The Joys of Pessimism (Twelfth in Series: Sermons from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

How would you know you’d come upon a pessimist?  What are the tell tale signs that the person with whom you’re communicating is a bone fide pessimist?  Well, there are many kinds of pessimists in regard to look and attitude.  What they have in common is that in at least one area of life and thought, maybe more of course, they live in a worst-case-scenario world.  Our English word “pessimist” comes from a Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.”
Philosophical pessimism concentrates on ample proofs that this world is the worst it can possibly be.  Voltaire had his charming and beloved character, Candide, caught between philosophical pessimism and a kind of opposing blind optimism whose mouthpiece in the novella carrying Candide’s name was one Dr. Pangloss.  We know that Pangloss tended to live by a way of thinking not grounded in reality.  He said in every horrific situation, “Fret not.  This is the best of all possible worlds.”  Those words were uttered in real life by a mathematician and philosopher, Leibnitz.  In real life, Voltaire detested people who thought as Leibnitz did.  The author, Voltaire, thought that those who bought into a “This is the best of all possible worlds” mentality would no nothing to make the world a better place and, furthermore, as many of them demonstrated in response to the Lisbon Tsunami of their day there was little sympathy for victims because things like that happen in this world.  We can’t make them stop so even tragedies are parts of proofs of our best possible world.  There are plenty of people in our world today who believe this very thing.
As you know, or as you could well guess, many who held to this point of view were theists who saw God as somehow calling the shots, even the shots that brought unspeakable physical and emotional pain and needless death.  Voltaire kept asking, “Regardless of what you believe about how or why this event happened, can you squeeze a little sympathy out of that hard and pessimistic heart of yours?”  Most could not.  To see a tragedy as a problem, a fault, an accident would be to question God’s will, knowing–as they saw it–God wills all things; God causes all things so even a murderous tsunami was planned by the great Weatherperson keeping an eye on earth, kinda sorta, from the heavenly throne.  Their lack of compassion had Voltaire up in arms, and he wrote a long, stirring poem, “On the Lisbon Disaster,” which happens to be a superior theological treatise.
My dear friends, this is NOT the best of all possible worlds.  Those of us who are living in this world have the responsibility of making a better world for our contemporaries and for those generations who will follow us.  Voltaire had Candide discover that while we can’t fix all the bad in the world, especially natural disasters, we can keep our energies fixed on what is positive and good wherever we can.  Voltaire had Candide learn his key lesson from a Muslim, which irked the Christian fundamentalists more than they already were with Voltaire.
Enough of that for now.  We need to return to more general pessimism that doesn’t blame God for life’s negative turns and twists and to less tragic negative events–like life’s little irritations.
Back to my opening question.  Would you know a pessimist if you saw one and/or struck up a conversation with one?  Oscar Wilde said that he knew a certain way to spot a pessimist; a pessimist is one who when given a choice of two evils chooses both of them.
One of the greatest of all humanitarians in the twentieth century was the amazing Albert Schweitzer who said:
“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight… the truly wise person is colorblind.”  As far as I know, this next description of a pessimist is anonymous:  “A pessimist is one who feels bad when he feels good for fear he’ll feel worse when he feels better.”
Let’s face it. There are those of us who enjoy being pessimists and others of us who, while we like to see ourselves as optimists and have others think we are first class optimists, thoroughly the company  of a pessimist. In the latter case, maybe we wish we could be more pessimistic, but we don’t have the grit. We’ve been cursed with a Polly Anna complex, and we don’t have it in us to utter anything negative.
A pessimist can be useful, though. Think about it!  A pessimist may be the first in the crowd to be honest about how wrong things are. Others can see only the positive, or maybe some in that group can see at least a little negative; but they don’t want to name it because in many group settings, the person who names or complains, names whatever is negative and/or complains about it and who is not a pessimist, is the very person appointed to fix it, to turn the negative into a positive. That is truly no fun for a pessimist!
Well just in case you aren’t in a sufficiently pessimistic mood this morning to appreciate the sermon, let me help you out here with some words from some writers and philosophers, most of whom aren’t usually thought of as pessimists, beginning with Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“It is not true that life is one damn thing after another. It’s one damn thing over and over and over.”

We’ll say more about St. Augustine later, but for now, just a word from him.  A word from him is about all I can take at a time anyway:
“If a choice were given him between suffering death and living his early years over again who would not shudder and then choose death?”

There is a blogger named Srini Kumar. This is what he says about the American way of life:
“It has destroyed our individuality while pretending to cater to it, and the natural interdependence of society has been compromised by the media and the cubicle farms that they call workplaces.”

Edward L. Bernays:
“In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Someone named Kirruth, another bad boy blogger:
“Scientists in the 19th century postulated that in time, the world would be taken over by morons. My belief is that this actually happened, but we are now too stupid to realize it.”

Philosopher Bertrand Russell:
“Most people would rather die than think; in fact they do.”

Aldous Huxley:
“Maybe our world is another planet’s hell.”

Some persons and/or groups are pessimistic, but not across the board; they are only pessimistic about certain complications.  For example, to be very broad based, right at this past Christmas, Gallup did surveys in fifty-one countries; that’s a little more than a fourth of all the countries in the world.  I’m sure the countries were carefully chosen by the Gallup people, and only one area of optimism or pessimism was considered; that was economic outlook.  Of course, we realize that any number of other factors are irrevocably tied to economics.
Anyway, let me rush to tell you that the most pessimistic country in the world when it comes to economic outlook is France.  The second most pessimistic country in the world when facing economics is Ireland.  Austria comes in third.  I’m trying to offer you no optimism whatsoever in this sermon, which is why Melissa has promised to bring you back from the brink with her closing organ piece, which we like to call around here, “Interlude to Inspired Living.”  Here’s a tidbit of optimism though, just for sake of comparison.  The most optimistic country in the world when it comes to economic outlook is, of all places, Nigeria, followed by South Vietnam and Ghana.  Regarding continental despair and pessimism, Europe takes the lead followed closely by the United States of America, which may have a lot to do with Paula Deen’s recent diagnosis with Type 2 Diabetes.  Continentally speaking, Africa is the most hopeful continent in the world.  I’m astounded.
Some of the most well known pessimists in history:

  1. Chicken Little.  She constantly cried out for all to hear, “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!.”  She was the big joke in her coop.  One day, of course, the sky actually began to fall, but it was going to do that anyway; even without the constant reminders that from Chicken Little.
  2. The writer or writers of the third chapter of Genesis.  This person or these persons created a mythological account of why there is supposed animosity between God and humanity and, therefore, why God punished a disobedient humanity and keeps it up.
  3. King Saul.  King Saul moves from what appeared to be utter trust of young David in Saul’s innermost circle to absolute suspicion, hatred, and a willingness to kill him.  Once trusted, never to be trusted again.
  4. The teacher/preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes.  He found no meaning in life.  Everything was either vanity or pointlessness.
  5. The writer or writers of Psalm 90.  This writer or this writing team was one of/were some of the great champions of scaring themselves and others with vivid pictures of an enraged God who is at all times to be feared–by all people.
  6. St. Augustine.  Monsignor Cormac Burke in an article titled “Saint Augustine and Conjugal Sexuality” begins with a paragraph he plans to blow to bits.  Many of us, though, think the paragraph is on target and needs to be left as is:  “No one has ever questioned the extraordinary quality of St. Augustine’s mind. Some, however, consider that mind to have been stained by a pessimistic streak, especially with regard to sexuality; and they feel that Augustine’s subsequent influence–proportionate to the quality of his mind–has left the Church’s thought burdened, right down to our days, with a negative and defective ethic on sexuality and marriage.”  This is clearly the case.  Roman Catholicism and conservative Protestantism still suffer and will suffer for the foreseeable future from Augustine’s pessimism about inherent goodness in human beings and inherent goodness is healthy sexual expression.
  7. Nicolo Machievelli.  His harsh views of what was needed to govern human beings was based on his low view of human potential.  He believed that most people were out for themselves, regardless of cost to others whom they had to hurt or use to get what they wanted.
  8. Sigmund Freud.  Someone in a helping profession who loses her or his ability to be hopeful and optimistic should get out of the business.  I think Freud was to some degree pessimistic, certainly more than his protege, Jung.  Still, in fairness, we have to say that Freud was most concerned about what he called cultural pessimism. Cultural pessimism causes an increased risk for depression and narcissism for a broad society, and why shouldn’t it?  According to Freud the main causes are losses of religious and secular scenarios of redemption along with the conviction that history is cyclical; it repeats itself even though decay of what is in the world now is inevitable.
  9. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  Some historians of philosophy have said that this guy, Schopenhauer, was the most pessimistic person in human history.  Here’s a key quote from him, which gives you a very good idea about why the historians would say such a thing about dear Arthur:  “Optimism has to be condemned as not only absurd, but also as infamous thinking, indeed, as bitter mockery of the nameless sufferings of humankind.”
  10. Archie Bunker.  “The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband being big enough to step back and see where the wife is wrong.”
  11. Donald Rumsfeld.  “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.”
  12. Oscar the Grouch Muppet.  “Hello, this is Oscar the Grouch speaking. I can’t stand Christmas! I’m a 100% Grouch and proud of it.”
  13. The recently departed Andy Rooney.  “The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. And then you die. What’s that? A bonus?”

The so called fall of humanity in Genesis chapter 3 is classic etiological mythology–meaning the kind of mythology that tries to explain why some recurring experiences are the way they are.  This material follows the stories the editors placed just ahead of it about Eve’s and Adam’s choices to violate the singular rule of Eden–not to eat any of the fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden.  They both had violated that rule, and the ancient mythologists had used those events to explain why four unusual events take place in nature, which–presumably–did not happen that way when God initially created the earth and the skies.
I say the writer or the writers of that part of Genesis was a pessimist/were pessimists.  The ancients believed that serpents originally walked upright–proud, tall, brilliant being; the symbol for tremendous wisdom in a number of eastern cultures still today. Now the serpents had to crawl on their bellies and eat dirt on their way to finding more tasty and substantive prey.  God ordered it; that’s kind of mean on God’s part.  The serpent didn’t break the rule.  He had encouraged Eve to do so, which hadn’t been a challenging effort.  She was all too ready to chomp down on that fruit whatever the fruit happened to have been.
Add to that, pain in childbirth; originally, delivering a baby was supposed to have been pain free.  I mean, that was the talk.  No woman ever delivered a child before Eve botched things up.  So, God orders pain in childbirth for Eve and all women after her.  That doesn’t seem so nice on God’s part.  Don’t you think the punishment outweighs the crime?  I mean, how about some community service trimming Garden plants or something like that?  For men, food was no longer going to be easy pickings; they’d have to struggle to feed themselves and their families, and sometimes they’d fail.  Oh yeah, every created thing initially created to live eternally–the humans, the animals, the plants–they’d all eventually die now.
What a pessimistic view of why these natural events happen the way they do.  There you have it, though.  Just one sample of biblical pessimism.  Just one.
Hear these words from the book of Psalms, a compendium of worship materials, particularly songs and prayers along with a handful of antiphonal readings. Some are inspiring; some are depressing. Several of the depressing ones were penned by pessimists. Psalm 90 is a sample of a psalm, this one a prayer, written by one or more pessimists:

For a thousand years in your sight, O God,
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.

Lovely!  Grist for suicide!  If I thought that divine wrath was constantly bearing down on me, I’d fall defeated and discouraged in failure.  How pessimistic to view God as behind such emotions and  events, but it was widespread then; and it’s widespread now, even among Christians who are supposed to know what a different interpretation Jesus had of God.
Almost as lovely are the conclusions about life drawn by the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher and/or Preacher he should be called.  He concludes that there’s really nothing new under the sun.  There’s some fun along the way, but it’s short lived; and good fortune will not keep sadness and struggle at bay.  Trying to make life any better than it is, is pretty much chasing the wind.  There’s a time for everything, and just when you think life might be about something good, it’s opposite will strike–stun you, shock you, slam you, fill you with pain from out of nowhere.   Poetic pessimism.  I’d like to think there’s something more to my life than chasing the wind or pointlessness.
From A. C. Grayling’s, A HUMANIST BIBLE, we come to a stirring passage that doesn’t help us any more than the ancient Hebrews did:
“When…the afflictions common to humanity were upon me; then I lamented and said: We are born to suffer and die, and the days of our laughter are few in the land. Every joy we foresee has its cost in the loss that must follow, for nothing survives its hour, and the first to fade is the season of pleasantness. To love is to contract for sorrow, since one of two must depart first, and affections diminish and vanish.”
Pessimism is a big kick for too many people.  Tearing down the dreams and sandcastles of others evidently is a real hoot for those who fear optimism.  Just because a joyous or meaningful event or relationship lasts for a finite amount of time is no reason to write it off as inconsequential, worthless,  or cruel.


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