The Defiant Optimist

The other day, someone asked me how I can be so optimistic and idealistic (I’ll humbly add naive at times too) in spite of all the terrible things I read and study about regularly. Indeed, it’s a question I get asked quite frequently, and it’s certainly not an unfair one. Conventional wisdom holds that the more someone knows, the more depressed they’re likely to be. Put another way, the more intelligent or informed you are, the more miserable you probably are too.

I’ll concede that there is some degree of truth to this axiom. There are indeed many unhappy and disquieting subjects out there, and one doesn’t even need to be especially scholarly in any way to be at least remotely aware of them. War, poverty, corruption, torture, genocide, injustice, disease,  and other miserable topics have been present throughout the entire span of our existence. Moreover, one can go even deeper and become intimately aware of  specific events and stories that are rife with examples of brutality, betrayal, dishonesty, immorality, and injustice, among many other unpleasant factors.

Thus, the idea of ignorance being bliss would seem a valid proposition. Obviously, the more we shelter ourselves from all this nastiness that pervades our existence, the better we’ll feel, comparatively speaking. After all, humans are naturally empathetic creatures – even the most hardened of us, barring any mental illness, will in some way be negatively affected by too much exposure to morbid and cynical issues (indeed, the hardhearted are often such because they’ve seen and known enough to become detached or even numb).

I myself have personally experienced periods of cynicism, misanthropy, and even long-term depression largely as a consequence of delving into these terrible facts of life. I’ve even had bouts of nihilism that admittedly still surface from time to time, albeit briefly. An underlying objective in one of my majors,  International Relations,  was understanding war and human conflict in general (in fact, the entire field was created mostly in response to the world wars, in an attempt to understand and prevent such things from happening again).  That naturally exposes us to the worst of human nature: our propensity for violence, bigotry, insecurity, greed, and power hunger.

Moreover, IR required us to learn about history and (obviously) the world as a whole. But human history is rife with war, tyranny, and moral degradation, which all tend stand out more than anything else; the world is full of countries beset by these same things and more. Working to make the world a peaceful place, or to provide humanitarian assistance to it’s populace, thus requires a deep and intimate understanding of some of the most disturbing elements of our existence. It seems like a perverse trade-off: if I want to help the world and combat what ails it, I must come to understand all the evils that contribute to human suffering. I must also develop empathy with the suffering, putting myself in the place of those who’ve experienced misery and pain on a level I could never remotely relate with – and would never want to.

In any case I’ve always been naturally drawn to these things. I chose to major in International Relations because I had an inclination towards learning about other countries, perspectives, and problems of the human condition. Perhaps I am just a morbid person deep down or something, who knows (why we are who are and why we do what we do merits a whole other discussion that I”ll save for another post).

But going back the question that started all this musing, I find the answer to be rather simple, if not intuitive: when one sees how much more horrible things are for many – if not most – people in the world, one comes to appreciate everything more. The rancid poverty and disease and oppression that befalls the bulk of the human race, as has been the case for our entire history, can be sickening to behold, but it makes for a macabre reminder for why I should count every blessing, not matter how small: a warm bed to sleep in, clean water to drink, electricity, even an indoor toilet – all these things are far more than what my average fellow human enjoys.

Furthermore, such a terrible realty can also be made to be a source of great inspiration. Among all that suffering there is always perseverance and progress. For all the evils of human nature that I am exposed to, there are also many admirable and enlightening traits, as people come together and harness their talent and sheer will to make it through the worst that life has to offer. I often find myself amazed at how some folks could pull through these unthinkable tragedies. I can’t help but wonder if I or others I know, in all our comfort, could ever muster such courage and fortitude in the face of such overwhelming and despairing obstacles.

Most importantly, I also realize that the world around us could crumble at any moment. With the future being so uncertain, and humanity beset by so many daunting struggles that challenge our very survival, we must make the most of every second we have on this Earth. Cherish the people, places, and things that we have and live life to the fullest. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we just ignore the world’s problems and live it up the best we can. We should always endeavor to do our part in fixing our society as best we can. But it wouldn’t hurt to stop wallowing in misery and realize just how good we have it.

Frankly, a part of my feels rather guilty for thinking this way. I feel wrong looking at the plight of poor and suffering people and subsequently deriving some sort of satisfaction with myself. It feels almost exploitive, but I can’t help it. The way I see it, I am making the most out of the negativity I am regularly exposed to. Rather than sulk or become miserable, I instead try to let it motivate me: to live a better life, make the most of what I have, and work to rectify the many problems society faces. Granted, such reasoning isn’t flawless, but it’s the most I can.

Besides, nothing was ever done without enthusiasm. No amount of misery, misanthropy, and cynicism is going to make my life – or the world as a whole – better. There’s no point in letting all this get to me when I have so much more to live for.