are various ways in which pessimism concerning other people can manifest itself, at least according to my observations. A good friend of mine who shares in a similarly pessimistic view on life (though she would lean closer to being a malist -- one who believes the world is evil -- than a pejorist, if we want to get specific) will only associate with a select few people that she trusts because she believes that people inherently cannot be relied on. Which, I think, is a valid train of thought, as she's been through some tough times in life.

There are those who will expect little to no help from acquaintances, which is probably a mutually vicious cycle in conjunction with that quote advising people to "borrow money from a pessimist, they won't expect it back." There are also those who will simple go through life like any other optimist (or opinion-neutral individual) but simply never open up.

Personally, my feelings on others is nothing so vicious. I operate on the assumption that anyone I have the pleasure of meeting will start out hating me. This is not a train of thought that was born during some period of teenage angst, or because I was dumped by a boyfriend, but rather through logic. (I would like to think that I am a fairly logical, rational person.) To assume that people hold any fondness for me would only cause me to be hopeful about becoming close friends -- and to find out that people dislike me would thus be fairly devastating. To believe that people dislike me from the very beginning, however, will soften the blow. After all, if people already hate me, then there is no need to fear for their hatred -- and after all, things can always get worse anyway.

Pessimists and pejorists, I think, are some of the more logical people out there. In order to anticipate the worst possible outcome of any situation, one must be able to logically deduce what this terrible outcome might be. Optimism relies on hope, I think, while pessimism relies on intelligence. There are several famous figures quoted to have stated that they are pessimists because of intelligence, optimists because of will. These people are, in my opinion, just puffing themselves up and trying to stick a hand in each pie to make themselves look as good as possible. What dicks.

Part of this line of thought, I must admit, probably stems from my upbringing in the highly passive-aggressive culture of Korea. The stereotypical saying in East Asian cultures is that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down" -- the easiest way for any individual to be accepted and liked is to quietly blend in with the accepted norm and not be noticed. Trying to make oneself stand out is the surest way to be treated with a silent wall of scorn and disdain, so the smartest thing to do is to be passive and hope that people will not dislike you. I guess I've simply taken that first step and assumed the worst, like any good pessimist.

Relationships -- not just romantic, but platonic as well -- are so often the most troublesome aspects of life to all sorts of people. Optimists, pessimists and everyone in between probably suffers from the difficulties of connecting with other people. Jean-Paul Satre once said "Hell is other people," which is a phrase that has since been misappropriated countless times by angry teenagers and angsty poets. Satre himself made an attempt to clarify its meaning once:

It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.

The baseline of what he said, therefore, is that one's relationships with others can become hell to all people involved if one makes the wrong moves, because this relationship will cause them to view themselves in a hellish light. Thus the statement "Hell is other people," which is so often seen as purely pessimistic, also has a more optimistic undertone to it: be nice to other people, and they won't be hell, because they won't see you as hell either.

Pessimism and optimism are two sides of the same coin, I suppose. One must have difficulty existing without the other. I think British novelist G.B. Stern phrases it best: "Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute."