Positive or Negative? Optimism or Pessimism?
Perspective has been a theme in a lot of what has come across my RSS feed of late, posts and articles about positive and negative thinking, and about optimism and pessimism. Perhaps new planetary alignments or the autumnal equinox has caused this widespread reconsideration of perspectives, or maybe it’s climate change or the upcoming elections or high-profile stories in the news. Who knows?
I’m actually having fun
For a long time, positive-thinking proponents have preached that we should visualize ourselves as being successful, imagine life as if we have achieved our goals. Now there’s counter-advice that suggests that positive thinking tricks the mind into relaxing too much; it depletes us of our drive toward a goal, and we end up slacking. I think there’s a lot of truth in this, but admit to a tendency toward negative thinking. The ideal state is to be able to visualize a positive outcome, but to also not be in denial about what could trip up that outcome. So what you have is one set of ideas (thesis), a set of contradictory ideas (antithesis), and hopefully end up with a workable combination (synthesis) of the two. That process is called dialectics. I like dialectics.
Then there’s optimism and pessimism. Optimism sounds positive, right? And pessimism sounds unpleasant, hmm? But when you think about it, there’s probably nothing more dangerous than an optimist. American culture puts such a high value on optimism that people will do things that are not in their or someone else’s best interests because it would be a downer (and therefore un-American) to not be an optimist. “Go West, young man” translated as, “it’s okay to exploit Native Americans because of our optimistic manifest destiny,” and the attitude evolved into the more recent, “let’s buy lots of crap mortgages and junk bonds now because we’ll soon be making a shitload of money,” and we all know how both those ideas turned out.
When someone has an “AWESOME!” attitude about damned near everything, finding the absolutely most positive spin on even dubious matters, I tend to back away slowly and carefully. When I see or read someone doing that, I immediately think they’re full of crap. Because life, after all, isn’t 24/7 awesome. Jesus himself had some seriously bad days, and acknowledged it. A Buddhist isn’t all about the nirvana, but about compassion. So when somebody with a “let’s be all happy” message preaches it day after day after day, I just wanna–. Life is not like that, and talking yourself into it ain’t gonna make it so.It isn’t all doom and gloom either. It’s a synthesis. To see the pain of the world as much as it’s joy is the only way to avoid delusion.
I’m deeply suspicious of any message that focuses on bliss, whether for the purpose of psychology, religion, the military, political advantage, sports, or capitalism. All too often we have seen how this kind of brainwashing encourages someone to positive-think themselves into such a conviction of Chosenhood, that they can go around and lie, cheat, steal, and even rape children without any sense of personal accountability. Perhaps this is an extreme example of positive visualization of oneself as the epitome of all that is good, with the result that one completely slacks on all the ethics, morality, and self-discipline that would lead to actually being good?
Seeing or dividing everything in terms of opposites, the positives and negatives, the optimistic and the pessimistic, is simple-minded. An example of this would be, “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Such an attitude prevents understanding, which in turn prevents dignity and compassion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this kind of dichotomy is feral, in the sense of having left cultivation, leaving those who would be compassionate with no way to act on it. The prevalence of mindsets that see the world in terms of black and white, as all positive or negative, assures the very existence of a world that contains black and white, even though many of us are inclined to see it in varying shades of gray.
In the photo above, I was actually absorbed in a round of Angry Birds. I was having fun, a positive thing, in spite of looking like I was ready to kill. But better that, I think, than having a beatific smile while firing an actual gun.