The Limits Of Pessimism

Commonplace Newsletter #015

Welcome readers to the latest of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury.

If you are a new arrival here is the archive of past issues for you to dig in to. 

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Before we begin our discussion on the nature and drawbacks of pessimism, I want to point you to a review I published earlier this week of filmmaker Cody Clarke’s new book/manifesto Kill The Lion.

It is a truly foundational Soaring Twenties book. If you want to know what the opposite of pessimism and defeatism looks like I suggest you check out the review and then pick up a copy of the book. It is powerful.

Now on to this weeks essay…


Breathe. 

This newsletter is a sanctuary from politics, from the news cycle, from hysteria. Always has been, always will be.

Remember: the aim of journalism is for it to be read. The aim of literature is for it to be re-read. I deal in the latter so latching on to and exploiting the topic of the day (whatever that may be) does not help me. Does not help us. 

If these essays and pieces are to stand up to the test of time- which is the one true aim of the writer- then their form and content cannot be dictated by instinctual reactions to whatever facet of the 24 hour news cycle manages to effectively disrupt my equanimity, detachment and common sense.

Permanent degeneration into journalism- whether by the creator or the consumer- is the death of the artistic spirit. You have to invite the vampire in before he can pass the threshold. And in the same manner, you have to allow the news into your home and in to your mind before it can take root.

Now this is not an appeal for quietism. Or the resignation of defeatism. It’s simply an appeal for perspective, for considering the integrity of you own inner being in a world that attempts to have you focus on the external and the urgent and the loud and the chaotic.

If the secret subject of these newsletters is mental health, then today we will calmly consider pessimism, optimism and realism, a slippery spectrum of terms that have been diluted and distorted through abuse and misuse. 

Ready? Let’s begin...

Pessimism As Armour For A Broken Heart

I remember being a teenager and, as is healthy, I cringe as I recollect. I remember sighing and rolling my eyes constantly, I remember silently seething and passing perpetual internal judgment, I remember screwing a cigarette into my scowl and wrapping myself in a cloak of feigned fatalism as grey and acrid as that Marlboro smoke. 

How stupid it is to feign world-weariness when you are too young and green to have seen even an iota of the world to be wearied by. And yet the pose persists, in many old enough to know better.

Part of it is provincialism, or rather the provincialism of the spirit. Of course there are many souls who have never left their hometown who are more cosmopolitan than those who are cosmopolitan in mere geography alone. 

Pessimism is the adolescents attempt at appearing to be grown up, as if the death of wonder, rather than its preservation in the face of the odds, is what constitutes maturity. And like pulling an ugly face or putting on a fake accent, over time pessimism begins to become ingrained and stick. 

You don’t need to be a seminar-attending New Thought apologist to see that attitudes and behaviours that you repeat and thoughts that you consistently affirm will begin to shape the direction of your life. The Greeks talk about this. Religions talk about this. Every source of worldly wisdom talks about this.

So why put on the clinging, sneering mask of pessimism in the first place?

The answer, I believe, is that such a stance proves itself to be a kind of armour against psychic wounds. It’s heavy and will soon drag you down. But it is freely available. No one will judge you for wearing it as they are probably wearing it too. It’s a default. It’s normal. Families hand it down as an heirloom.

You won’t stand out in this armour, as strange as it appears to those who have neither tried it on or who discarded their own armour once they found that the weight of it was crushing them. 

But it is ultimately useless. It is filled with weak points. It signals what you hope to ignore. It causes what you hope to prevent.

Pessimism, simply put, never works out as you hope it will.

The Presence Of The Glass

So seeing the glass as half empty- to jarringly shift metaphors- is the strategy of a fool. Rather than a hedge against disappointment, it has away of coaxing disappointing things into your worldview. 

Seeing the glass as half full is better, but it still misses the mark.

If give the choice between these two states, half-full would be the most useful.

But all dichotomies are false dichotomies. Including this one.

There is always a third way, there is always some zoomed-out, bigger picture view that squares the supposed opposition between A and B.

So in this case the thing to think about- and this is a fact of pure realism rather than positive or negative interpretation- is the miracle that the glass even exists at all. 

See, you have a life in which you can feel despair and disappointment and boredom and hope and mild amusement and everything else in the spectrum of human experience. If you are reading this you are alive. The glass exists.

This is enough. It’s hard to keep your mind focused on this fact, but it’s true. 

You are here. You have agency. You have at least a modicum of control over some facet of your existence. You have things you like to do. Things that you are grateful for. Things you can look forward to, if only vaguely and dimly.

I say this because we forget. So often we forget. Pessimism is so often merely low-level thoughtlessness and mild ingratitude (again I stress the teenage incubation period of this mindset in many). And so the solution is clear.

And in case it isn’t I’ll try to point it out for you.

Circles of Influence

Pessimism is a poor strategy to try to gain control over your life. When curious and carefree childhood encounters its first limitation, its first disappointment, and then the next, the possibility of pessimism becomes enticing.

You can’t stop the blow, can’t stop the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but you can brace for them. In fact you can spend your whole life bracing for them, even though this makes you a stationary target, a sitting duck.

Again- poor strategy.

But you can exert some control. No matter what you hear or read or secretly feel, no matter what your ingrained self-talk might whisper to you, you do have some control. Always.

You control the stimuli that comes in and you control how your reactions to this externally manifest. Circumstances may be beyond you. How you let those circumstances affect you beyond immediate knee-jerk reflexes is not beyond you.

So given this fact, you can be a comfort and a source of solace, or at least comic relief, to those who immediately surround you.

By taking control of what can be controlled you can cause such peace- simple though it may seem and inconsequential though it may appear- to ripple outwards.

From the self to the next to the next, near imperceptibly but surely still.

Without the heavy useless armour you are nimble. You can manoeuvre and move freely.

If you can move you can be moved. (Pessimism is the deadening of feelings. Optimism, then, is the ability to be moved by things). And if you can be moved you can move others.

And that’s how , slowly but surely, you get things to change.

Until next Sunday,

Live Well,

Tom.


Thank you for taking the time to read this. And thank you for signing up.

But more importantly, thank you for sharing these newsletters with friends and family.

As I said above the goal here is to create something that can be re-read. Literature rather than journalism.

In a time that trades in speed and sensation and playing to the worst parts of people’s nature, I am trying to create a space that is in opposition to this. Somewhere that is slow and nuanced and considered and cordial and calm.

Such a space, by definition, can only spread through word of mouth. And such concepts can only be refined through civil conversation. Thank you, as always, for participating.

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