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Pessimism and Optimism: or Fatalistic Thinking

Logan Beauchamp, Opinion Editor

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The way we think often affects how we see the world, and how we see the world often affects how the world really is. We vote, yet often feel that voting does not have any tangible effect. We see suffering and say to ourselves, “This is the way it has always been and nothing will change it,” or, “It could always be worse.” We often divorce ourselves from action because we feel that we have no power to make change and, in the end, often resign ourselves to the realms of Pessimism and Optimism. Pessimism and Optimism, for me, are two of the most insidious mindsets we can fall into. They both pacify our will to act by saying, “Things will work themselves out on their own.” It is important to recognize when we are falling into these patterns and that there are other options available in our approach to shaping our daily lives.
Pessimism and Optimism are both Fatalisms. They tell us that no matter what we do, the way the world exists and will exist is already decided. Fatalisms are submissive approaches to living which reduce the individual to flotsam and jetsam floating through the ebb and flow of time and space. It says that the universe acts upon us, which is true to a certain extent, and that our actions have no chance of determining future outcomes. They breed complacency. If something is horrible then that is the way it is supposed to be or that things will get better if they are meant to. This type of living takes the onus of producing a better life; for ourselves, others, or the world, and makes it meaningless.
Pessimism is the most obvious of these Fatalisms. Pessimism asks us, “Why bother?” It is the little voice that tells us we are insignificant, incapable, and that reality, people, and society are terrible by their natures. It says that suffering and frustration are the order of things and that is how it will always be. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Pessimism defeats us before we even begin. It disarms the will and blinds the eyes and mind to opportunity and possibility. It is a weight that presses down our anger and outrage it the senselessness of the worlds injustices and holds us back from pursuing the lives we deserve.
Optimism is a little trickier. It seems like a good way to approach life. What is the matter with waking up and having hope that today will be better than the last? Optimism, as Leibniz describes it, is the belief that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This definition seems to excuse the terrible things that happen every day; i.e., children dying of cancer, catastrophic earthquakes, war crimes, etc. If this is the case, I fear to see the second best of all possible worlds. Optimism nullifies our will to act by the same means as Pessimism, it just makes you feel better about it. Where Pessimism says strikes us down with insult, Optimism calms us with sedative promises. It says that hope and prayers are adequate currency when it comes to making change a reality. We are still powerless individuals, believing that our actions will not bring about positive change.
Both approaches share the same problem. They make the individual a non-player in the universe. With Pessimism and Optimism, you simply exist in a universe in which your actions play no role. Pessimism recognizes that the real-world is in fact quite horrifying. Optimism gives us hope and lets us see that there is an alternative to the world as it is. Yet they both do nothing regarding the changes that need to happen to end misery and bring about a good future. For this, other approaches are needed.
My solution to this problem is Opportunism. Opportunism recognizes both that the world is not as it ought to be, but it also knows that the world is capable of being better than it is. The road to this change is through action, specifically positively oriented action. Every day we have chances to do something good that adds to the positive balance in the ledger of existence. It could be something small or large, unimportant or momentous, or even unknown to us. The point is that it requires us to actively seek opportunities to be decent or to do well. Intention and hope are not good enough because as they say, “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions.”
Opportunism seeks to place the crux of change in the mind and heart of those who practice it. Yes, this does seem to be a selfish philosophy at first glance, but if thought about logically it is a selfless type of selfishness, as oxymoronic as that sounds. If we seek to make a better world for ourselves we are also working to make a better world for the collective. Any amount of good is adequate, if it outweighs the evil we let pass. For example, it is good to help ourselves, even better to help others, and best to help others and ourselves at the same time. Opportunism does not ask us to make martyrs of ourselves, because you cannot continue to do good if you are dead. It does not ask us to give everything away and live as a hermit, because how can we fill another’s cup if our own is bone dry? Ultimately, Opportunism asks us to be masters of our actions and accept the responsibility and obligations that comes with existing. We need to take part in life otherwise we sit, as if already dead, in cycles of optimism and pessimism. We need to start each day asking ourselves, as Benjamin Franklin did, “What good shall I do today?” and end it with “What good have I done today?”

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Pessimism and Optimism: or Fatalistic Thinking