The Dualism Of Pessimism
Opinions, Column

The Dualism Of Pessimism

If I say picture a pessimist, what do you see?

If you see a sad, bitter individual contemplating a half empty glass of water, then congratulations, you share something in common with Google Images. We associate pessimism with negativity, sadness, and gloom. This skeptical outlook is overshadowed by its more attractive counterpart: optimism. People love to brand themselves as optimists while they stay away from the “pessimist” title. We have unshakeable faith in the future because we want to be optimistic—sometimes solely because the opposite scares us. But is this a reasonable assessment of pessimism?

The problem with this societal repulsion to pessimism lies in its two-part definition. It refers to a tendency to see the worst of things, hence the half empty glass of water. Clearly this is where the word gets its negative reputation, and rightfully so. Obviously, it is preferable both for you and the people around you to make the most out of a situation you find yourself in.

But lumped in this definition is also the attitude toward future events, or the tendency to be negative about the future. This is probably the more common use of the two—after all, the news is plagued with statements describing the “pessimistic expectations regarding the future of the economy” and whatnot.

The two definitions have blended together so that they can be described by a single word: pessimism. While seemingly similar, they are extremely different. One is about choosing how you feel about events that have happened or are currently happening. The other is about anticipating the likelihood of an event. It doesn’t refer to the attitude towards the event—it’s closer to a mental statistical probability more than anything else. To put it bluntly, a pessimist is a conservative statistician.

So it’s strange that these two different things get put in the same basket. But what’s even stranger is that they share the same negative reputation, as if the two weren’t different at all. We associate someone who expects negative events with someone who can only see the negative out of his or her situation. But is this reasonable? Does a lack of confidence toward the future really warrant such a negative attitude?

We tell kids to be optimistic—as we should—but we fail to acknowledge the dual nature of the word. Of course we should encourage them to see the present in the best light possible. Yet I don’t believe it is too beneficial to encourage them to expect the very best out of the future. It gets to the point where realism gets labeled as pessimism—and no one wants to be a pessimist. We discourage the pragmatic, maybe even slightly unhopeful, view of the future because we confuse it with regarding one’s state in despair.

This distinction is especially relevant as an important phase of BC student life is coming up: the housing process. Of course, the biggest stress for most is finding the group of students to spend the upcoming year—the infamous friendship-breaker. But another part of the stress is the pick time over which you have absolutely no control over. The only thing people have control over is how to anticipate the decision.

Being a part of the process myself, I’ve seen that most people aboard the situation in the future tense rather than the condition. In the name of being optimistic, people almost ignore the possibility than any other outcome may occur. I hear, “When we get an 8-man,” rather than the “if” statements. And most importantly, the term “CoRo” is almost blasphemous, as people dare not face this possibility. We see the ones who have a feeling that they will be put on CoRo as pessimists, and we subconsciously attach to them a label of self-pity and negativity. But this is simply how they choose to evaluate the likelihood of an event. Even if the odds are roughly set in stone, we all have different odds in our head. Some are more confident, and some are less. But regardless, the future is uncertain. True optimism shows itself later, when it’s time to cope with the certainty.

The housing situation is unique though, because the odds are actually known. In most situations, they aren’t, and we have to come up with our own: We ask ourselves what the probability of an event occurring, and we subconsciously answer it. The most relevant example I can think of, though fresher in the memory of some rather than others, is the college application process. BC students applied to some of the most selective schools in this country—present institution included. And between the time the application was sent and the decision was received, one question weighed heavy on everyone’s mind: Am I going to get in? And surely at one point or another the thought of not getting in to a given college crossed our mind. Yet if this thought was ever expressed, it was usually greeted with an appalled, “Don’t say that!” and followed with an, “I’m sure you’re going to get in.” Even though nothing could change the upcoming decision, these thoughts were still discouraged.

But a touch of negativity isn’t such a bad thing. It makes us think of how we would cope with failure and rejection. If it does happen, we’re a bit more ready to deal with it. And if it doesn’t, these thoughts become irrelevant, and victory tastes so much sweeter. But by shunning all these “negative” thoughts, we actually put ourselves at a vulnerable spot, because we’ll be falling from much higher.

Too long have we associated the unhopeful view of the future with sorrow and negative. But to blame for it is the poisonous marriage between the two definitions of pessimism. Hopefully divorce is on the way.


Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

March 11, 2015
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