Charlie's Blog: The Positive Power of Defensive Pessimism

10.31.2015

The Positive Power of Defensive Pessimism


Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.
JOYCE CAROL OATES

People ask me if I am an optimist or a pessimist, and I have a hard time answering that question. This is because the answer depends on time horizons. In the long term of eternity, I am an optimist. In the short term of this temporal existence, I am a pessimist. In other words, I believe in heaven, but I think you have to go through hell to get there. A perfect world exists, but this world is not that perfect world.

People praise optimism because it makes you do things. Optimism makes you get out of the bed each morning with a zest for life and big plans and all that. Many of the great achievements in life have been accomplished by optimists too blinded by their positive thinking to ever contemplate failure. So, like the lucky winners of lotteries, they praise optimism because you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket. But the lucky winner is merely bait for the trap for the vast horde of losers who will be heartbroken and at least one dollar poorer at the end of it.

The world needs lucky fools. I am all for these gamblers. I doubt we would have reached the moon if Neil Armstrong and the rest of those guys ever stopped to contemplate that they were more likely to die than succeed. But the same optimism that fueled the moon landing is also the same optimism that makes people park their cash unquestioningly with a guy like Bernie Madoff. The problem with optimism is that while it makes you daring it also makes you stupid.


Pessimists have a firmer grip on reality. Pessimism makes you smarter. Pessimism is sobriety in a world of drunken optimism. The reality is that the world is fallen. Humanity is corrupted by original sin. You will always have to lock your car doors. Now, the worst does not always come to pass, but when it does, the pessimist is the only one prepared for it. This is because the pessimist saw it coming.

This foresight on the fallen nature of reality is what I think of when I hear the term "defensive pessimism." Defensive pessimism is a strategy for anticipating the worst and being prepared for it. For instance, if you keep bottled water and canned goods for the zombie apocalypse, you are a defensive pessimist. If you carry an umbrella even on a sunny day, you are a defensive pessimist.

Is there a downside to being a defensive pessimist? Yes, there is. It means never being a lottery winner. The upside is that you can spend your one dollar on a bag of chips and enjoy it. This is an important point to grasp, so don't let it slide by. The optimist lives a life of perpetual disappointment, but the pessimist is pleasantly surprised on a daily basis. The pessimist does take joy but in small things delivered on a regular basis. Pessimism leads to satisfaction. Pessimism makes things better. This is the paradox of pessimism.


I first discovered this paradox of pessimism with Ronald Reagan back in the eighties. People see Reagan as an optimist, but Reagan was a conservative which is a fundamentally pessimistic worldview. So, where did people get this idea that Ron was a sunny optimist? Well, that's simple. Reagan knew the liberalism of the sixties and the seventies would be a disaster, so he was the only one smiling when the rest of the country was disappointed. This is because optimism promises utopia and delivers hell. Pessimism preaches hell, and you find heaven when you avoid hell.

Now, you can't be a pessimist and also be an atheist. This is because a true atheist and a pessimist would be suicidal. The fact that some of these pessimistic atheists still keep drawing breath shows they must have some glimmer of hope in this world or at least the sneaking suspicion that the worst is yet to come in the afterlife they claim does not exist. The truly successful defensive pessimist accepts what the Bible teaches about fallen humanity, a world of misery, and the hope of Heaven and the beatific vision. This mix of hope and stark reality gives the defensive pessimist both a joyful heart and a hard realism at the same time. Life is a difficult road, but it is worth taking. You have to die to experience resurrection.

Good things come to those who suffer. The defensive pessimist knows this and accepts this. When the lights of optimism flicker out in the darkness of reality, it is then that you see the warm glow in the heart of the defensive pessimist. This is joy. This is the reassurance of knowing you are right. The defensive pessimist guards the most precious thing he has which is hope. Hope endures when it is based in reality. When hope is based on fantasy, it comes crashing down when reality hits. This is the foundation made of sand that comes from foolish optimism.

Be a defensive pessimist. Think the worst will come. And when it doesn't, you will have lost nothing but your delusions about life. This is the positive power of defensive pessimism. It is hope wedded to intelligence, prudence, and fortitude.

If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable:
think of it as a place for correction and it's not so bad. Imagine a set of people all living in the same
building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel 
might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was
really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become
pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.
C.S. LEWIS