The Personalist Project

Accessed on April 09, 2020 - 4:34:20

Overcoming Practical Pessimism

Devra Torres, Aug 29, 2012

“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. 

So here are some counter-strategies: