“Remember! Inside every silver lining is a dark cloud of despair!”
(Many thanks to Richard West for this photo. For more of his very striking and varied artistry, please see more of his work here.)
I knew a wonderful grandmother whose take on life could be captured in those words. I couldn’t figure it out—until I became a mother. Part of being responsible for someone you love is being on continual alert for anything that could possibly go wrong. The world is suddenly full of death traps. A grape on the floor—choking hazard! A hitherto harmless pet—smothering hazard!
And later: your daughter’s boyfriend—lifelong-misery hazard!
But it’s not only panicky mothers who tend to look on the dark side. Some take a chronically dim view of their own domestic situation; others brood more about the larger geopolitical or economic picture. But we all exhibit a largely unexamined tendency to think of sad situations, malicious intentions, tragedy, and danger as being more real than goodness.
Of course, ontologically, it’s the other way around. Thomists and phenomenologists may quarrel over whether the concept of privation
does justice to the reality of all forms of evil.
But we can all agree that good and evil aren’t two coequal principles. Whatever reality evil may be said to have, it’s derivative. It’s not on a par with the Good, the True and the Beautiful. It’s certainly not more real than they are.
Still, in practice, it’s eerily easy to slip into feeling, and acting, as if goodness were less real. We practice pessimism and call it realism. (Being deep into election season only exacerbates the tendency.)
It works like “practical atheism,” a term I learned from Prof. Rocco Buttiglione.
The number of theoretical atheists may be on the rise, but they’re still rare. Practical atheists abound, though: people who think they think God exists, but live as if He didn’t. If you “believe in” Him but never worship Him, apologize to Him, thank Him, or request His help, you might as well be an atheist.
Similarly, if you theoretically hold that God is omnipotent—or at least you're fairly sure He's competent to pull off the Final Victory—
but find yourself consistently ignoring or making cynical cracks about every good thing that happens, you might have slipped into “practical pessimism.” This is very, very easy to do.
Why is that?
I think there are at least three reasons for this tendency to give evil more ontological credit than it deserves.
Efficiency. If things are going badly, you’re obliged to do something about it. If they’re running smoothly, you can move straight on to a fire that does need putting out. If you fail to notice something good and give thanks for it, no obvious calamity ensues--whereas if you fail to address a medical or financial or political crisis, disaster does strike. So we keep our eyes fixed on the crises.
Commercialism. With a 24-hour news cycle, run by people who live by “If it bleeds, it leads,” we're inundated with depressing stories. We think of news as a service, forgetting that it’s a product. Before “We report—you decide” comes “We decide what to report.” News of tragedy and danger is obviously important, but an exclusive and steady diet of it can skew our outlook.
Original sin. More difficult to pinpoint and take seriously, but closer to the root of the trouble, is the third reason. The devil wants us discouraged. Our fallen nature plays into his hands, accepting pessimism as its default state. And, as Jacques Philippe points out (I think in Searching for and Maintaining Peace) discouragement is a greater danger to our salvation than sin is. It’s counterintuitive, but true: so long as you don’t despair, you can recover from any sin. But if you give up, you can’t, and even continual low-grade melancholy hampers our ability to perceive goodness and hope for its victory.
So here are some counter-strategies:
Make a point of cultivating gratitude, so as to notice good things at all. It has been shown, if you believe in studies, that even as minimal an effort as writing down five things a week that you’re grateful for has enormous benefits. This involves no self-deception or pretense that evil doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter: it’s just a deliberate shift of focus.
Remember that original sin weakens the will and darkens the intellect. As hard as it is for us to acknowledge that we’re weak and sinful, we're even more reluctant to realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s the easiest thing in the world to forget that we utterly ingorant of the vast majority of the variables relevant to how the world is coming along. So keep hold of your Socratic ignorance, and don't follow the opinion-makers.
Do listen to your grandmother, and go ahead and be vigilant about stray grapes and fluffy cats and iffy boyfriends. But don't overlook the silver lining.