The Joy of Philosophical Pessimism

It’s like expecting an empty glass and getting one only half empty

“Voltaire once described optimism as ‘a cruel philosophy with a consoling name,’ which immediately suggests what pessimism might be: a consoling philosophy with a cruel name.”

— Eugene Thacker

I’d like the preface this article with the statement that — hand on my heart — I’m one of the happiest people I know.

Whether this fact comes as a result of accidentally winning the lottery when it comes to balanced brain chemistry, my innate disposition consequent to my personality, or because I’ve unknowingly internalized the precise bits and pieces of relevant philosophy and life strategy to make it so… I can’t be entirely certain.

I should add, that it’s not the case that I’m surrounded by notably un-happy people — I’m not. It’s just, where others go about their day on a setting closer to normal, you can find me singing through the streets, dancing at the bus stop, and laughing at my own jokes and funny (to me) thoughts…

I sound ridiculous, and that’s not far from the truth. A dear friend of mine has a theory — albeit not a very nice one — that my life is like a pendulum, and that although I may spend the first half of my life on a natural high, it will, inevitably, all come crashing down when the potential energy of my pendulum reaches its peak.

Despite my own personal determination to invalidate this theory of his, I came to realize it actually gave me more of a reason to be happy. I mean — shit — if, in some twisted version of Newton’s third law of motion, I’m doomed to one day face valleys equal but opposite in their depth to the height of my glorious peaks, then I might as well milk those happy highs for all they’re worth.

Understandably, there was some feigned resentment when I shared this conclusion with him, but it got me thinking about how I engage with the topic of philosophy in general.

You see, for all intents and purposes I fit the bill of a perfect optimist; I believe in human decency on an individual level, I lean towards positive psychology as a way to improve the life of myself and others, and — as I mentioned before — I’m pretty damn enthusiastic to be alive.

This is why it surprises people when they learn I subscribe passionate to pessimism as a philosophy, and that my all time favourite historical figure is a blind poet born in 973AD who believed, predominantly, that all life is comprised of suffering.

I admit, it sounds pretty dark, but I’m here to share why this way of thinking actually has the potential to brighten the way we experience this life.

Suffering

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find something worth suffering for.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Ancient philosopher, Al Ma’arri, was not a religious man. What I mean by this, is that he did not suppose there existed a promise of salvation on behalf of a higher power, nor a heaven, nor a hell — he believed the life we find ourselves with on earth is all we have.

What’s more, is that Al Ma’arri concluded that for the vast majority of human beings that will ever exist, their life will consist, for the most part, of a series of struggles, setbacks, and significant suffering.

Most importantly, he believed that accepting this reality of life was the only sure way to overcome the pain associated with the delusion that the world is meant to be a wonderful place, and to ease the sting of surprise when things do not turn out for the better for us.

There are not words that suffice to explain how much this understanding has helped me.

Since as long as I can recall, I have been deeply effected by my perception of injustice. At 8, I wept while watching King Kong, completely bereft that this animal was being hunted for its nature, when man was the one trespassing on the island in the first place. At 13, I sobbed for hours as the credits of The Imitation Game rolled on the screen; I couldn’t fathom how a man who saved so many lives, and contributed so enormously to the field of technology would be medically castrated and driven to take his own life by the unacceptance of his sexuality. At 16, I went vegan watching slaughterhouse footage of the way we make food our of conscious beings. How completely unfair, unfair, unfair it all seemed.

There was a time when the suffering that existed in the world — visible to me from all angles — really messed with my faith in humanity, as well as my happiness, not to mention.

I distinctly remember being so angry, so incredibly frustrated that this was the way the dice had handed on the table, as if prior to my arrival, there had been a promise of peace and justice. I was gripped by the pain associated with the delusion that the world is meant to be a wonderful place.

Pessimism, however, provided me with a new perspective.

Described as the tendency to believe that the worst, or, at the very least, something less than optimal, will happen, pessimism is a philosophy that sets our sights low, and occasionally has the pleasant ability to surprise us when expectations are exceeded.

In other words, if we anticipate that life is full of suffering — both for ourselves, and for those around us — then every passing moment that we’re spared this horrendous fate will, inevitably, be perceived as a bonus. If a state of crisis is the accepted and understood norm, then moments of peace and neutral contentment can be observed with the same degree of awe we experience towards moments consisting of the spectacularly positive.

In a way, we are down-shifting the gears of our expectation to account for the very likely possibility that nothing will go our way — it’s true, after all, that for a very large number of people born onto this, it never does.

Poverty, pandemics, disease, and discrimination against disability. Sexism, racism, objectification, and endless exploitation. Car accidents, natural disasters, irreversible mistakes. The list of potential sufferings is never-ending, and, as any pest exterminator could tell you, the first step to eradicating the problem, is to first acknowledge the true extent of it.

Well, there is extent — there is huge extent. There are problems we’re never going to solve in either of our lifetimes, nor those of our great-great-great-grandchildren. The point being, that there exists an overwhelming degree of injustice, with philosophical pessimism offering the only source of freedom from the burden of believing that the natural state of things is a just one.

I intentionally use the word “burden,” here, for a reason. Understand that it’s not as though these ubiquitous instances of suffering went away when I happened upon philosophical pessimism, or that I stopped experiencing empathy towards said instances to the same degree — rather, by fully embracing pessimism, it meant merely that I was no longer burdened with the discomfort of feeling cheated by these facts.

Happiness

“When I would string the pearls of my desire,
Alas, life’s too short thread denies them room.
Huge volumes cannot yet contain entire
Man’s hope; his life is but a summary of doom.”

— Abu Al Ma’arri

I suppose if I were to stop writing at the end of the previous paragraph, I would be lending myself to the impression that I believe happiness arises exclusively from the absence of failed expectation and unfulfilled desire.

While it’s fair to say that that’s exactly what I believe, I feel it would be rude to leave things there without further explanation. I must add that this notion, as it pertains to the subject of happiness, is also by no means a new one.

Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher with beliefs not dissimilar to my beloved Al Ma’arri, was perhaps the first to point out that happiness is not quite what we think of it to be.

Schopenhauer once stated that happiness is, “actually and essentially only ever negative, and absolutely never positive.” But much akin to the mathematical concept of a double-negative, he claimed that happiness occurs via the satisfaction present in a negation of desire — meaning that happiness is what you get when the pain of wanting for something is relieved.

He reiterates the idea that it’s precisely where we hold an expectation for happiness to exist, that it passes by us unobserved. It’s like how we only truly appreciate breathing from both our nostrils when a bout of the common cold reminds us that it’s not a given.

In this sense, if we feel as though health, happiness, or a general leaning towards good times is the baseline upon which we craft our desires, we are destined to fall short of happiness, time and time again. If happiness is the product of one’s expectations divided by the sum of one’s reality, then it seems to me that we ought to be expecting less.

Here, our own optimism has the potential to make us angry. We might feel as though we have be robbed of something that ought to have been guaranteed, or that life has short-changed us when, in reality, we were lucky to receive any change to begin with.

Antithetically, the adoption and implementation of a pessimistic mindset prepares us for the worst, and protects us from the shock of disappointment by placing the bar so cementedly low that life becomes unable to pull the rug out from underneath us, entirely.

What once served as a reason for me to mourn a reduction in my own faith in humanity, now becomes a platform upon which to marvel at any and all human efforts to be good. If life is suffering, and hurt people hurt people, then the moments wherein a choice is made by an individual to rise above can be practically maintained as miracle. Neutral becomes positive, pain-free becomes perfection, and the occasional failure of reality to limit itself to the height of low expectations becomes a wonderful surprise appearance of that thing we refer to as happiness.

Like I said, it’s like expecting an empty glass and getting one only half empty.

Alexandra Walker-Jones — January 2021

Writer and published author with an international background in psychology, nutrition, and creative writing. I’m just here to learn ;) awalkerjones.com

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