Thursday, February 03, 2005

Optimism or Hope?

Since I'm supposed to post something "optimistic" on Fridays, it behooves me to start searching a day or two early. And while wandering through the Internets this evening in search of glad tidings, I started thinking about the difference between hope and optimism.

"Optimism" sets my teeth on edge, frankly. It seems less like a virtue than a stance, less like a vision than a scheme, and I've also noticed how often it serves as a club with which to beat up one's opponents. There always seems to be a touch of the bully in the optimist, and - God knows - of the optimist in the bully.

When I was in grade school, a teacher (who probably should've been teaching us set theory or something) held a glass of water aloft, and asked each of us to say whether it was half empty or half full. When he asked me, I said, "If you fill it halfway, it's half full. If you fill it all the way and drink half, it's half empty."

The answer seemed logical to me. But needless to say, it proved I was not only a pessimist who wouldn't 'fess up, but a cynic and a troublemaker to boot.

The point is, that was when I first realized that I live in a country where it's considered worthwhile to classify people as optimists or pessimists, and where "nuance" was more likely to earn you a kick in the slats than anything else.

I never did manage to accept optimism or pessimism as the One True Faith, so I guess I'm stuck somewhere between despair and hope. I have to admit, there's something to be said for certain kinds of despair. It occasionally involves clearheaded thinking, and can be useful to the extent that it burns away counterproductive illusions. Despairing of winning the lottery, for instance, is sensible, productive despair, and ought to be encouraged.

On the left, there's sometimes a tendency to romantic despair, the kind that ponders the dissolution of the flesh smugly, with one eye on the mirror, and is proud to have a bleaker view of the future than the next person.

That's not an affliction of mine, thank heavens. I find that I have hope even when I don't particularly want it. There are times when it seems more like a burden than anything else, simply because you know it's not going to allow you to give up your ideals, or your efforts to live in accordance with them, or your faith that something good may yet come of those efforts.

As I said after Bush's win in November:

If you're not deaf to your own conscience, if you wouldn't steal from a poor man, if you wouldn't drop bombs on children for money, if you would rather tell the truth than lie...then you have infinitely more reason to rejoice today than the men who won this election.
By the same token, if you have any patriotism, morality, or wisdom, you have far more reason to rejoice today than the dead-eyed lickspittles who confirmed the appointment of Alberto Gonzales. When I see how many Americans have chosen to devote a portion of their lives - and whatever was left of the hearts - to spouting lunatic excuses for torture, I certainly can't feel optimistic. But I remain hopeful. Some people do tire of ugliness, after all....especially when they become ugly enough to frighten themselves. It happens.

In any case, I do believe I'll change my little weekly tradition to "Friday Hope Blogging." The hell with optimism. It's coin of the realm in Bushworld, and it doesn't buy anything I want.


Republic of Palau said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rexroth's Daughter said...

What you already knew in grade school, most people never understand. Such a smart, logical answer... even nuanced, which of course made you a troublemaker.
Hopefulness is good -- I just have a hard time distinguishing between the real thing and false hope.
As Lewis Black says, "keep false hope alive." Works for me.
Rexroth's Daughter

Anonymous said...

I've always liked my wife's answer: when asked if the glass was half empty or half full, she relplies, "It's poison."

-Dan McEnroe

Wayne said...

Oh my, - poison - yes, that's a very perceptive answer. Thanks to your wife!

Speechless said...

Seems to me like trying to say anything is an act of hopefulness--Casting light on anything, able to say anything is making a step further on the path. In utter darkness, even a scream may be an act of hope.

Did you ever read Laurence Sterne's Tristan Shandy? It a funny book, and suprisingly current for being written way back in the what? early 1700's I thingk. In there he reaches a point of words can't convey his grief. He asks that a marble page be printed to convey his loss of words to express his sorrow. But even in giving the marbled page, he still is giving you something. Like Sterne, I keep coming back to that marble page lately, feeling like that's all I can give.

So in searching for sources of hope you are it seems to me, inspite of your anti-Pollyanna feelings, doing something optimistic. Either way, I thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked my wife's answer: when asked if the glass was half empty or half full, she relplies, "It's poison."That's wonderful. You're a very lucky man!

And Speechless, I love Sterne, and Tristam Shandy is one of my favorite books! I like your take on it, too.

Republic of Palau said...

Tristram Shandy is being read on BBC Radio 4 this week and next.

rorschach said...

Hey Phila--

I like your tale of the half-full water glass and your rabble-rousing response. Puts me in mind of (I think it was) Burroughs, who, while in elementary school, had a teacher propounding upon the notion that "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right." He raised his hand and said, "If something is worth doing, isn't it worth the effort, even if you end up not pulling it off?"

He was branded a troublemaker too.

I can see the reasons behind your allergy to the term "optimism," but cannot quite agree. The reason, I think, is Gramsci's quote about being a "pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will." Sums up my stance in facing the world pretty well.

Phila said...


I totally agree with the Gramsci quote. My feeling is just that the word "optimism" has been totally debased by the GOP. It now seems to mean "we can do whatever we want and get away with it." There's a real difference between hoping something will turn out well, and laboring towards it, and believing it'll turn out well no matter what.

Anonymous said...

Optimism or "half-full theology" is an attitude that is often supported by ignorance. I'm sure many Enron investors were optimists before they understood that the true purpose of the company's corporate structure was opacity to shareholders. Finally, today's right-wing optimists are adventurers in the shared hallucination of theocracy, whether here or in the mideast.

"We believe in God, therefore everything we do is inspired by God. Anything inspired by God is good. If you don't believe that what we are doing is good, it's because you don't believe in God. Therefore, you are evil and not only do we not have to listen to you, we are compelled by faith to oppose you."

Faith is the political crutch of the ignorant. Any argument based upon it requires it for confirmation of its "reason".