“Think positively, be optimistic, expect good things to happen to you,” was the counsel that my schoolteacher mom offered us almost every day. In this chaotic and extremely complex world, adopting such an attitude exposes a person to a variety of random events that won’t be anticipated or considered “good.” Many people learn sooner or later that some of the “bad” things that happen to them actually turn out to be “good” for them in the long run.
A faded newspaper clipping Scotch-taped to my wooden computer platform defines a pessimist as: “just a well-informed optimist.” Somewhere between the polar positions of optimist and pessimist stands the realist who is alert to the fundamental flaws behind an optimist’s philosophy and concerned about being too pessimistic, because not everything that starts badly turns out badly.
My present analysis is not a critique of anyone’s sacred religious beliefs or political philosophy. I aim to point out the inconsistencies in the basic assumptions behind an optimist’s general attitude toward life and the world in which he or she actually lives. Caution about the future and what tomorrow has in store may not be proactive enough for aggressive and ambitious folks, but exuberance does not necessarily reward those who misjudge reality and ignore the dangerous risks inherent in today’s struggle to survive in our seemingly innocuous, but very competitive, society.
Here are some of the more obvious flaws that set up the optimist for some unpleasant surprises:
1. Human birth normally entitles the newcomer to the rights of citizenship in the country where the child is born. Certain general rights of each citizen are spelled out by a society’s constitution, but practice does not automatically guarantee liberty, equality, or an amiable brotherhood regardless of what the words supposedly mean in English legalese. Citizens can hope to be treated fairly by their government and justly by the court system, but the law almost always favors someone who hires a “good” lawyer and has a relatively defensible interpretation of the law.
“Entitlement” is a word to be examined carefully in this context, before any human pretends that they are entitled to something. Civil rights are reluctantly given and easily taken away. Human creature comforts and necessities must be pursued with the same assiduous effort that is required of the “lesser” animals. Cooperation and “doing one’s share of the work” are expected of all individuals in social groups of animals if that group is to survive and prosper. If their environment is harsh and inhospitable, the social group must move on or find a way to adapt. Such is the rule for human society also. Only the optimistic activist believes that he is entitled to clean air, fresh water, nutritious food, advanced healthcare, a decent shelter, personal security, and happiness.
2. Mankind may be the most successful animal species in the world today, depending on how you measure “success,” but insects are more prolific and resilient. The prevailing arrogant assumption shared by our kind that homo sapiens were created to dominate this planet is sheer speculation. Without becoming involved in the creation/evolution argument, I believe simple logic tells us that humans are a delicate member of the Animal Kingdom susceptible to plagues, violence, and unwanted Acts of God, all of which threaten the longevity and continuity of the human race.
Although we consider ourselves intelligent social animals, we have yet to live in peace, wipe out disease, and control our internal desires to overrun this planet with profligate individuals. Our happy-go-lucky pursuit of consumerism and our wastefulness of non-renewable resources ought to concern us about our counterproductive behavior.
3. The optimist is sure that there must be a solution to every nasty problem that confronts the dominant species. After all, our political leaders are very positive that they will come up with a half a loaf or something equally distracting. There may be untried solutions that can “fix” corruption in business and government and deal with illegal immigration, con artists and credit card issuers, illegal drug distribution, expensive healthcare providers, inner city gangs, identity thieves, and the poor and sick in impoverished countries, but so far there hasn’t been much progress in addressing all those problems by our country’s diligent leaders.
And if there were solutions, taxes would have to be increased in the US and California to pay for whatever is adopted like the new Medicare drug program Temporary deficit spending was advocated by John Maynard Keynes to solve the Great Depression, but his recommendations about fiscal restraint when a crisis was passed have been routinely ignored. Solutions must be affordable or they are not acceptable. System analysts have found that the implementation of the ultimate part of a comprehensive solution is usually prohibitively expensive.
4. Which brings me to the next flaw: assuming that a government bureaucracy is an efficient way to satisfy the growing needs of its naturally unruly citizens. Need I mention the Federal Government’s incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina? The federal deficit? The overly complex income tax system? The brilliant preemptive military incursion into Iraq without the backing of our major Allies? The unfinished wars against poverty, illegal drugs, and terrorism?
Billions of tax dollars are being spent each day without proper accountability and oversight. Statesmen are not being bred in the US. Elected incumbents are protected by Gerrymandered voting precincts. The whole process of undertaking and implementing a new regulation by a government entity is so encumbered by special interests, lawyers, and lobbies that very little observable progress can be noted.
Grandiose schemes are proposed without consulting with those who are responsible for providing the new or revised public service. And almost nothing is done about cancelling obsolete legislation, eliminating failed programs, and modifying legislation which is not effectively accomplishing its objective like our immigration laws.
5. “There is one way to do things, the right way, so do it right the first time,” are the positive comments that promote the expectancy that things will go right for those who follow professional instructions. Anyone who has had a problem with his car, his TV, his body, or his computer knows that there are still a lot of remedies being offered to the public involving “trial and error.”
What is the “right” way to do things in our country may not be the prescribed way to do them in another country. What heals one patient, may not heal another with similar symptoms. Looking for the right way to do something is a constant motivation for improving a product and service. However, what is considered “right” today, was “wrong” yesterday in many instances, and may be “wrong” tomorrow.
No human has a lock on what should be done in every circumstance. Optimists may hope that there is a preferred way that leads to a better, healthier, more satisfying life, but as humans grow older; their selfish evaluation of what that life might be will shift.
Thanks to the advertisers, our desires are altered periodically so that more things can be sold to us. Capitalism demands a growing economy so that the increased population can find things to do to support themselves. Expectations need to be studied as AARP is doing for the retired folks in order to promise them a longer life by doing the “right” things to enable a body to weather the natural effects of ageing.
6. The optimist is encouraged by the advertising industry to expect better things which will last longer and cost less. (Just don’t read the fine print in the Warranty Contract.) Marketing gurus know that markets can be cultivated by appealing to the optimists who will go out and buy the latest innovation no matter what the cost. Improvements in products do appear from time to time as demonstrated by the technological progress made in all kinds of manufactured items. Because that happens, more promises can be made for less obvious improvements like a smoother tasting beer, a cooler cigarette, and a less fattening comestible.
But the conditioning of the human mind has its drawbacks in increasing the overhead cost of everything and often leading consumers astray deliberately. Manipulating the desires of the innocent youngsters who have (or don’t have) the money to buy computer games, unconventional clothing, the latest rap CD, and electronic gizmos will no doubt sells products, but the hidden messages also promote questionable lifestyles. The optimist has faith that most advertising is honest and forthright, like the words coming out of the mouths of our politicians.
7. The faith in advertising is joined by the optimistic belief that unity among diverse human groups can be achieved by changing the attitudes of the groups who are different. Education is the tool of preference to be used to homogenize diverse opinion. However, there is really no consensus about how education is to be used to that end, what should be covered in school, and how the wide variety of subjects should be taught. We can send our kids to school hoping for the best results, but we really have little idea what goes on in class and whether or not what our children are learning will actually benefit them in the future.
A Liberal Arts education has been downplayed, ancient languages are doomed, and ancient history is less important than current social problems. There are no courses or seminars about bringing people together. Teamwork is loudly advocated and individual deviates are routinely marginalized by their peers unless they are sports heroes. No effort is made to remedy the growing political polarization that plagues this nation. The motto of our country, E pluribus unum, is seldom a goal of modern education at any level. Diversity rules.
8. “Practice makes perfect” is another of the optimistic chants. You can always do a little bit better (or a lot worse, if you play golf!) Practice doing the wrong kind of exercises improves nothing. Like memorizing the wrong notes in order to play a musical composition, or learning the improper fundamentals of striking a tennis ball. Two wrongs never make a right, but for some reason we must praise the efforts of the conscientious even when the results are discouraging.
Hard work usually pays off, and individual proficiency on the job is duly rewarded unless of course corporate and government bureaucrats decide otherwise. The diligent cries of a panicked whistle blower are frequently stifled in business. When these cries are muttered by a person holding a government job, he or she is subject to firing according to the legal reasoning of our country’s justice system. Accomplishing tough assignments usually begets more tough assignments. Everyone knows that sadists love to abuse masochists.
Optimists are easily conned by salesmen who know an optimist’s susceptibility to pandering, flattering, and smiling a lot. However, it’s obvious that a young adult unprepared for the real world is bound to be discouraged by the variety of negatives encountered on the job, in politics, and even in society.
As Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, sarcastically points out in his humorous work, final prices aren’t always what were originally quoted, quality is sometimes suspect, performance may be unreliable, and the warranty period probably is too short to cover the customary product deficiencies. But don’t you worry about those issues, you are going to be happy with that new gizmo!
That humans should be happy is an undisputable given today, and optimists want us all to be happy if not totally satisfied. For many optimists, happiness is just around the corner in the next store or in the next bar or in the next social event. Warnings about spending more than you earn, drinking more than is good for you, or flirting with bar flies and social butterflies do not come from those who fail to see the signs of danger anywhere unless such warnings are posted in capital letters.
We do need people with positive attitudes to motivate us even when their reasoning is flawed. There are enough negative, pessimistic people in our midst playing the game “Ain’t it Awful.” But playing the game “Ain’t it Awesome” isn’t the solution. “Life isn’t a party, then you croak.”
Someone has to teach our impressionable youngsters that objectives of times are not met, wishes don’t automatically become realities, getting what you want when you want it doesn’t often happen, and hoping for a better life doesn’t make that dream materialize.
Somewhere there is a logical balance between expecting to “have it all” and doubting that you should have more than the bare minimum. If we exaggerate the prospects for the future either optimistically or pessimistically, we are distorting the possibilities that lie ahead of us and causing optimistic young minds to dream impossible dreams and make unrealistic plans.
Psychologically this will hurt fragile personalities who want to believe and obey mentors, teachers, and parents. Motivation is necessary to seek high ideals and avoid the consequences of being left behind the pack or outside the social circle. Positive stimuli and negative warnings must be equally presented, however, so that when something happens tomorrow, there are no surprises on the upside and downside that aren’t partially anticipated.
Be realistic in your evaluations and in your prognostications. Reasonable expectations can be more easily achieved and exceeded. When that happens, the team members are pleased. When unrealistic forecasts are not achieved, most everyone participating is frustrated with the results. There can only be one champion, and consequently many non-champions. Is it wrong for the prudent to teach that reality? Not if you ask me!