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Seeking Compromise, Part Two: Flying Penguins and Critical Optimism

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“critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.”

Last week I wanted to talk about compromise, but realised we needed to clear some ground about worldviews first, broadly grouped as optimistic and hopeful, on the one hand, or pessimistic and cynical, on the other. Self-help and psychology-based industries usually take it for granted that the former is desired and beneficial, while the latter stops us in our tracks. So last week we reviewed the benefits of optimism, like improved health and feelings of well-being, but also the costs: discomfort and avoidance of life’s harder truths. I may even have suggested that unbridled optimism was the door to psychopathy. At the very least, it can be a source of alienation in personal relationships, if not cause some of the dumbest shit humans can get up to. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and this geographical misunderstanding costs us every time. I still want to talk about compromise, but we’re not going to get there today either.

As we concluded last week, then, cynicism and pessimism can be virtuous, because they help us confront hard truths, set realistic goals and are also the pathways to empathy and close social bonds. Not that all those downsides from last week don’t suddenly vanish; unbridled cynicism will put your life in a tailspin just as much as unbridled optimism. Historically, the Cynics of Ancient Greek philosophy believed in an ascetic life of virtue, in accordance with nature’s laws. Nowadays this still correlates in a surprising way: if you believe most positive thinking ideologues, cynics might find themselves living quite the ascetic lifestyle indeed! I can vouch for some truth in that, though does struggling to get by make me cynical, or am I really to believe that already being cynical is why I struggle? My considered answer to the head of the Royal Melbourne Pain Clinic followed thus: “Fuck you.” In any case, we shouldn’t shy away from the negative impacts of cynicism.

Before our pathological Dr Feelgoods out there point to “Ah-HA!” me here, this is a long way from the perrenial bad press cynicism gets, and is enough to take optimism off its perch as the ideal state of mind in all situations. A cynical person would be more likely to acknowledge the flaws of their approach, even if it meant impinging on their success or well-being, and this is precisely my point. A canny reader put me onto this TED talk, worth sharing:

I take issue with much of this talk, as you might expect. Who says believing in your own abilities has anything to do with optimism? Many cynical folks are used to backing their own skills; they have to, because they’re not expecting the world to hand them anything. If Dr Sharot is correct here, though, it’s possible I’m optimistic about my abilities but pessimistic about their capacity to translate into success or happiness.

But mainly, I don’t believe there are optimists and pessimists, in an empirical, testable way. The Dysatisfunctional position is that we are all surely mixes of the two, optimistic about some things and cynical about other things. Even when clear tendencies exist for any given person, we might generalise and label someone accordingly, in a kind of shorthand. But there are problems with scientifically measuring optimism over one particular tested topic, then generalising across that person’s whole life, folding in health indicators, perceived happiness etc. I’ve used that shorthand in this post, but I’m not claiming scientific knowledge along the way, and neither should these guys.

And anyway, respondants’ perception of their happiness might be WRONG. Sounds crazy, but many people think they are happy, when anyone with a clue can see they are perpetual runners, living with that perpetual crazed wild horse eye we’ve all seen before:

dysatisfunctional wild horse eyes

Several ex-girlfriends over the years have pulled the exact same face on the way out the door.

Or they might be perfectly happy while projecting all their chaos and crap onto others, in which case they might be happy while outsourcing their unhappiness. In the business world it’s called negative externalization, and it’s just as despicable in private matters. So for Dr Sharot and her fellow scientists, relying on the conscious mind to provide data for their experiments is impressively flawed, especially for a discipline that created the concept of the sub-conscious, which ushers in the certainties of unknown motivations and limits to self-knowledge. Science won’t save us from our dysatisfunction; rather it makes us more dysfunctional in the false certainty it provides. Penguins, no matter how optimistic, simply will not “soar like an eagle”, as Dr Sharot suggests.

Is getting insurance sensibly pessimistic because you’re counting on needing it, or optimistic because you’re sure that whatever happens, you will be covered by the policy? Stupid penguins…

Dr Sharot’s gist, nonetheless, is that downsides have their upsides. Apart from her concluding point, that a dash of pessimism builds in preparation in the form of conditions, caveats and thus greater durability, I would add it also matches up better to how life actually is (since the universe is indifferent to us), fosters self-reliance (because the universe is indifferent to us), and facilitates greater empathy in personal relationships (because we are tooled up to acknowledge inevitable interpersonal difficulties). Since last fortnight, my “all good” friend replied that he has come more my way over the years, because it made him professionally and personally more effective, and I admitted to moving a good deal his way too, away from assuming things will go bad. Such thinking starts as an unrealistic assumption, but undeniably tends to self-fulfill.

This is where advocates a middle ground I’d like to call “critical optimism”. It builds in the healthy benefits of optimism, while shedding the narrow self-blinding that tends to accompany positive thinking. It relies on an ever-critical degree of questioning, without running too far into despair. There are good reasons why both tendencies are linked to these bad behaviours, and critical optimism takes considerable self-discipline, and also energy, to maintain. Limited resources is why we all pull shit when we should know better. Implementing critical optimism will necessarily be imperfect, but that is an assumed part of its strategy.

When Buddhists meditate, they seek to quieten the mind, to block out all conscious ramblings, be they selfish or selfless, trivial or some raison d’être. Every effort is made to return to the most fundamental cornerstones of living: breath, sensation, and the passing of time. Importantly, they count on their attentions straying; the task is to return to the practice. Critical optimism works the same way: thinking positively need not deny inevitable failings, and your failings need not deny the next positive experience.

Bear this in mind, and critical optimism will stop you getting ahead of yourself when things start going well, while also developing a different kind of confidence that comes from training your critical eye, especially in sticky situations, (even those of your own making). In this way, critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.


About Luke

Luke Stickels writes fiction, theory, and essays in such a piecemeal fashion as to be moving nigh imperceptibly. But he is no author-ninja. He is dysatisfunctional. Luke has written for Meanjin, The Drum Online, New Matilda, Green Magazine, and various now-defunct magazines, IsNot! Magazine probably being the most fun. He has written on violence, sound and cinema in several refereed academic journals, taught almost every subject at university, and was once quoted in a tumblr tag for "enlightened." As if THAT wasn't due to being completely dysatisfunctional.

8 responses »

  1. Pingback: Rethinking the Couple Fail: stats, freedom and effective door stops «

  2. Pingback: Seeking Compromise, Part Three: «

  3. Helen from Eltham

    Dear Andrew and Luke,

    Once upon a time there was an architect who wanted to design the biggest and best monument to the universe in the world. So he jumped onto his camel and set out for the highest point he could find in the Egyptian desert, for he was an optimist. Armed with his drawings, arising from many years of positive belief in his ability to build on shifting sands, his artistic brilliance, and his sextant and surveying tools of that era, he finally reached the highest point on which to build his monolith. His enthusiasm was boundless, his creative juices flowing, and his vision so magnificent he jumped off his camel and strode to the top of his .01 metre above sea level site. Unfortunately his optimism was so great he’d forgotten to locate a water source for his thirsty camel or himself; his boundless faith in his project was so strong he’d overlooked tying his camel and it inevitably wandered off to look for water. The architect, realising he’d lost his way out of this isolated spot which was higher than most of the surrounding desert, was overcome with anxiety about how he could realise his dreams without the camel, or water, and perished clasping his wonderful designs to his heart. His body was dessicated and preserved by the howling winds prevailing at the relative height of the site he’d chosen.

    A second architect imbued with similar desires to create the biggest and best monument to the universe, set out on his camel, He also was equipped with his designs, surveying gear and a windmill. Because he was inclined to pessimism, he’d researched an artesian water source in the lower lying desert. He figured his monolith had to be taller because he was building it on flat land. His cynical attitude to life dictated a Murphy’s Law approach about choosing a lower site – he’d just have to build his creation higher than he wanted. This architect’s enthusiasm for his project was also boundless and when he arrived at what he thought was a good site for his creation, he jumped off his camel, tied it up in case it wandered off before he established his windmill and set up his tent. Just busting to lay out his pegs and string, he began digging down to locate the water source for his windmill. His creative frustration knew no bounds as he spent the next 3 days setting up his water supply. When it was finally done, he began hammering in the pegs which would define what we now recognise as the great pyramids of Giza.

    As his buildings began to rise from the flat desert, and seeing a slight rise in the landscape he’d judged inappropriate for his creation because it bore the brunt of harsh, drying winds (and he was by nature pessimistic) he went to check it out, and found the dried skeleton of the first architect. He wondered how this person had met their death..reflecting on the sadness of this lone person dying alone so far from transport. He looked at the plans clutched to the dessicated corpse’s chest, Puzzling over the fate of his dead compatriot, he spied camel droppings nearby. Shaking his head, he muttered to himself, “Trust your creativity, but tie your camel first”.

  4. The art of being a true optimist is to first resolve the inner cynic as completely as possible. If you can’t resolve cynicism on an issue or topic, then it’s impossible to be fully optimistic or come across as optimistic (that’s why you get folks who think they’re balanced but are off the wall).

    • Helen from Eltham

      why would we want to resolve the inner cynic? Isn’t Luke, and the scientist in the video, saying that a BALANCE of pessimism/cynicism and optimism a more realistic worldview? Isn’t this dualism of either/or less healthy both in terms of outcome and state of mind, than and/and? Surely the whole experience of living is experienced as relativity, and to have relativity we have to live in a world of opposites ie to be hot we have to have cold. So the world includes BOTH of everything, making it difficult to completely resolve or ignore one half of the relativity equation. I kinda like the middle way of buddhism which propounds a philosophy of including all that exists, the “good” and “bad”. The trick is to find a way of sanely navigating these two extremes and everything on the continuum between.
      In addition, what Luke doesn’t say in his reference to buddhism as a means of withdrawing from the chaos of navigating these life issue, is that mindfulness, a facet of buddhist pracitce, is a way of accepting both our “positive” and “negative” feelings. This practice of being able to look at the cynical/negative/scary stuff about ourselves, ie both ends of the continuum of dualism (cynicism AND optimisim) we can regard the so-called negative stuff with loving acceptance, compassion and non-judgementalism for the bits we don’t like. Thus we don’t need to be either/or but and/and, encompassing the negative and positive bits, and ending our emotional and psychic needs to come up with a single answer rather than dealing with the to-ing and fro-ing of our disparate thinking. In current psychological practice (as different from religious thinking) this is known as Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and is the current “new” paradigm in psychology. In our current narcissistic culture where appearance is everything but doesn’t quite sit with integrity with our inner selves, it isn’t a bad way to go because it addresses the pitfalls and fallinhg short of dualism, and allows us to sit more comfortably with those issues of paradox, indecision and uncertainty.

      • There’s a dualism to the way in which people should operate in society. The cynic should be dealt with internally or with your shrink. The optimist should be the public facing side of your personality. If you don’t deal with your inner cynic then publicly you are going to hit hurdles or have a disconnect with your peers, which may make you feel grounded because you ‘know the deal’ but ultimately, it’s going to marginalise you at best, or cripple your ability to make active change in your life at worst. Perhaps this is another (or better) way of describing balance.

        Being a cynic is the easiest and the laziest thing to do. It’s like having Dustin Hoffman from Rainman as your mate. Sure, it’s kind of neat to know how many matches are in the box, but really Dustin, do we need to hear everyone of your thoughts and fears on even the most mundane topics. Is Qantas really our only option? Everyone knows air travel carries with it a risk of death, but taking a chance on good old Delta might take you to a happier place a lot quicker. Cynicism is the death of creativity, change and innovation. It’s obvious, crude and base. It’s what takes place in the absence of real critique.

      • Certainly this new paradigm of psychological therapy accords with the balanced acceptance approach advocated here at Paradox, indecision and uncertainty are the hallmark stimuli of this blog. Reading between the lines, I think Andrew points out what I might call the law of diminishing returns for a cynical mindset on any given issue, where its usefulness tapers off and leads to a shutdown of productive life–I can relate to that!

        But I guess since optimism gets so much bad press, there’s a need to point out its unhealthy points, and retrieve cynicism from the dust bin of good psychological health. It’s absurd that most people endorse the importance of arts and tertiary education to a healthy, functional society, and yet pillory the fundamental cynical energy of artists, musicians and academics. How do we account for this? We just say they’re “complicated”, they have “personal demons”, or even something trite about genius and madness. All of these terms foreclose the issue and stop us seeing the inherent critical value of measured cynicism.

    • Interesting take, Andrew. I readily agree with your ideas about hope and social responsibility, but I think the inner cynic will wreak havoc if kept exclusively internal; a shrink is a good idea and frees up your friends and family for good times. Extreme optimism and pessimism will both lead to social disconnect. A room full of Anthony Robbins devotees is as nauseating a prospect as a room full of medicated stand-up comedians (who are ALWAYS cynics…). Being a “true”, “complete” or “full” optimist will hurt your life and put you in a position to stop learning, because you’ll never give yourself or the people around you the opportunity to name the relevant problems. Measured cynicism IS real critique, leading to creativity, innovation and change. The tricky part is that it needs a measure of optimism to make reform seem worthwhile (even, or especially, when it turns out to be not worthwhile). Meanwhile, full optimism means losing touch with the mixed business of life in all its aspects.


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