Not everyone believes in a one-size-fits-all Smiley face universe. Some have a strategy of focusing on all the terrible things that might happen in order to make it turn out good. Their logic goes: if I think of the worst before it happens, it will prevent it happening. Therefore, the goal is good, and it is what saves them. Only the method is a bit twisted.
For me, thinking the worst just leads to the bad being amplified to the power of ten; yet, in theory, the principle of harping on the negative might have something going for it, if practised with skill. I have encountered people who swear by their lives does work for them. It’s worth the benefit of a little doubt, if only to glean whatever insight there is to be had.
There are many facets to consider before you decide which side of the positive/negative spectrum you fall. The first being that supposing that there is only a positive-negative binary opposite can distort the clarity of the picture. After all we know that within pain-pleasure, good-bad, male-female spectrums, there are also many shades of grey. These word opposites are clumsy, but for now language is the most convenient tool.
Let’s say for the sake of argument, that you can be a right old contrarian to your heart’s content. It could even be fun. Growing old always seemed to confer the right to be as cantankerous and bloody-minded as ‘nan’, the cockney granny in the Catherine Tate show. But young people too can be elegant contrarians. According to Dr. Rorem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (2001), this method of visualising that you’ll go blank in an important presentation, that if you get on a plane, it is bound to fall out of the sky, is a ‘defensive pessimism.’ Most people recognise this feeling, but just how constructive is it? Rorem suggests that it is a valuable adaptive mechanism.
If you feel you are one of those people, a genuine contrarian, then you will well know what agony of fun it is to resist the tide, and go against others and visualize the worst. Let the positive types be as foolish as they like, blithely ignoring what could go wrong. If you are not sure where you stand, you can take Rorem’s QUIZ to find out your score.
At least this approach does not try deny that the anxiety is there, or go into an orgy of ‘you damn well should be positive’ and ‘thou shalt be upbeat’. It might just be an idiosyncratic personalized protection strategy. But I wonder how effective it is at unlocking people from their imaginary shells. Neuroses come in different coloured packages- this one is marked ‘ultra safe’.
It is true that too much of a good thing can be wonderful, it can also be a bore. Aldous Huxley warned in Brave New World (1932) that a culture that tries to impose happiness on everyone is doomed to cause havoc. If the search for happiness is based merely on aversion to pain and blindsides diversity and variety of feeling, it can eliminate what it means to be human. Not that this would stop the let’s-all-be happy brigade from trying.
Being able to see the positive in the negative might strike some as absurd and even a dead end. Yet, it is a valuable skill if we can be bothered to learn it. It helps here to attempt to understand the principles of the Tao. If the world is divided into contrary but complementary elements: Yin, the receptive, and Yang, the active, each element contains and embraces its opposite, while forming a third energy. The world is interface between the extremes which oscillate and integrate back and forth. They are there for a reason. Seasons and cycles alternate, you wait long enough, the opposite aspect becomes prominent. It’s a self balancing, self correcting system.
That’s why, though often overlooked, being patient can prove successful in the long run. Wanting what you want when you want, can cause suffering. Yet suffering is a vital part of the picture, helping us to understand what it is to be alive. So too with the negative and the positive attitudes. The negative then is the positive in waiting, the positive, the negative is ready to burst through. We need them both to survive and enjoy ‘difference’.
However, I would say that if strategic pessimists were in control, designing our utopia, they would as in Brave New World have us all inhabit their hell, without a glimmer of the good stuff. This drive to be negative tendency can easily rationalize the behaviour, entrenching them in the habit of feeling unhappy because separate from the world. I for one would join the happy brigade in a negative dystopia.
In a recent interview, writer Adam Haslett, an American who was brought up in Oxford, said that, ‘in the USA, I’m a pessimist among optimists, but in the UK, I’m an optimist among pessimists.’ Having lived in both countries I have to agree. By rights I should belong somewhere in the mid Atlantic. The attitude you have can place you in between the usual. The spectacles you wear are relative to your social conditioning. British people could do with daily doses of positivity and, for Americans, a dollop of pessimism now and again to temper their Pollyannaish behaviour wouldn’t go amiss. Funnily enough, it was an American, Ambrose Bierce, who penned the most scathing definition of optimism as ‘the doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.’ People like Bierce were probably the leading constructive pessimists of their day by Rorem’s definition.
Ultimately, whether we are pessimists looking only for the difficulty sin every opportunity, or optimists looking for opportunity in every difficulty should not matter at all, as long as we oscillate enough to appreciate the variety in it all.
There is so much more to say on this topic. In Part 2 of this post, we’ll delve even deeper into the role of therapy, dark humour, and the brilliant uses to which unhealthy disappointment can be put.
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