Thursday, February 10, 2011


"What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, "My cosmos, right or wrong." He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world." -G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Some friends often accuse me of being something of a cynic. I assume they do so because I occasionally have sardonic sense of humor. I have never been shy about mocking those things which have proven huge disappointments. A long time ago I found this to be a very effective coping mechanism. If your college promises that Spring Formal is the most magical night of your life and the sound system shorts out, is it really so cynical to loudly wonder if a wizard has hexed your dance? (Okay, maybe if you then say that the senior class president who made the comment is an evil wizard setting us all up for failure.)* But I long ago realized that there are times in life when you have to laugh to keep from crying.

We tend to view optimism as a character asset. In fact, we consider pessimism and optimism to be an opposing pair of virtue and vice much as we do Courage and Cowardice or Love and Hate.

Or Bacon and Vegetables

But I wonder if there isn't something to what Chesterton is saying. Having been through a fair share of grief and frustration, I found that the most unhelpful advice came from people simply telling me to buck up and look on the bright side. Most of them were probably at a loss as to what to say. I know their intention was nothing but helpful and noble. I retrospectively appreciate their expression of support though I find their words far from truly supportive.

I think that oftentimes the best thing to do when addressing problems and evil in life is not to downplay them but to accept them in all their dreadful gravity. We might want pithy statements about silver linings when the car won't start or I have a fight with my sister. I don't want to hear about how "things always work out for the best" when my life crumbles under the crushing weight of disease, loneliness, hopelessness, or death. I need someone to tell me that the world sucks and its ruined and broken and the only hope for man exists altogether outside it. The world should be acknowledged by any serious and honest observer as more than merely unjust occasionally; it is an unjust place by nature. But this is the sin of the optimist for he whitewashes the world.

I, like Chesterton, would never consider pessimism to be a virtue either. I will address the issue of pessimism in the coming weeks and the ultimate alternative to both foolish extremes. Still, I want to leave the reader with the very serious possibility that an optimistic view of life is hardly the best. I think it very unlikely that the world can be saved from within. Man has had thousands of years of recorded history to fix injustice and suffering. Maybe progress has been made. After all, we got rid of slavery, right? Why then are people more morose, listless, and suicidal than ever? (Ecclesiastes, anyone?) Maybe they just aren't being optimistic enough... but I think it more likely that they have been sold a falsely positive view of the world and can't cope with the reality. All those cynics are disappointed romantics.

*This was not a true story. It was a hypothetical. I always liked the senior class president.

1 comment:

  1. "I need someone to tell me that the world sucks and its ruined and broken and the only hope for man exists altogether outside it."

    Good quote...almost sounds optimistic...

    I understand your point though. It is a good one. The best way I learned that was at a funeral. I thought, "This person was a believer, they loved God and have suffered a great deal for a long I should rejoice." I realized later that this is stupid.
    Death is death- it's a monster, horrible and despicable no matter what shape or form. It simply shouldn't happen and when anyone dies, we should deeply mourn as Jesus did for Lazarus.