I am writing this article today as a queer, fat woman. These three things permeate my life, my perspective, and my writing. But I have another quality that also permeates everything I do. I belong to another community. A quiet community, one that has long been mocked, ostracised, and criticised. I have heard all of the insults and barbs thrown our way, and before now, I have said nothing. But in this year 2018, when the world is on fire, literally and figuratively, I have decided it’s time to speak up. I am here today to tell you all that I…am a pessimist.
I refuse to remain quiet a moment longer. Because it’s not just time to defend pessimists: it’s time for the rest of the world to learn from us. Maybe. If they don’t think it’s dumb.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I became a pessimist. Was it when I thought my parents would send me on a school trip with all my friends, only for them to sit me down and tell me we couldn’t afford it? Was it when I was preparing to come out as queer to two people I thought I could trust, only to hear one of them call someone else a ‘faggot’? Was it when I ran for captain of my school of 35 people, competing hard against two boys who didn’t try, only for them both to beat me? Was it when lawyers told us a family member wouldn’t serve time, only to sit there and watch a judge make an example of him, because we were poor, and he could? Or was I, as Lady Gaga might sing, just born this way? Whatever the case may be, I have ended up as an adult pessimist. And I implore you to become one.
It’s not just time to defend pessimists: it’s time to learn from us. Maybe. If you don’t think it’s dumb.
At some point in life we have all come across the question ‘Do you see the glass as half full, or half empty?’, and had to decide where we ultimately stand. It’s a simple way to separate pessimists from optimists. But the metaphor shouldn’t stop there. Where an optimist sees a half full glass of water, and happily thinks, ‘Oh lovely – so much water left to quench my thirst, I will keep enjoying this!’ a pessimist knows that actually the glass is half empty, which means it is soon to be completely empty. An optimist will sip upon the water until it is gone, and be taken by surprise when they hold the empty glass up to their smiling optimistic thirsty face. As a pessimist who knew the water would run out soon, I’d already begun making plans for how to get more water, ready to implement immediately. I enjoy the water, but when it runs out, I am not worried. I am prepared.
People often think that pessimists automatically assume the worst in every situation, and that we are all constantly focusing on unconstructive thoughts. But that’s ironically a very pessimistic view to take of us! That’s right, I got you! The kind of pessimism I employ, sometimes described as ‘defensive pessimism,’ is not about constantly having negative thoughts; it’s about moving through life by focusing on outcomes instead. Pessimism is a way to prepare for what might go wrong in any given situation.
‘Defensive pessimism’ is not about constantly having negative thoughts; it’s about focusing on outcomes.
When faced with a situation that you have anxiety about, an optimist will try to think positively, and expect the best outcome from that situation. What I will do in the same situation is think about what could go wrong, and the range of outcomes that could result from those things going wrong. This allows me to control my anxieties about the situation. By thinking about all the things that might go wrong, I am able to prepare, mentally and practically, to try my best to ensure that they don’t.
I know what the worst-case scenarios are, and I have run through those scenarios in my mind, so if they eventuate, I am ready and able to deal with what happens. Instead of my pessimistic attitude discouraging me from attempting whatever it is that causes me anxiety, it instead makes me feel more confident to go ahead, knowing that I can deal with whatever the outcome is.
I’m not talking here about depression or compulsive behaviours. Defensive pessimism is just a point of view, and one that applies to a limited range of experiences. It’s useful to me in specific ways, without permeating all aspects of my life. I am privileged in that way. It’s just the way that I see things, and overall I see it is a benefit to my life.
Being a pessimistic sports fan, for example, is by far the ultimate way to be a sports fan. Optimists watch sports, and the only outcome they are thinking about is a win. They then feel disappointment if they lose, and a mere, ‘oh good, I expected that’, if they win. A pessimistic sports fan? We expect to lose, so if our team does lose, we feel fine. And if we win? What a huge, wonderful surprise! Being a pessimist doesn’t mean you are dead inside – just that you are ready for whatever may come.
Being a pessimist doesn’t mean you are dead inside – just that you are ready for whatever may come.
But instead of being celebrated for this wonderful and superior lifestyle, we are denigrated and shamed. We are called ‘Negative Nancys’, an admittedly hilarious nickname. People have told me that we bring bad news upon ourselves by putting that energy out into the world. To which I say, have a look at the world – it sucks. Bad things happen to people constantly regardless of their energy. Just this week saw the release of a report detailing the disastrous state of our earth, because of what we have done to it, and precisely how few years we have left to do something before it is too late.
If you are still optimistic in the face of all this, I have to admire your blind faith. But as a defensive pessimist, knowing things are broken doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t do my best to change things. It just means that I take on the bad news, I imagine all of the outcomes based on our inaction, and I will prioritise the most important things that need to be done to try and stop the worst things from happening. Pessimism is the very thing that will spur me to action.
So who knows, maybe I’ve convinced you to come over and join us. But I won’t be expecting you to.