“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

March 2017

 

smiley-face croppedI tend to focus on the negative. If you need someone to point out everything that’s wrong in the world, I’m your woman. I have a true knack for finding the cloud within any silver lining. If I’m walking in a neighborhood with lovely old houses and majestic tall trees, I think, “I love beautiful old houses. I wish everyone could afford to live in such neighborhoods. But most people can’t. And what with the Great Recession, many people lost even the modest homes they did have …” Basically, for any lovely thing I encounter, my appreciation of the loveliness is quickly replaced with feelings of sorrow for all the people who do not have it.

A few years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to “not be so negative.” My daughter said, “You mean, to be more positive?” Tellingly, it hadn’t occurred to me to express my New Year’s resolution in a positive way. I’m a bit like Eeyore, whose cloud hovers above him wherever he goes.

There are people who always seem to look on the bright side of life, people who are congenitally upbeat. I’ve always wished I could be one of them. I mean, you never really know what will happen, so there should always be room for hope, right? On the other hand, if you look at a given situation and do some mental calculations, you can sometimes make a pretty educated guess about how things will turn out. And sometimes it would be a stretch to be hopeful. I guess some people are just more limber than I am.

I remember many years ago, when our kids were young, we joined some relatives on a trip to Wildwood Beach in New Jersey for a brief vacation. (In our defense, none of us had ever been there before; it had been recommended by a friend of a friend.)

Wildwood, NJ occupies a special place in my memory as the tackiest, least beautiful place I’ve ever vacationed. It was filled with motels with plastic palm trees out front. The beach was filled with people sitting in their beach chairs or on their beach blankets or under their beach umbrellas. If you confined your gaze to that relatively small slice of possible views – say, the 30 degrees or so, out of the entire 360 degrees possible – that looked directly out at the ocean, you might be able to say, “Beautiful.” But if you looked anywhere else – any of the remaining 330 degrees – it was tacky and ugly and crowded. I did not think, “Why can’t everyone enjoy this?” But a true aficionado in looking on the bright side would have confined herself to those 30 degrees of ocean view and thought, “How lovely.” Or something.

I’ve often thought of that experience at Wildwood beach as a metaphor for much of life in the modern world. There is still much beauty and much that is right with the world. But you don’t have to turn your attention very far – often just a few degrees rotation – to start to notice something that is wrong with the world – often very wrong; sometimes heart-wrenchingly, outrageously wrong.

I’m not good at confining my gaze to the good view; if the bad view is anywhere in my peripheral vision, my gaze ends up riveted on it. So every time I see a picture of some magnificent wild animals I briefly enjoy their majesty but then rotate to the upsetting fact that they are now an endangered species. Every time I drive my car or take an airplane or do any one of a number of normal modern activities, I can practically see the emissions floating upward to add to the concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Every time… well, you get the picture.

But every once in a while my brain does a complete turnaround, and a wave of sheer positivity washes over me. I feel so grateful for so many things in my life. First and foremost, I feel grateful for my husband and my kids. And not just having any ole’ husband and kids; I feel grateful for having my particular husband and my particular kids.

And I feel grateful for my health. When my mother was alive she used to talk about how important good health is. I was much younger then, and I dismissed such sentiments as – ho-hum (yawn) – not worthy of my attention. (I was much more focused on weighty philosophical subjects, like: What is a good society?). I’m older now, and it’s hard not to notice the various people who are around my age (some even younger) who are dying of cancer or who have broken a hip or who have Parkinson’s disease or some other debilitating condition. These people didn’t do anything wrong to bring on these illnesses or conditions; they just had bad luck. I’ve had my share of typical middle age medical issues, but nothing life threatening or long lasting.

Of course, all that could change tomorrow. I could get diagnosed with any one of the awful forms of cancer that friends have been diagnosed with – or have died of. I could fall and break a hip. I could … well, let’s not dwell on all the possibilities, shall we? The positive point I was going to make, before I seamlessly detoured off into the negative point of what could still happen to me, is that these things haven’t happened to me so far. And for that I am grateful.

And I feel grateful for this incredible earth we call home, with its majestic beauty and its astounding array of plants and animals … that we are killing off at an even more astounding rate … Have you heard of the Sixth Great Extinction?[1] Uh-oh. I must have rotated my “view” by a few degrees. … Why can’t everyone live on a planet that is not careening towards another mass extinction and catastrophic climate change? Why can’t I?

So how, I wonder, do positive people stay so positive? I think about this often, with a mixture of envy and incredulity. In an essay I wrote several years ago, I pondered the related question of how it is that some people just don’t seem to worry:

“I know people who apparently (and I stress the word apparently) don’t worry. They have what seems to me to be an insupportably sunny view of life. My sense from listening to such people is that they are either denying the existence of problems – problems that other people acknowledge to be real – or they acknowledge them but seem to be disengaged from them.”

But, as I pointed out in that essay, reality has a way of hanging around – so if you put your head in the sand so you don’t see it or acknowledge it, it will still be there when you re-emerge. If you’re lucky, other people will have taken care of the problems you were ignoring or denying. If you’re not lucky, the problems will still be there; they may be worse for lack of attention.

The problem that has most dramatically riveted my attention –climate change – is still here, and it has indeed gotten worse for lack of sufficient attention. To be clear, climate change has gotten plenty of attention from scientists over the last couple of decades; but it has gotten woefully insufficient attention from our politicians, who have the power to actually address the problem. And, as we all know by now, one of our two major political parties has made denying the problem a badge of tribal affiliation. Global warming? What global warming? Look, here’s a snowball.

But of course as the senators in the U.S. Senate chamber focused their gaze on that snowball (both literally and figuratively), the earth continued to warm, the glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets continued to melt, and the oceans continued to rise. And the portion of the total 360 degree “view” of our planet that could still be said to be in reasonable shape continued to shrink.

A negative person can see problems as mountains when they are only molehills. But sometimes problems really are mountains; occasionally, they are “Mount Everests.” I would characterize the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime as a “huge mountain” of a problem. I would characterize climate change as a “Mount Everest” of a problem. We are, after all, changing our habitat, the earth, irrevocably – and it isn’t clear if we, or up to 50 percent of the other species currently inhabiting this earth, will be able to adjust. And if we can, just what kind of environment will we have to adjust to?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I started writing this essay back in April 2016, almost a year ago. I no longer remember why I set it aside, but a lot has happened since then. It’s now March 2017. We’ve recently had a presidential election – and we now have a new president: Donald Trump.

If ever there was fuel for the negative mind, President Trump is it. Aside from the “entertaining” spectacle of watching an ignorant, self-absorbed narcissist with the mentality of an emotionally disturbed 5 year old “playing president,” there is the practical matter of just how much damage he will do to our country (and the world) before he can be stopped. And then there’s the other practical matter of whether the Republican-controlled Congress will ever stop him.

The indications so far are not promising. Most of the 360 degrees of my view of our “checks and balances” are discouraging, to say the least. There are a few positive degrees here and there – a judge stopped Trump’s unconstitutional ”Muslim ban;” subscriptions to the mainstream media that Trump is bashing – e.g., the New York Times – have surged, and the MSM really has stepped up to the plate in reporting on Trump’s many bizarre lies and antics; levels of citizen engagement and activism are high. All of that is good.

But it has been quite eye-opening – to say nothing of appalling – how resistant the Republicans have been to checking Trump. Nothing seems to rise to the level that they consider worthy of investigation or holding Trump accountable – not the endless lying; not the bashing of the mainstream media, calling them “the enemy of the people;” not the obvious fearmongering and targeting of vulnerable groups; not the glaring potential conflicts of interest; and, most notably, not the concerning indications of ties between the Trump team and Russia, a hostile foreign government. The saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” floats to mind.[2]

But, then, I tend to focus on the negative. Ruy Teixeira is much more positive. In a recent piece in the Washington Post, he argues that

“… fears that Trump will set back the left’s agenda dangerously and irreparably are not well founded. Core advances can’t be undone. Although Trump could do some real temporary damage, he and his movement will fade, and the values and priorities of the left will eventually triumph. …

“Nor will Trump be able to derail the remarkable progress on another cherished goal of the left: a green economy that can stave off global warming.”

I really, really want to believe that. But do I?

Well, I don’t have any better crystal ball than the next person, but I suspect that, on some fronts, Teixeira may be right. Especially on issues of social justice, I think the country is trending liberal, and hard as they may try, Trump and his team will probably not be able to change that.

I also think that the sheer incompetence of the Trump administration may eventually give even some of Trump’s ardent fans buyer’s remorse, and that could ultimately lead to a real backlash against not only Trump but the Republican power structure that has supported him.

But Trump can do a lot of damage in the meantime. In choosing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, for example, he’s transforming the justice department in ways that will only exacerbate the feelings of already-targeted groups that the police are not there to protect them but to harass them. I don’t blithely toss around the term “white privilege,” but my own white privilege jumped out at me as I was thinking about this – even though I think social justice attitudes in this country are trending liberal, I would undoubtedly feel a much more visceral fear right now if I were, say, African American or Muslim.

And while I’m pivoting back to the negative, I want to respond to Teixeira’s upbeat statement about “a green economy that can stave off global warming.” He points to the ramping up of renewable energy sources – wind and solar, primarily – and their plummeting costs. True, Trump will not be able to stop these market trends. But he may well be able to stall progress away from fossil fuels – and actually increase their use during the next several years. And that could doom our chances – diminishing as each year of inaction goes by – to avoid catastrophic climate change. Keep in mind that we weren’t exactly rushing towards climate solutions even before the reactionary Trump team came on the scene, even as scientists’ warnings have become more and more urgent in recent years.

I think maintaining an optimistic view sometimes really means cherry picking the bright spots and ignoring the ominous bits in the picture of what’s happening. I have never been good at that. The true realist weighs the bright spots against the ominous bits and tries to assess which are the more dominant – and thus how much cause there is for hope … or not.

But people need hope. Even in a world that often seems crushingly hopeless, we persist in our hopefulness. Many people turn to religion, the ultimate provider of hope – for many, the provider of last resort. For a realist, however, religion – especially the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) may be too much of a stretch. As I wrote elsewhere,

“A thorough assessment of the world does not easily induce us to conclude that there is a God – at least not an omnipotent, benevolent God. Perhaps if you ignore all the horrible violence of nature, to say nothing of the mind-numbing cruelty of man, you might be able to convince yourself – that is, if you carefully cherry pick the aesthetically pleasing aspects of life on earth. But an honest appraisal does not support the notion of the omnipotent, benevolent God that most of us in the West are brought up to believe in. So to believe in such a God, people must try to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.”

And yet many millions of people around the world make the attempt, the more so the more hopeless their situations seem to be. You’ve probably heard the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don’t actually think that’s true, but I do think that most people in dire situations desperately want a source of hope – and optimists are better at finding cause for hope. Whether such hope is warranted in all situations is another matter.

An optimist may have hope even when there is really little cause for hope; a pessimist may see little cause for hope even when there is indeed cause. A realist will have hope when there is cause for hope. Of course, “cause for hope” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Maybe a better way of putting it is that an optimist is biased towards seeing causes for hope, a pessimist is biased against seeing causes for hope, and a realist is unbiased in assessing causes for hope. I suspect none of us are true realists, although some are more so than others.

If we could choose which to be – an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist – which should we choose? I can’t see much upside to being a pessimist – other than the fact that having such low expectations means it will be easier for things to turn out better than you expected. So you will have more chances to be happily surprised.[3]

The real choice, I think, is between being an optimist and a realist. I suspect there is an advantage to being an optimist, if only because optimists are probably happier than realists. And having an upbeat attitude almost certainly makes it easier to keep fighting to change all the things that make us feel depressed and hopeless.

But can one simply decide to become an optimist? There’s certainly a ready market of advice books to help people do just that – perhaps starting with Norman Vincent Peale’s famous book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” published in 1952.[4] But the existence of such a market doesn’t necessarily mean it’s possible. There are, after all, a lot of crackpot books out there with bogus claims. It does seem, however, that there is something to the notion of “learned optimism” on which the more recent research of Martin Seligman has focused. [5] [6]

But is optimism always appropriate? The title of this essay was intended as a jokey reference to the final scene in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” where Brian (who was mistaken for Jesus) and several thieves are singing the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the crosses on which they are being crucified.[7] There are situations that are truly hopeless – you can be upbeat all you want, but, no, you’re just fooling yourself.

So even if optimism seems like the best overall strategy, it needs to be tempered with realism. When we’re weighing the bright spots against the ominous bits in a situation, we need to be able to acknowledge when there really aren’t any bright spots – or, I suppose we could go down cheerfully singing like Brian.

But in most situations, there are some bright spots to hang onto. And when there are, we need to do a kind of mental “balancing act.” We need to keep in our minds the negative bits, so that we don’t forget how important it is to change the situation. At the same time, we need to keep in our minds the positive bits – the causes for hope (if such exist) – so that we have the sense that things can indeed change for the better and we have the motivation to try to make that happen. That requires holding two (seemingly but not actually conflicting) sets of facts in our minds at the same time. We can do that, can’t we? Yes we can![8]

(Note to self: This means you too.)

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150623-sixth-extinction-kolbert-animals-conservation-science-world/

[2] Attributed to Lord Acton. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

[3] There may actually be another upside to being a pessimist. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201306/how-optimism-can-be-learned

[4] For a critique of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” see, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Positive_Thinking .

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Learned-Optimism-Martin-P-Seligman/dp/1442341130; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_optimism

[6] I have not reviewed the literature on “learned optimism”; my assessment is based on only a cursory look, so take it with a grain of salt.

[7] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python’s_Life_of_Brian

[8] As I was writing this essay, Barry brought this blog post to my attention. I think it’s worth a read. https://medium.com/@abby.brockman/despair-is-not-a-strategy-15-principles-of-hope-deba7ac2cb29#.ks7o30uun

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