Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nothing So Depressing (As Optimism)

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.
                                                                 - James Branch Cabell, "The Silver Stallion" (1926)

That observation by a now obscure American novelist in an obscurer novel is worthy of Mark Twain or one of the great English wits - Sydney Smith or Oscar Wilde. Twain remarked in the same vein that "There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist - except an old optimist." Someone else, deservedly obscure, maintains that humans are the only animal with a sense of a future, which is, after all, what optimism and pessimism encompass. I say 'deservedly obscure,' since even the most casual notice of animal behavior remarks a greater capacity for prudence and self-preservation than is typically observed in humans.  Animals do not willingly jump from airplanes or seek electoral office.

Still, it's true that we all have some sense of a future, perhaps even the added sense that we might control it in a minor degree. A person who decides, say, to get another tattoo clearly has a different sense of their future than someone who remains unillustrated. Tattoos just don't lend themselves to success in certain occupations, like bank robber, brain surgeon, grand duke or securities analyst.

(Dreamed of career in investment banking)

People who exercise seem to have a healthy notion of their future, since they act as though, all else being equal, they likely have one. Of course, there's exercise and then there's exercise. When it comes to your sense of a future, it's one thing to "play sports," another to "do a sport." Anything that requires first getting off the ground seems like staking your life on a lottery ticket, an aerial version of getting completely tattooed.

The future is now
People who actually do play the lottery must have a diminished view of their own future, given the odds. If the lottery is your metaphor for your future, then it's probably also your sole means of getting there. In which case, whether you have one is purely accidental, worse odds than a crap shoot or repeated fervent prayer.

 Devotional arithmetic

Exercising, most of us think, is a good hedge. Then again, you can decide to play it safe and not overexert yourself. You know, spare the old ticker, which is another way of hedging, if you look at it that way. If you're happy to learn that Medicaid will pay for your "personal mobility device," you've probably figured out that your Segway's cupholder holds more than your future.  But excitement can be too much of a good thing.

Never Walk Again

In any case, it's not always so easy to discern whether someone is doing something to decide their future or has simply given up on it, a victim of circumstance. What about people who go to the social welfare office in their pajamas, a fashion among a certain social stratum now recently banned in Dublin - have these poor souls simply thrown in the towel, concluded that pajamas really are streetwear, or do they have a cunnng plan? I can see that a visit to your local employment office in sleepwear may be a plan of sorts. Not looking like a jobholder is one sure way to get an extension on your holiday, if that's what you want.

Then, of course, there are people with no sense of a future at all - like Civil War reenactors. .

. . . oil industry lobbyists who think that "global warming" just means "better weather". . . 

"Spend It Like You Stole It" Inhofe (R-OK)

 . . . leaders of the "free world" who think that drones are the same as foreign policy . . . 

. . . or who think that building a fence will improve our SAT scores. 

No, as someone else once said, I find nothing more depressing than optimism.

No comments:

Post a Comment