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Negative Optimism

22 May, 2008 (23:15) | Philosophy

Keeping a Positive Outlook with Tragic Expectations

It seems as if the divide between pessimists and optimists is becoming more stark and defined by the minute. Either the glass is half empty or half full. There is no other acceptable answer.

I often refer to myself as a pessimist. I don’t expect much from other people. I think most people are selfish, self-serving assholes who put up a facade of kindness and caring because it’s required to appear socially acceptable. Given the chance to take advantage of others, most people would, without regret or guilt. Odds are certainly higher among males than females, but it’s still true more often than I’d like.

Despite these firmly held beliefs, I still am willing to trust most people and give them the benefit of the doubt (until they screw up royally the first time). I think people will react to kindness with kindness and that a lot of people don’t receive much respect, meaning a little kindness can go a long way.

This dichotomy doesn’t make sense to me. How can I be pessimistic, but so optimistic? How can I believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket because of greed, hate, ignorance and fear, and yet also believe that even a little good goes a long way?Perhaps the answer lies outside of the classic optimist-pessimist structure. “Negative Optimism,” as I’ve chosen to term it, is my own perfect balance between the two.

Pessimism

On the grander scale, pessimism helps me keep a level head.

As an American who was brought up in an upper-middle class household, I’ve had it really good: I’m white, meaning I don’t really have to deal with racism; I’m male, meaning no matter how far we’ve come, I still enjoy the benefits of a patriarchal society; I’m Jewish, which means I benefit from minority status when it comes to diversity hiring and admissions at white (*cough* CU *cough*) universities and schools; my family is wealthy enough, meaning I’ve had luxuries in my life I’ve benefited from and that others likely did not.

I look around at the beauty of the world that we’re slowly destroying (my actions included), and I know we’re killing the earth. People are dying in helpless wars based on the highest profit a corporation can get. Children are starving while Americans typically scrape half their plate into the trash. It’s a very bleak world, and seeing how starkly different the state of the world is from my privileged life helps keep at least a little humility and appreciation of what I have constantly at the tip of my mind.

Optimism

On the smaller interpersonal level, optimism helps me gain friends and allies.

When I walk into a room with people I’ve never met, I can’t be immediately suspicious. There may be a chance that these people are assholes, thieves, murderers or worse, but it alarms me how often people get judged based on their looks. A smile and some kind words can make a friend out of the most heinous looking character. Sometimes I feel as though some social outcasts want a friend more than any material wealth they might gain abusing me.

Of course, kindness doesn’t mean high expectations. I don’t expect most of my friends to help me out in a pinch. I don’t expect them to go out of their way for me. I don’t even expect them to have time for me or want me as a friend. And if that’s how things end up, then I’m back a square one and have lost nothing. But more often than not, people surprise me, and I’m all the more thankful for that.

Betrayal

It’s inevitable that my instincts will betray me once or twice. I’ve had several good friends turn out to be not so good friends. Early in life, it was my close friends who spread rumors about me at school. I have one former friend who still owes me a great deal of money (though I blame myself more so for being stupid enough to loan him anything even when I knew he was a fuck up). I have another friend who once reported my dreams to PETA, which in turn nearly lost me my job by reporting them as my claims to animal control.

I try my best to be honest and up front when I can be, and that makes it easy for me to experience conversational comfort with strangers even about the most intimate of topics. But that also means it really hurts when I do experience betrayal from someone I really trust. I generally like to believe that if I’m kind and honest, my friends and acquaintances will follow the golden rule. I know it can’t always be so, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Generally Copacetic

In the end, I generally think things will turn out alright. As a species, we’ll find a way to survive, and while we’ll make mistakes, we’ll also make great strides. Sure, extinction may be around the corner, but it’s been a fun ride, right?

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in my youth feeling angry and bitter that things weren’t the way I was told they would be. Nothing came easy, nor does it now. But eventually, I came to the conclusion that getting angry and fuming about things doesn’t change the fact that they’ve happened. The best I can do is smile and move on.

I suspect this isn’t an original or unique outlook on life. I’ve merely pulled my personal philosophies from the myriad philosophies I’ve explored over the years. But given the number of people out there unsatisfied with life, perhaps it’s time to reexamine what you truly need to be happy.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, a little negative optimism is all you need.

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