This I Believe

Dan - Lexington, Massachusetts
Entered on May 1, 2007

I believe healthy dose of personal and public doubt, perhaps even pessimism is needed to save us Americans from our easily manipulated faith in the powers of optimism and positive thinking. So Call me Eeyore.

You remember Eeyore. He was the sad little donkey from Winnie the Pooh who always saw disaster waiting in the wings. During high school, Eeyore was my personal mascot. Every time I questioned rosy political and social scenarios, people told me I was too pessimistic. Maybe it was a result of absorbing my parents’ sad experience of the Depression, but I always saw downsides when everyone else only saw blue skies. I even drew Eyore on my athletic shirt.

I didn’t yet know the difference between rational doubt and pathological pessimism.

American is a country of optimists. After all, our founders were idealists. The statue of Liberty raises her torch to the hopefuls who make their home here in search of a better life for their children. Nothing wrong with that. But I believe that blind optimism is a trap. It made us believe the brokers, who assured us that we couldn’t lose on real estate. It convinced us that freedom-loving Iraqis were going to toss flowers in the path of our liberating forces entering Baghdad. Optimists are for victory, Pessimist are for defeat. Americans are not quitters even when the truth stares us in the face.

Remember the election of 2000 when the pollsters asked us to choose which guy we wanted lead us and we decided to go for the guy we’d like to share a beer with. Al Gore, (another of us Eyores) was somebody who would bore you all night talking policy. Optimistic Americans felt more at home with that folksy George Bush.

Painting your opponent as a pessimist wins any argument. Look how well Reagan did by answering Jimmy Carter’s Medicaid worries with “There you go again Mr. President.” Poor Carter, pointing out problems on the horizon marked him as a naysayer, not one of the “can do” guys who make dreams a reality.

I believe that pessimism is a healthy thing. It can protect us from the snake oil salesmen, the blandishments of the politicians and those who hide their agendas. In fact, recent research suggests that negative thinking might be good for you. People who think through worst-case scenarios turn out to be pretty good at managing risk and acting effectively. A dose of healthy pessimism in our leaders might even prevent us from burial in a growing avalanche of national and international disasters.

In our “real” life, our unconquerable optimism got us mired in Iraq, buried in mountains of debt, threatened by catastrophic Climate change and paralyzed by lack of good options on any of our prospects. Eeyore may be the beast whose hour has come round at last. It’s time to understand that things always turn out OK in the end in the world of fiction. As much as we enjoy escaping reality, we are not living a fiction. A dose of good, clear-eyed pessimism might make us more careful about how we play with our lives and those of others. It can help us prevent real disaster from happening. If we do that, then I believe, like Eyore, that we might be pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than expected in the end.