Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

The problem of negativity and justified pessimism

"Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great"--Mark Twain

I meet people in life who achieve unusual and wild success. In many cases, the success stems from hard work and a good bit of vision. In some cases, chance plays a major factor. In virtually every case, though, a key facility possessed by the successful person is the ability to disregard the people who tell him or her not to waste the effort on the attempt. I find that such people exist in almost every life--people whose "realism" amounts to a hymn whose refrain is "you can't get there from here", and people whose "pragmatic" ideas dwindle down to "the system means you can't have what people less bright and less capable than you have; the only reason they have those things is that they don't know they can't have them".

I find over and over that the biggest demons which people face do not prowl the streets at night, but merely prowl the individual attitude. A fair bit of the poison gets ingested during childhood. In some extreme cases, serious emotional or physical damage, even sexual abuse, creates a fully understandable lasting effect. But in virtually all cases, the things which the people who raise folks wish to protect from have a way of becoming beasts in peoples' own lives-- manifested as voices which caution people that nothing can be achievable, and that all roads lead to ruin. In most cases, though, adulthood arms one to overcome these attitudes. I see the challenge of maturity as the challenge of trading in the unworthy challenges with which one is inculcated and replacing them with the worthy challenges that amount to one's true vocation.

I will leave aside for a moment those (all too common but not the center of my point) situations in which a lasting harm has been done, which requires therapy and self-searching and sometimes medication. I take for today's topic a much smaller, less complex issue. I talk today of the intricate problem of living among people whose defeatism proves infectious. I don't mean literally infectious--I ascribe to adults the ability to make choices. But I do use infectious as a metaphor. I mean the phenomenon when one finds oneself among people who hasten to assure one that he or she can never do anything worth doing.

I like to believe that a great deal of factual pessimism is justified. The world faces real problems of violence, intolerance, pollution, disease and pestilence. My radio becomes a swirl of helicopter gunships and masked people fleeing deadly contagions. I listen to court nominees stand up for the wrong principles with a nationalistic vigor I find disappointing. I do not possess a doubt that this is a challenging time in this country.

I rather like that Marshall Crenshaw song "Cynical Girl". I've always chosen my friends in accordance with lines like:
"Well, I'll know right away by the look in her eyes,
she harbors no illusions and she's worldly-wise, and I know when I give her a listen that she's--she's what I've been missin'". My friends tend to come from the satiric, absurdist side of life rather than the fluffy side of things. As I said to an LJ friend last night, I don't think that cynics are such unfeeling, uncaring people as the legends say. Instead, I think that a cynic is a romantic once removed.

So I do not castigate those who lost faith in the easy bromides that life seems willing to use to substitute for answers. I've come to believe that dewy-eyed optimism no longer meets the need; there's far too much to do to pretend this is Avonlea.

But it's precisely that there is so much to do that I have little patience with folks whose mission in life seems to be to say that I can't get there from here. Of course, there are pragmatic limits on what anyone can do. gurdonark will not be playing an electric football field in the Van Cliburn piano competition any time soon (though, frankly, the media frenzy of the Fort Worth paper in such an event would generate headlines like "Native Texan tickles those hashmarks, and the classical world says 'touchdown'").
I am all about achievable goals and pragmatic ways to find the things one wants. Daydreaming is all well and good,but the day has an odd way of dragging on even after the dream phase is over.

I think that some parents tell kids to fear failure. A corollary of this is the somewhat inverted notion that some parents encourage kids to dream, but then do not encourage them to do the pragmatic things necessary to achieve the dreams. It's all well and good to say "I'm going to do x", but it's just silly when one does none of the things that people who achieve x do. I run into this with would-be lawyers sometimes--they have read a column in a magazine about, say, international law or entertainment law, but they have not researched what it is that lawyers really do.

No point exists in belittling parents, belittling kids, or belittling the process. My point instead is to note how important it is not only to set achievable goals, but to also believe that one can reach them. In addition, it's important not to let the "no you can't" voices, whether internal or external, ruin the attempt.

Helen Keller, who faced more than the usual allotment of challenges, may have said it best: "Life is a grand adventure, or it is nothing". But it's rather like the way my nutritionist used to say about eating--one's body will take the easy way out of not doing the work to get back in shape if possible. Similarly, it's so easy to steep oneself in negative emotions, and to gravitate to people who will tear every vision down, and cheapen every journey.

I favor compassion for everyone, even the guy my state seeks to execute tonight for killing a man over a 23 dollar convenience store robbery. I do not insist my friends be popular people--I like people for traits that do not bear necessarily upon their positive attitudes. Sometimes I value friends whose pungent wit cuts through faux positive thinking.

But as I enter yet another Summer on the right side of forty, I realize that life on this earth does not last forever. One has to choose the limited things one wishes to do. I've sometimes introduced into my life Wormtongues, who lull me into doubting that I can achieve the things that interest me. Sometimes it's a matter of snobbishness, sometimes it's just despair projected. But I begin to learn to gravitate to people who build me up, and away from people who tear me down. I come to value simple kindness a great deal more than the witty put-down.

As much as the "power of positive thinking" fascinates me, I'll forego the discussion of the power of this "cool metaphor but not a metaphysical fact" for me. But I will say that sometimes I find that I cannot live my life in the negative. My to-do list grows long with things I am eager to do. I don't have time for people to tell me how absurd or beyond my skills all those things may prove to be.
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