The Personalist Project

Another way of trying to deal with the miseries of life involves an attitude that may be termed “earthly optimism.”  It some ways it is a more formalized type of escapism, but now developed into theory of life, either on a popular or on a more sophisticated intellectual level. 

On the popular level, we might term this a “Pollyanna” attitude, though I don’t mean thereby to make a judgment about Disney’s 1960 movie of the same name.  (Like every other red-blooded American 10-to-15-year-old male of my generation, I fell deeply in love with Hayley Mills after seeing that movie, rivaling even my devotion to Annette Funicello.  So I do not mean to tread on anyone’s sacred memories here!)  Nonetheless, the Pollyanna attitude is described in various dictionaries as pertaining to an “unrealistically,” “unreasonably,” “excessively,” “illogically,” or “blindly” optimistic person.  The danger is that of falsifying one’s own experience in order to keep up a positive attitude, to keep oneself motivated, to keep alive the goal of happiness.  (On the wider question of veracity in one’s life and not lying to oneself, see Von Hildebrand’s chapter on “Veracity” in The Art of Living and/or Pieper’s chapter on “Prudence” in The Four Cardinal Virtues).  The temptation is to deny, mitigate, or overlook the great evils of life (death, suffering, terrible moral evils, etc.) in favor of looking only at the good things.  The bad is explained away or dismissed all too quickly with a smile, a joke, a slogan, or a neat “cure,” and then only the good is admitted or addressed.  The problem here is that, while perhaps maintaining on some level a sunny disposition, this attitude not only refuses to take the “bad” seriously but also does not really approach the actual goods of life from a level of depth.  Why? Because the possible loss of the high goods of life, and having to face the unhappiness that would result, is never addressed and taken seriously.  So the good things too have to be “superficialized” in order to be maintained. 

Beyond the popular level, this approach can be developed into a highly sophisticated philosophy of life that does a worse “cover-up” on pain, evil, death, and misery than even escapism.  The “bad” things are simply dismissed as irrelevant, as mere neutral facts about life that you have to “grow up” about and “get over,” so that you can concentrate on the good things.  It is presented as childish or juvenile to weep over the bad things, as if you should be ashamed of your lack of toughness and maturity.  The bad things are presented as mere motivational obstacles blocking your progress toward a rewarding, fulfilling, and interesting life—so, "Fuhgeddaboudit!" (Brooklynese, means “Forget about it!”—by the way, I’m told there are at least 53 different spellings of this slang term floating around the web, so let no one question my version, which is the most popular!) 

Problems with this approach?  Many, but perhaps two main ones.  First, it seems exceedingly odd to promote a slick plan of happiness while intentionally “skipping over” the unavoidable threats to that happiness (evil, pain, death).  This reminds me of a humorous anthology written by Dave Barry entitled (How to) Stay Fit and Healthy Until You’re Dead.  (Humor sometimes conveys a point better than philosophical argumentation.)  The deepest goods and joys of this life are not taken seriously enough if one is really so “blissfully” (actually mindlessly) unconcerned about their possible and, indeed, in earthly terms inevitable loss.   

Second, if leading a “good” life just means unfolding my potential to the fullest, letting myself blossom and flourish in this world of time, keeping life interesting, then there really is no place for laying down my life in response to a moral obligation or risking it in moral heroism—unless I break out of the mere earthly optimism perspective.  Indeed, as Socrates forces Callicles to admit in the Gorgias, if I am just supposed to live for my own designs in this world, then it is better to be a coward that to show courage!  Why should I risk my beautiful unfolding self for anything or anybody, if it means a risk to the very existence of my precious self?   Kierkegaard calls this the despair of finitude, for such men have discovered nothing worth committing themselves to, nothing they would take a risk for or make a venture for, so they also never discover their true greatness as persons, their true potential, their true responsibility, their true selves.  He says: 

And thus it is precisely with the despair of finitude. In spite of the fact that a man is in despair he can perfectly well live on in the temporal, in fact all the better for it; he may be praised by men, be honored and esteemed, and pursue all the aims of temporal life.  What is called worldliness is made up of just such men, who (if we may use the expression) pawn themselves to the world.  They use their talents, accumulate money, carry on worldly affairs, calculate shrewdly, etc., etc., are perhaps mentioned in history, but themselves they are not; spiritually understood, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self before God—however selfish they may be for all that. [Sickness Unto Death, Chapter III, A, (a), (2)]

Why might such an attitude be attractive, even with its superficiality?  First, because it appeals to the desire for worldly success and the desire to live a long, full, interesting life.  “He grasped life by the horns,” “he lived life to the fullest,” “he lived with gusto,” “he didn’t let anything stand in his way,” all seem to be attractive and complimentary phrases—until you question whether the person involved also jettisoned God, goodness, love, faithfulness, wife, family, etc., in his quest for the fullness of experience.  Popular music once again captures the problem here in Frank Sinatra’s My Way

And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I travelled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

For what is man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!

So this approach to life appeals to a certain pride and self-sufficiency—"The self is all and I denied it nothing!  Bravo!" 

A second attractive element of this approach is simply that pumping oneself up (in earthly terms) can be a positive motivating factor in a difficult or challenging situation.  It can help psychologically as an immediate motivator or to get over a particular obstacle.  “Let’s go out there and win,” “accentuate the positive if you want success,” “believe you are going to succeed and you will” are all typical phrases here and they can be helpful in concrete circumstances.  This is why many businesses have motivational speakers and retreats and why the best salesmen are celebrated and held high as examples—so that we can all be like that!  It is true that a positive attitude—“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” from the children’s book The Little Engine That Could—can indeed help you accomplish great things.  However, a person puts himself in grave danger of deception if he thinks this “psychological motivator” attitude can in fact overcome the vicissitudes of time, change, death, evil, catastrophe, etc.  Psychology cannot replace metaphysics and ethics, cannot replace reality.  Motivational techniques cannot answer transcendent questions—only philosophy and religion can approach here.  And it is not “childish” to be deeply touched by ultimate questions and fears which arise on the occasion of pain, suffering, and death.  It is simply human.  Conversely, it is simply “inhuman” to dismiss such feelings and fears as “juvenile.” 

Again, for further elaboration, see Bill Marra’s Happiness and Christian Hope.

Comments (2)

Devra Torres

#1, May 15, 2012 12:14pm

This is such an important subject--and in practice, it's easy to set up a false alternative between "optimism," understood as a refusal to contemplate anything unpleasant, and "realism," which looks unflinchingly at all the unpleasant, evil and terrifying aspects of life, all the time.  I think one tactic of the devil is to place the idea in our heads, or the back of our minds, that if it's pleasant, it's just an illusion; and if it's unpleasant, it's real.  If we're under the sway of this idea, we have to cosnciously cultivate the habit of reminding ourselves that the good is real, too--more real.  

Michael Healy

#2, May 15, 2012 9:26pm

Excellent observation, Devra; it adds a new dimension of consideration and fits in with my further post on Misery and Pessimism.  "Good" is not  a fairy tale escape from unpleasantness and "bad" is not the essence of things, but a mere parasite and corruption of the good already there.

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