The Plague of Pessimism
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 25, 2000
I’ve never been a real fan of winter. It’s far from my favorite season. It does make it onto the list of my top four seasons-- but just barely. The winter cold intimidates me. All the extra work that winter entails-- listening to weather reports and school cancellations and heating up the car and shoveling the driveway and sanding the walkway and bundling up with all those extra layers of clothes-- just exhausts me. I feel like hibernating a good part of the time-- but life and work doesn’t let us hibernate, does it?
The winter darkness-- the shortened days-- the interminable dreariness of it all-- affects me, too, I’ll admit. But it doesn’t affect me as much down here in the “sunny south” of Massachusetts as it did when we lived in Maine (where a good part of the year seemed to border on winter, or so at least it seemed to me). My brother Lewis came to visit us numerous times during the eight years we lived there-- at every season of the year except the winter-- and he swears he never once saw leaves actually on the trees there! But still, even here in Stoughton, I miss the warmth that other seasons bring-- and, especially, I miss the light and the sun that goes on shining even when the workday is through.
I find winter to be kind of a depressing season, and I know I am a different person (I feel like a different person, at least) in April and May, than I am in January and February-- and even March. I seem to feel a perpetual state of blahhh at this time of year-- not a severe depression certainly-- but more than enough of the blues. I don’t know-- maybe I have a low-grade case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (or S.A.D., as it’s known), or something...
Or so I thought, until I read recently that some doctors and therapists are now extending the idea of S.A.D. to all four seasons. They’ve now begun to “identify” people for whom Spring (the glorious season of warmth and greenness and new life) brings on depression and sadness and lethargy. And, for others, Summer’s sun and warmth is blamed for their sense of despair and hopelessness. Still others, some doctors and therapists say, suffer from Autumnal Seasonal Affective Disorder (ASAD, I guess that’s called)-- and it’s Fall’s changing cycles that they can’t handle.
When I read this, it got me to thinking that maybe it’s not Winter to blame for my lethargy-- but me, and my attitude. When the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote “To everything there is a season...” he (or maybe even she) sure the heck wasn’t thinking about “Seasonal Affective Disorder”! No, Ecclesiastes was thinking about the eternal cycle of life, with its blessings and its curses, its limitations and its possibilities:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to reap,
A time to mourn and a time to dance...
As Albert Q. Perry, a UU minister in the woods of Maine (well, Pittsfield, which is a little north of Bangor actually) once put it:
“In the Fall we complain about the cold and all the leaves we rake...
In the Winter we complain about all the ice and snow...
In the Spring we complain about all the mud and rain...
In the Summer we complain about the mosquitoes and heat...
But in what season do we rejoice and give thanks,
that this Earth seems to possess just the right climate to permit the existence of life... and us [at all]?”
That reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Will Rogers. “Life is hard,” Will Rogers once said. Then, he added: “Compared to what?”
This quote, in turn, reminded of a story I once read, from my colleague Scott Alexander:
Rev. Alexander continues:
There are any number of reasons we can find for being really peeved about life. There’s not enough sunlight... It’s snowing again... I’ll have to shovel... It’s too cold...
Judy Meyer once wrote:
“I know I’m not the only one who keeps a little list
of evidence that life is not entirely good.
The smaller, the more petty the hurt,--
the greater its power to ruin my day.
I catalog instances of diverse inconsiderations,
elevators not held,
red lights run
as if I am keeping score....”
“It’s easy to keep going in this direction.
The greatest challenge to my faith in the goodness of life
is the daily abrasion
of our inhumane ways with one another.
It can be bad here in this city,
where we are caught
in a great web of isolation and anonymity,
where we are stuck [in] the tendency to see
what is wrong,
not what is good...”
It’s easy to get infected by the “plague of pessimism”, as film critic Michael Medved has called it, that infects our culture. As commentator Paul Harvey has written (and it really does pain me to quote that man, because I really can’t stand him; there are three people at the sound of whose voices I will turn off the radio immediately-- and Paul Harvey is one of them [the other two are Barry and Elliot from Jordan’s Furniture]; but in this context, his words make good sense [as I’m fond of saying, even a stopped clock is right twice a day]):
“Listen to any broadcast,” Harvey writes, “pick up any newspaper. Records are crashing, it is the worst wind or the worst fire or flood or earthquake or whatever because noise makes news....And one gunshot makes more noise than a thousand prayers. That does not mean that it is more important-- just that it sells more newspapers. The heads of all the major television networks understand this basic fact, and they make sure that news broadcasts are chocked-full of noise, right down to the weather report, when the performing meteorologist warns that the winter temperature isn’t just 0 degrees [as if that wasn’t cold enough, but that] the ‘chill factor’ is 40 degrees below!”
Not too long ago, MTV conducted a survey of young adults, 16 to 29, and asked them to describe their generation, choosing from a long list of adjectives. The term that this large group of young people chose least often to describe their generation was “lucky”. The terms that appeared most often were “angry” and “stressed out”. There’s something wrong when young people in the bloom of life-- with all the possibilities of life supposedly stretching before them-- describe themselves this way. (We may wonder what they will be like when they reach their 30s, and 40s, and 50s, and the trials of life really start taking their toll.) There’s something wrong when someone like the rock singer Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana, kills himself at the height of his wealth and fame-- and talent-- yet is still widely hailed as the “authentic voice” of Generation X.
“Our children stand to lose a great deal from prolonged exposure to the dysfunctional elements of our current culture, ” Medved writes. “They lose faith. They lose confidence. And they lose resistance to the most deadly epidemic menacing our youth today-- which isn’t AIDS, or gang violence, or teen pregnancy-- but the plague of pessimism that infects tens of millions of young Americans,” he concludes.
And, I would add, this “plague of pessimism” isn’t restricted to young people (though in their eyes, perhaps, we see it most clearly and most tragically). It infects us all.
Now, I’m most certainly not saying that we should give in to a Pollyannaish, “everything is beautiful” view of life. In one of Pearl Buck’s novels about China, there is a young girl who is, obviously, completely mentally ill. She is completely cut off from life, and goes through all her days trapped in an imbecilic stupor of perpetual happiness. No matter what happens, she has a smile on her face; he laughs; she sings little songs to herself. When asked about her daughter’s condition, her mother will say only: “All her thoughts are happy ones.”
If we go through life refusing to name the pain, seeking to deny all the real problems and tragedies and afflictions great and small that life will inevitably deal us, then it seems to me that this is the kind of “happy-happy” charade we’ll be living.
As James Branch Cabell put it, “An optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible words, and the pessimist fears that it’s true.” Or, as Albert Schweitzer once said, “An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while the pessimist sees only the red light. The truly wise person,” Schweitzer said, “is colorblind.”
The pessimist is the one who looks both ways when crossing a one-way street. The optimist is the one who says, “I want to live forever. And thus far, my plan is working out just fine!”
But as Charlie Brown says in Peanuts (knowing full well that Lucy is sure-as-shooting going to pull that football out from under his foot again): “Hoping to goodness is not theologically sound.”
But then again. even Nietzsche, perhaps the darkest of Western philosophers, saw that there was, nevertheless, that “something more” within the human spirit which leads us away from eternal despair. “Who is this man?” Nietzsche asked. “Who is this pessimist who plays the flute?”
As Richard Gilbert wrote:
One day, in one of the Pogo comic strips, Churchy La Femme is passing the day with Porky in that leaky little boat in that little swamp which is their home. Their reading the newspaper together, and they come across a headline which proclaims: “Sun to burn out in 3 billion years, ending all life on earth”. And pondering this “imminent” demise, Churchy breaks into great wails of self pity and remorse and starts to cry out, “Woe is me! I’m too young to die!” To which the ever-wise Porky responds, “Aw, shut up! You were lucky to have been here in the first place!”
Porky was right, of course. The plague of pessimism would have us worry about all the real or imagined specters that the future might hold (and probably, to one degree or another, will hold). As Richard Gilbert has said, the light of hope reminds us that “The gift of life is not a gift of great sweeps of years, but in the exhilaration of a single day-- the day which we live now. Why can we not look at the gift of today, and fall on our knees in gratitude?”
Who truly living in the present moment can ever be a pessimist? But so much dissuades us from being in the moment-- so many duties and responsibilities, so many frivolities and distractions-- but that is where we need to remain, if we would know life-- if we would love life-- if we would know what it means truly to live life.
“I have to be an optimist because I am still alive,” the late James Baldwin said when he still was.
Who can be truly in the present moment, and not be amazed, and not be hopeful-- at the blood coursing though our veins; at the breath of life inhaling and exhaling from us; at the music of the wind and the birds and the songs of the trees; at the shining sparkle in the eyes of a friend; in the magical twinkle in the smile of the one we love?
When we look with the eyes of God
upon this mundane paradise
all is transformed:
the crooked made straight,
the common regal,
and the most base ingredients
are changed to gold
before our eyes.
What divine alchemy can transfigure the face of this world!
Even more amazing is this--
it transforms our faces, too;
it works in our souls and turns us--
little, common, small as we are--
into kings and queens, lovers, conquerors, heroes,
Romeos and Valentinos, blithe spirits,
holy men and women of awesome wisdom--
all of us transformed, made new,
mythologized mightily by the tender touch of God
to walk this earth as victors, not as fools,
as hopeful, not as victims,
to see in the face of all others the holy love
that makes it all worthwhile--
worth it while we’re here.
The miracle of just being here-- just being here-- and the thankfulness that should engender within us-- is cause enough to get us up and out of our beds, and out of our seats, and back into life-- cold, wintry life or warm spring-like life, whichever-- life in all its amazing seasons.
Living in the moment reminds us that we are living in the midst of a miracle-- and that the song of that miracle is ours to sing.