Pessimism, Optimism, Hope and Change

Over my lifetime, I have been called many things, some of which are printable. Within the last six years’ worth of blogging, I’ve had a little mud slung at me, which if nothing else proves I can occasionally write well enough to provoke a reaction, and maybe even a thought, in those who disagree with me. However, of all the tags with which I’ve been yclept, the most puzzling is that of pessimist.

I don’t say it’s puzzling because I see only good in the world and can’t understand how someone would believe I think otherwise. If I tried to make such an assertion I would be a blatant liar. Rather, it’s puzzling because, even as an ad hominem attack, it’s pretty insubstantial. It implies that every fault I see with modern society would disappear if only I take a course of antidepressants and listen to some Zig Ziglar talks. Not only is the road to Hell paved with good intentions, you can have some really pleasant experiences along the way. It’s much easier to get there if you don’t pay attention to which direction the road is going.

Catholic Pessimists, We Aren’t!

Catholics, you may have been told, are a “both-and” people. It’s difficult to put us into either one of any set of binary categories (liberal/conservative, rational/emotional, positive/negative) because you’re bound to trip over aspects that belong to the other of the pair. The Catholic mind is also more attuned to truth expressed as paradox. When you can grasp the idea of Christ holding his own body in his hands at the Last Supper, you can more easily see the truth in expressions such as “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” or, as in di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo: “In order for things to stay the same, some things have got to change.”

So, it is with optimism and pessimism. Logically, the glass can’t be half-full without being half-empty at the same time; to find the silver lining in the dark cloud, you must first acknowledge that the cloud is dark. But to recognize that there are demons in the world is not necessarily to forget that there are also angels.

Perhaps, though, our objector is making a more subtle argument: By focusing only on the negative results the present system creates, we miss out on all the positives it has already created. The objector then suggests that perhaps the negatives are simply the costs of achieving the positives. This is a persistent feature of defenses of free-market capitalism: the degree of inequity it produces is set off by the improvements it has brought to both rich and poor alike. The “wealth gap” itself is then a sort of “opportunity cost” … regrettable but necessary, and not really so evil as it’s been painted.

At this point, though, the objector must face the unenviable task of showing, rather than merely assuming, that the positives could not have been gotten in a manner that wouldn’t have led to the negatives (or at least not to so great a degree), or that the positives really are unalloyed boons with no downside to them. Such arguments are generally fruitless, because they depend on both sides knowing what would have been when at best they can only guess what could have been. But more to the point, to assert that the defects came packaged with benefits is not to prove that the defects neither need nor admit of correction.

Now, I cheerfully admit that to read or listen to someone who’s constantly harping on What’s Wrong with the World Today isn’t something you want to do 24/7. Fortunately, you don’t have to — you can pick my rants up whenever you’re in the mood, and when you’re not you can play some Beatles, watch some Ren & Stimpy or do whatever gets your happy on (keeping it morally licit, of course, he said with a grin).

However, I remain puzzled by the pessimist charge because, in my lexicon, a pessimist isn’t just the formal word for a “Negative Nancy”. Pessimism not only sees What’s Wrong with the World Today, but doubts that it can be changed, and even wonders if it’s worth the trouble since all things human eventually go sour. It’s so inapposite I react much like Inigo Montoya did to Vezzini in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Hope Motivates Change

Catholics don’t call for change because they’ve lost hope. Rather, the hope motivates their demand for change. It’s one of those paradoxes that hope is a virtue only to the degree that reasons for hope are missing. An optimist has no hope because he has no need for hope; to hope for the future, you must first recognize that the present isn’t optimal. By contrast, the pessimist has no hope for the future because he demands rational grounds for an irrational feeling.

There is, after all, little reason to believe an obscure fellow with no special qualifications could produce any significant changes by writing in a blog. The Mouse That Roared.

In this respect, the optimist is as intolerable as the pessimist, because neither recognizes a need for reform: for one, all efforts will fail, while for the other, things will work out of their own volition. The pessimist, having fallen out love with his country, sees only her faults; the optimist, in love not with his country but with an idol that wears her face, sees only her virtues. The Catholic sits between them, alternately agreeing and disagreeing with each, reminding the pessimist of the good left uncorrupted and the optimist of the evil gone uncorrected.

What good left uncorrupted, you ask? The other day, I saw a video clip of a police officer who blocked traffic with his/her cruiser so a family of ducks could cross the intersection. How can anyone see that and not have hope for the future?

Today, my limited-mobility mom and I stopped at a RaceTrac for some coffee. When we were leaving, the fellow behind Mom put his hand on the door to hold it open even though I was already holding it. Again I ask, how can anyone see that and not have hope for the future?

Hope For Humanity

Finally, Catholics demand change not because we don’t love our country. Quite the contrary; if we hated our country, we’d only wish to destroy it, while if we didn’t care about it, its flaws would be of no concern to us. Love may “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8; cf. Proverbs 10:12), but it doesn’t pretend they aren’t sins. We need not only the wisdom to discern what can be changed and the courage to change what we can, but also the love to care whether anything can be changed.

The love interest in The Fault in Our Stars calls love “a shout into the void”. But the truth is that all life is a fight against the tug of entropy on the universe. And our Catholic faith tells us that this fight has, in a sense, already been won for us by Christ. Whatever else Catholicism is, it isn’t a religion for pessimists.

© 2014 Anthony S. Layne. All rights reserved.

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22 thoughts on “Pessimism, Optimism, Hope and Change”

  1. Pingback: Our Chance to Actually Do Something About Christian Persecution - BigPulpit.com

  2. This post was a delight to read. I had to check ‘about the author” to see if you were a professor of English Literature. As you point out the Catholic habit is to look at things from more than one side. Those who criticize welfare programs as creating a culture of dependency fail to recognize capitalism as a system of dependency. In capitalism the typical person has to go hat in hand looking for work, completely dependent upon those who control the means of making a living. That many of us can make a very comfortable living doesn’t eliminate the dependency.

    1. Thank you for the wonderful compliment, Bob! I don’t have as wide an
      exposure to the classics of English literature as I’d like; in fact, I
      have yet to crack the cover of the copy of Joyce’s
      Ulysses my sister gave me one Christmas. And thanks
      for that perspective on capitalism; I’m in the middle of a job search
      now, so the truth of your observation is all too apparent right now.

  3. But to recognize that there are demons in the world is not necessarily to forget that there are also angels.

    What I have a problem with is people who take this whole “spiritual combat” thing literally. Life is a series of random events devoid of metaphysical influenced. They say you have to take the good with the bad. Some win. Some lose. In nature, it is survival of the fittest. It has nothing to do with a benevolent diety who, for no apparent reason, comes along and gives someone cancer. Stuff happens. No one to blame or thank sometimes.

    1. You’ve got the sequence backwards, Bill. People don’t believe in angels and demons because they take metaphors too literally; rather, people use angels and demons as metaphors because angels and demons are believed to exist. But even for a purely literary construct, someone has to give it shape and definition before it’s useful as a metaphor; no one could have used an orc or a Nazgul as relevant images before JRR Tolkien told us what they were. I could write of “zylchaks” all day; but until you know what a zylchak is, it won’t mean anything to you (hell, I don’t even know what it is!).

    2. People don’t believe in angels and demons because they take metaphors too literally; rather, people use angels and demons as metaphors because angels and demons are believed to exist.

      They might be believed to exist. But we should all know that they don’t. Shouldn’t we?

    3. Bill, it’s a little late in the day to pretend skepticism took over the entire world except for a select few. One day, I may devote an entire post to the topic; right now, it’s more than I want to get into in a combox thread. But to answer your question directly: Angels and demons, yes; ghosts, I don’t reject their existence out of hand. And now I’m declaring this rabbit hole closed.

    4. it’s a little late in the day to pretend skepticism took over the entire world except for a select few.

      I liked that response. Pretty astute that you saw what I did there. Yes. More than a select few believe in angels and demons. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s silly. But I’m the one who is part of a select few. You got that right.

  4. I now know that I should have substituted the tag ‘ thou complains too much ‘ rather than call you a pessimist. ; )

    1. Complaining won’t help. Doing something about it and not praying to and trusting a diety is what helps.

    2. Okay, give me full, unquestionable executive and legislative authority over the Western Hemisphere and I’ll stop complaining. Otherwise, I’m gonna need a little more help than just an inappropriate platitude.

    3. Otherwise, I’m gonna need a little more help than just an inappropriate platitude.

      Sorry. Inappropriate platitudes are all I can offer you. The rest is up to you.

    4. Aww, James, I took such care to protect your identity … :^)=)

      I recently read that researchers had done an upgrade on the Milgram experiment, and found that nice people who try to get along with everyone are less likely to resist the misuse of authority. Now, we need nice people and a certain amount of respect for authority, but we also need people who can dig in their heels like mules when that authority is abused, or when things are going wrong.

  5. Tony, I see it much more simply. Faith>Hope>Future. No Faith, No Hope, No Future. It’s why Catholics and other devout Christians with Faith can live with purpose and direction in this life in my view. My defense of the Faith in 2002 was a personal witness. I was confirmed into the Church March 31, 2002. That’s when I fully comprehended the Future I hoped to achieve, redemption and salvation through Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am a great fan of yours. Write on! Glad this floated across Stacy’s desktop. I might have missed it. Walter

    1. I think faith leads to hope and hope leads to a more successful future regardless of whether what we put our faith in is real or imaginary.

    2. Was that in question?

      Regardless, not to contradict anything I’ve said regarding the irrationality or virtue of hope, if there’s anyone who has less grounds for hope than the believer, it’s the non-believer … especially if the non-believer is scientifically educated. Things left to themselves don’t get better; on the contrary, we know that everything breaks down from the organized to the disorganized, the complex to the simple — everything is subject to entropy. If you want a white post in your lawn, you can’t just stick it in a hole and leave it; you have to repaint it every now and again just to keep it white. I don’t say hope is impossible for the non-believer, because nobody is relentlessly rational 24/7; I merely state that hope is more of a virtue for the non-believer because he has by definition less reason to hope. And if you can place faith in anything imaginary, it would be “the future”, because the future is something we can never experience directly.

    3. if there’s anyone who has less grounds for hope than the believer, it’s the non-believer … especially if the non-believer is scientifically educated.

      My grounds for hope is in my ability to make a happy and fulfilling life for myself. I have no false hopes of any life beyond this one. You get out of life what you put into it.

    4. It seems like a saying like “you get out of life what you put into it” is almost like a law of nature or something. Maybe what we should be looking to do is derive more and more laws of nature based on empirical data. Like the time it takes to do something fills the time allowed for it to be done. Maybe a stitch in time really does save nine in a symbolic sense. Maybe we don’t need to know God as much so as the laws of nature we attribute to him.

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