Thanks to everyone who replied to my last email (over 33 of you!). People were overwhelmingly supportive of the new format. I appreciate you. ❤️
I have some longer thoughts for you today; which is partly why I've saved this newsletter for Saturday.
If you'd prefer to view this online (and pocket it for later), you can see it on my blog:
Again, I'd like to hear from you. Reply to this email and let me know what you think.
"you're being overly pessimistic"
Someone called me a "pessimist" yesterday.
In this case, they were responding to my critiques of Musk.
But I’ve also been labeled as a pessimist when I share news stories about the climate crisis.
“What’s with the relentless pessimism?” they say, “why not default optimism?”
I spent some time looking at what the word “pessimist” actually means.
I found this great article in The Philosopher, "the UK's is the longest-running public philosophy journal.” I love the way it starts:
In an age marked by such overwhelming cause for concern for the state of the planet and the future of mankind as ours, the word pessimism has received a surprising amount of bad press.
In our society, pessimism is often equated with negativity. If someone calls you a "pessimistic person" it's likely they're saying you are negative, unhappy, or miserable. You see this reflected in comics:
When others label you as a "pessimist" they're giving themselves permission to ignore your concern.
A popular online trope encourages people to cleanse their social feeds "by removing people who constantly leave behind a trail of negativity.” A daily habits app recommended that its users “complete a ‘digital detox’ on [their] social media accounts: unfollow anything that triggers a negative emotion."
The "pessimist" label also allows people to pejoratively paint you as a miserable person.
This gives the self-proclaimed optimist an easy out: "these people are nothing more than sad, negative, fear-mongers, so I'll just mute/block them."
Is “pessimism” really the same as “negativity?”
Mara van der Lugt reveals misconceptions of both optimism and pessimism:
The standard view is that an optimist believes things will get better; a pessimist believes things will get worse ... The problem with the common-sense view of pessimism is that it relies on a mistaken conception. Far from resting in a belief that things are going to get worse, pessimism in most cases doesn’t have to do with the future at all: rather, it is a philosophy that tries to give a place to the reality of evil and pain and suffering.
In Mara’s view, pessimism isn't about "expecting the worst," but rather "a refusal to believe that progress is a given."
Do pessimists actually believe their outlook commits them to resignation? Far from it: in fact, in many cases, the opposite is true. [In fact,] both [optimism and pessimism] are directed towards a common orientation, which is to make sense of suffering, to offer hope as well as consolation; and to try to improve the human condition.
This stands at odds with the way pessimism is referred to in popular culture: a trait that’s linked “with negativity, a ‘glass half-full attitude, depression, and other mood disorders.”
Personally, I don't see myself as a negative/unhappy person. I find joy in many things in life. I’m generally hopeful about the future. But I also don't want to ignore life's uncomfortable realities; the things that aren't OK.
We make progress when our eyes are open
When we ignore the things that "aren't OK," they don't go away; and left unchecked, they can cause real havoc in our lives.
For me, having concern leads to action. “Yikes, that spot looks like skin cancer, I should call my doctor.”
Cancer needs to be detected before it can be treated. And, if you notice a skin spot, you shouldn’t pretend it doesn't exist. Things don't just get better on their own; we need to act for treatment to work.
I understand that people want to avoid negative feelings. The internal lives of humans are already fraught; grappling with more can feel overwhelming.
In the long term, however, it’s better to face those uncomfortable feelings. Ignorance may be bliss for a short while, but eventually, the repercussions catch up with you.
I want things to improve, I want the world to be a better place. I'm cheering for indie makers. I'm wishing for continued human progress. I'm hoping for good things in my children's future.
But we can't make progress until we're honest about where we're at. We can't navigate forward until we have a clear-eyed view of the world.
"The bus driver is drunk"!
For example, a pessimist might point out: “Hey, the driver of this bus is drunk!” An overly optimistic person might reply: “ah shut up, let’s see where he takes us!”
The point of pessimism isn’t to cause distress (or "to be a downer”), but rather to show concern in the face of danger and suffering. This includes calling out our leaders when they’re causing harm.
Mara echoes the downside of being too optimistic:
It could also be said that, if we are too optimistic, too convinced that things will turn out fine in the end, whatever we do, we’ll equally end up doing nothing. Why worry ourselves about a complex problem such as climate change if we already believe everything will sort itself out in the end; that progress will prevail?
Being cartoonishly optimistic is like throwing seeds on whatever soil you find and thinking “this will grow just fine.”
But it’s wiser to assess the state of the soil before you start planting. If the ground is cracked and dry, it’s going to be inhospitable to anything good we try to grow.
How much pessimism should we express publicly?
There’s still an unresolved question, which is: “how much pessimism should we express publicly?” How should we balance our optimism and pessimism?
In her essay, Mara shows us how to hold these opposites in tension:
there is much to be said for an optimist ethic that tells us to look for the good, the lighter side in all things; one that warns us against focusing too much on what Schopenhauer calls “the terrible side of life”, lest we lose heart and hope, lest we forfeit our capacity for goodness and kindness and for joy itself.
She compels us to balance hopefulness and concern.
“Such an ethic,” she continues, “would remind us that we must always believe, even in the darkest of times, that things can get better.”
How to make the world a better place
If we’re going to help make the world a better place, we’ll need open-eyed honesty about how things are. We’ll need to admit that some things aren't right.
I want to have a positive impact on the world (I’m sure many of you do too).
Progress isn’t a sure thing; let’s not take it for granted.
Let’s move forward with a hope that’s grounded in reality.
(what are your thoughts on pessimism, optimism, etc? reply to this email and let me know)
PS – if you'd like to dive deeper on this topic, Katelyn Bourgoin recommended an awesome podcast episode: "A better way to worry." Here's the link on Overcast.
View this article on my blog -->