The Delusion of Positivity

William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ watercolor painting from 1795. || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ watercolor painting from 1795. || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.

 

Conceivably, you hear the cute phrase in times of distress. Perhaps you have realized you’re on the uptown not the downtown or you’re at a coffee shop with tragic-tasting coffee or you’ve slipped in some of New York City’s lovely black snow slush. The phrase extends also to serious travesties, such as situations of death, deception, and generally tragic or wicked happenings. It is some variation of “Be optimistic!” 

Once, after feeling frustrated about a poor grade, I too decided to “be optimistic.” So, I listened to the Rocky soundtrack and had coffee. And, I guess it worked. 

In retrospect though, I wonder if I was actually being optimistic. In truth, I had received a poor grade, so it would be wrong to purposefully deceive myself. But, rallying myself is another thing. And just feeling bad is another also. Thus, I wondered, “What on earth does being optimistic mean?”

This almost-epiphany produced the following considerations:

Apparently, a person is allotted into one of the globules in the pessimist-realist-optimist trio by how they view the contents in a cup. The comically arbitrary test is a predicament of perspective. The underlying acknowledgement is that there is always positive and negative and, depending on the person, he sees one of the two, or both. 

" Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them." -Gwendolen || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

"Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them." -Gwendolen || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

If pessimism means focusing on the bad, then there seems to be many disadvantages to it. Foremost, one misses the good. Also, while there is no bad without good, there can be good without bad and thus the pessimist suffers the consequence of missing absolute Good, in addition to many partial goods. 

I tend to defend realism because, well, it’s real and that at least is comforting. To some, realism is a Vulcan mode of thinking. There is a conception that realists are cynical. They have lost their childlike sense of wonder and hope, or something like that. To this, I have two responses. First, let Peter Bishop remind you there is an argument to be made that a cynic is just a frustrated romantic. Second, cynicism is a distinctly pessimistic quality, based on incredulity.  As an aside, being a realist does not imply the kind of art one prefers. Realists can still be lovers of impressionism. Do not mistake them for hard boiled logicians.  

Technically, of course, the cup is both half full and half empty. Everyone knows this. But, when asked how I view the cup, I can only think of Gwendolen, from The Importance of Being Ernest, when she explained, "Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them." This hypothetical cup with its hypothetical contents is confused for the actual thing it metaphorically represents. Remember that a metaphor always has a fault. If it did not, it would be the real thing. Thus, I may have been a little harsh on the cup. But, even acknowledging it as a metaphor leads me to wonder what it is representing. And that itself is very unclear. 

Further considerations are in order. Perhaps the most pertinent concern is “why?” Why, for example, do many people think optimism is ideal? 

Perhaps before saying we are going to be optimistic, we should establish what we might, even vaguely, mean. Optimism might easily easily morph into naivety, which is a great danger. Naivety is not the same as innocence or purity; a naïve person fundamentally lacks discernment. 

Also, it is valuable to recognize basic differences in temperament. Mellow and bubbly personalities are not, in themselves, indicative, of a person’s entire philosophy of life. Flibbertigibbets and Stoics still have options. 

It is common for the optimist to say, “things could have been worse,” as a way to supposedly “get perspective” and maintain positivity. Of course, things can always get worse, but that is a strange way to comfort yourself and almost a cruel way to comfort a friend. Often the reason for being optimistic is consequential. It is nice to be optimistic if one wants to feel good. There is an impression that this feeling transcends actually unpleasant situations. A person can save himself from pain by looking at the good because, there is always a little good, at least. Technically, this is impeccable doctrine. But whether optimism can accomplish this transcendence is “inconceivable!” as our trusty Vizzini would say. While our minds are powerful, we should not neglect that we are both physical and spiritual beings. Optimism tends to deceive both. 

Perhaps our enthusiasm for optimism is misplaced. When someone suggests, “Be optimistic!”, the question “Why?” may profoundly stump them. This is because optimism lacks principle. Frankly, it is arbitrary. If optimism means “looking on the bright side,” then it is reasonable and good to wonder, “What is the bright  side?” The “dark side” is vague also, though of course Star Wars was a great aid. 

Generally, pessimism is recognized as morbid, while optimism is greatly encouraged and realism is pitied. But, one can live a good life without being always positive. God forbid positivity is the aim of life!

It may seem that realism looks most attractive at the moment. However, though I think realism has its benefits, I would like to offer an alternative to all three titles. 

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” -Oscar Wilde || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” -Oscar Wilde || Photo contributed by Lilly Carman

The fiery Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde believed, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” Perhaps we are mistaking optimism (as well as realism and pessimism) for courage. Aristotle would be appalled! 

Maybe, in our moments of distress, we comfort ourselves with delusions because, actually, we are cowards. 

Courage demands we pursue truth. In light of this virtue, optimism and pessimism are clearly deceptive and the title of realism is redundant. Therefore, it may be best to practice discipline—that is, the discipline of courage. After all, life should not be reduced to feelings. 

And surely, it is not necessary that you feel happy after failing.