Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The power of pessimism

This is a pleasant surprise, Archie. I would not have believed it.
That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist;
a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises,
an optimist nothing but unpleasant.

Nero Wolfe, in Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout

.... Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called "the premeditation of evils"—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms "defensive pessimism." Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn't. ....

The ultimate value of the "negative path" may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by a craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives.

This is especially true of the biggest "negative" of all. Might we benefit from contemplating mortality more regularly than we do? As Steve Jobs famously declared, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." .... [more]
Christians, of course, are only pessimistic in the short term.

“End? No, the journey doesn't end here. 
Death is just another path, one that we all must take. 
The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, 
and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
Gandolf in The Two Towers film, a paraphrase of Frodo in LOTR.