Thursday, January 07, 2010

middle way

Writing in Reason Magazine, Kerry Howley reminds us not to be too bubbly optimistic in life. Reviewing a new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, she warns against excesses of a platitudinous happy-talk which is seen to permeate too much of our social intercourse and against an aggressive pink-ribbon mentality that forces its perkiness on victims of breast cancer.

She criticizes bullying cheerleaders who push an infantile gratitude, as she puts it, on women who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases; those same for whom, as she also says, cancer isn't a morbid tragedy but a life-transforming “gift.”

Howley's deployment of her wit against what seems to be a pretty easy target makes me think how often a sharp pen is used to prick the balloons of enthusiastic do-gooders. Dr. Pangloss in Candide or The optimist is surely the most notorious naïve optimist in literature and it's evident that Voltaire, whose pen was sharper than most, takes great delight in satirizing the stubborn futility with which he holds to the belief that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Voltaire's ridicule still bites but his protagonist, Dr. Pangloss, was a stand in for Gottfried Leibniz who was not in the least blind to the downside of life; he did not believe that we live in a happy-face world, but simply in the one which God gave us. He said the world is best not in the sense that it is good but in the sense that, among all that might have been created, God chose this one for us to live in. Our task should be to make the best of what we've got. Confronted, as we are, with a choice either to despair over how bad things are for us all or to confront what's wrong and seek to right it, the second choice should be the one we make.

It's obvious this does not imply a simplistic Peter Pan philosophy that thinking happy thoughts will always make everything better. Clutching to a baseless optimism is as bad as succumbing to depression. As Kerry Howley says
All the Oprah-ready gurus [share the same] advice — here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” ... Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance — the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane.
She says optimism must be tempered by realism and rationality.

Between senseless boostering and helpless despair there's a broad middle ground. As one blogger says, happiness lies in the middle.



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