Pessimism, Optimism, Hope and Change


Over my lifetime, I have been called many things, some of which are printable. Within the last 11 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 ofpessimist.

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, but you can also 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 the truth expressed as a 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. The road to Easter morning had to pass by a hill called Calvary. 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 Vizzini 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 their cruiser so a family of ducks could cross the intersection. How can anyone see that and not have hope for the future?

One day, my limited-mobility mother 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.

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

  1. Fine piece, Anthony. When you consider binaries and holding both at once, it calls to mind (and forgive this physicist for modeling) quantum mechanics and the superposition of states. Reality is this superposition and the component state of |optimism>+|pessimism> comes as appropriate for the situation. |optimism> when needed, |pessimism> when needed.

  2. Anthony-Three thoughts pop to mind upon reading this fine article:

    1.”There is, after all, little reason to believe an obscure fellow with no special qualifications could produce any significant changes” – Best counterexample of such a man – Jesus

    2. In reply to my usual “you can be a cup half empty or a cup half full person,” friend once said, “Doesn’t what’s in the cup make a difference? what if its urine?”

    3. In saying what you say, e.g. re: “won for us by Christ,” and re: demons and angels, no one can call you a pessimist.

    I do think some optimists do hope, because they know all the good that has happened and they believe, and therefore hope, the best – the best in eternity – is yet to come, and that it will indeed come.

    Guy, Texas

    1. 1: I need to work on writing irony.
      2: Ah, a fellow over-thinker like me. Alternatively, what if the glass were half-full of Bushmill’s Black Label?
      3: My point exactly.

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