“Pessimism is an emotion, not a philosophy.” -Immortal Technique, “Mistakes With Lyrics”
Sometimes I feel pretty discouraged about it all. My work, the world–the possibility that my work could help the world. I get in these rational tailspins where I explain to my friends, intensely, that I just can’t do enough to make it matter. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that when I’m in one of those spirals, I really want the other person to somehow disprove what I’m saying. I want someone to point out my logical mistakes. Of course, in that mood I’m also an arguer, so once I pick the point I’m defending I want to sink in my canines and just hold on. I’m not quite as determined as the dogs you play tug-o-war with, but it’s close. I want someone to pull me out of it, but as I growl and argue and argue, I usually just go deeper.
When I’m stuck in that place, I understand what I’m doing as ‘explaining the truth.’ I pretend I’m pulling back the pretty picture of all my illusions, and seeing things how things really are. Really I’m just hurting. I’m just sad, and confused. A week ago, I would have said that “pessimism” meant seeing the worst parts of things. I would have said it was something like a philosophical perspective. I would’ve been wrong. Pessimism, for me, is a gasp of pain, and I don’t want to follow that gasp into an approach to life.
If you follow the word back, pessimism comes from ped-, meaning “foot.” (The meaning probably evolved from “lowest;” I don’t mean to get all pedagogical with you fellow terrestrial pedestrians, but our habit of demeaning what is ‘earthly,’ what is ‘low,’ is itself pretty weird.) Despite what I’ve told myself, pessimism is not a rational conclusion; it’s the rationalization I fumble towards when I’m feeling hopeless or hurt. It’s an emotion, not a philosophy. Sometimes it might be where I’m standing, it might be the soreness of my feet or the thorn bush beneath them, but it’s not me, it’s not a way to walk, and it’s not where I’m headed. As soon as I find my way back to philosophy–to love of wisdom, or love of anything else–I recognize pessimism as just one of the plants in my garden, and I stop trying to read the future in its leaves.