From Rwanda to Roe v Wade: It’s time to embrace pessimism

I am able to say without too much hesitation when asked if I am an optimism or pessimist that my glass is half-empty. Of course, I wish at times that it were not half-empty: optimism is quite good for you.

Optimists live longer, they have more friends, and they are more satisfied with their lives than their more lugubrious counterparts. And I am just as moved as the next person by Helen Keller’s wonderful essay on the topic, and appreciate, equally, that in any ambiguous situation over which he has no control, pessimism does seem quite pointless. If we do feel compelled to interpret something a certain way, why not be optimistic? The alternative seems almost like a kind of masochism.

You will notice that the benefits of being optimistic, at any rate as they tend to be sold to us, are markedly individual. And I cannot resist mentioning the fact that the extreme optimism of our floundering PM is legendary. (It is arguably his defining characterisic of him.) And though it goes without saying that our individual wellbeing can and often does correspond to the wellbeing of those around us, to what extent does the expectation that things will turn out well truly serve the common good? Do we not risk, while we luxuriate in our dreams of a picture-perfect future, neglecting the present? Do we not become a little like Voltaire’s Candide: a bit naïve, easy to unhorse?

The overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the arrival of Covid – we can hardly condemn ourselves for having been taken by surprise by these events. And yet equally, they were not truly that surprising; they were predictable, or at least predicted. We were warned, in other words, one way or another.

Expecting things to remain more or less as they are now is one kind of optimism. Another is expecting things to get better and better. Cast your mind back, if you will, to when Francis Fukuyama proudly announced “the end of history” in 1992. Consider how Tony Blair said debating globalization was like “debating whether autumn should follow summer”.

In retrospect – liberal democracy having shown its vulnerabilities and globalization having provoked a withdrawal on the part of some nations, and the rise of nationalist authoritarianism within others – these declarations, and the confidence with which they were delivered, seem laughable, if not a little arrogant They were certainly optimistic; even if it did seem that history was headed inexorably in one professedly desirable direction.

Reality has its own plans; but we do have some say in what it looks like, and we certainly have some say in whether what we cherish here, in the present, will exist in the future. Just as a friendship tends to decay without the effort of the parties involved, good things have a way of deteriorating if there is no one around to ask the simple question: what if this no longer existed?

What if (for instance) we could not protest policy we perceived to be unjust, or could not extend a strong hand to refugees and show our humanity, or did not have adequate protection of our human rights? There is some value in working on the basis that less-than-ideal scenarios might just play out. Staying on your toes is not the worst thing in the world.

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We do not have to be thoroughgoing professional pessimists, (and witnessing the gorgeous mosaic of queer life on show in London yesterday, how could we be?) but at least to cultivate a little pessimism where the things that matter most to us are concerned.

I am not saying, in other words, that we should all resemble the incomparable Marvin the Paranoid Android of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – undoubtedly the best robot character ever created, by the way – who, asked if he has any ideas, responds: “I have a million ideas. They all point to certain death.” In another scene, the roving reporter Ford asks Marvin: “What’s up?” “I don’t know,” says Marvin, “I’ve never been there.”

All I am saying is that flowers need water, the animals we care for need food and drink and attention (some more than others), and that those aspects of our common life that we value most need defending from those who would abolish them in pursuit of some ideal, or some whim, or out of resentment or some innately destructive quality. Bound up with optimism, in a great many cases, is a certain irresponsibility. Things categorically do not always turn out for the best.

This is not to suggest, however, that we cannot be hopeful. I am perennially hopeful, because hope and optimism are not the same thing. “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well,” wrote Seamus Heaney, “but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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