The power of pessimism

For a long time, a friend liked his job. Then he loved it. Now he hates it.

Same job. Same boss. Same company. Not the same attitude.

Times change, as we all know. People change. Companies change. 

Attitudes change, too.

I thought about this while reading an article in The New Yorker magazine about a university professor who teaches a course on pessimism.

Yes, you read that correct: Students are paying to take a course studying pessimism.

This guy’s theory is that “philosophy begins with disappointment” of two kinds: “The end is near” and “Will this never end?”

Now if you are like a lot of people these days, your mind probably runs to the national political situation, which from both sides of the aisle appears to be pretty stuck in muck. But no, the professor says, that’s not his point.

“To him,” the article says, “it doesn’t matter which Administration is in charge. ‘There’s always something to complain about,’ he said. ‘There has always been a one percent, there’s always been discrimination of people because of their race.’ ’’

So even if politics is the convenient excuse for today’s malaise, to the extent you feel that way, it’s not really a core problem for most of us. We have plenty of other things to worry about and live for, with politics registering on that scale but not tipping it one way or the other.

So how do you go from loving something one day to hating it the next, when to the naked eye, not much has really changed? And to what extent does pessimism impact a life?

It’s a favorite question of mine, and not because I’m enrolling in that college class, either. It’s because it reminds me of a day from my past. 

On a long-ago cold, dreary and gray summer day, I went into a doctors’ office believing I had brain cancer. Thirty minutes later, I walked out of the office into hot, bright, blinding sunlight knowing I didn’t.

The day hadn’t changed in 30 minutes, nor had my health. But my attitude was radically different. To all other eyes, the heat and intensity of that typical Dallas summer day hadn’t changed one bit. But to my eyes, what had been dreary had become a bright light directly from heaven, guiding me down a gold-plated pathway.

Weeks and weeks of worry melted away in seconds, even though nothing had actually changed.

Perspective is really a sixth sense, although we don’t give it the credit it deserves. Aristotle’s five senses of the human body — sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — send measurable information to our brains for processing. 

But perspective isn’t measurable. We like and don’t like, believe and don’t believe, hate and don’t hate what we want, sometimes regardless of the truth of the matter.

We like our jobs; we’re sick of them. We adore our friends; we loathe them. We respect ourselves; we hate us. 

As with so many things, there can be a fine line between the two.