Pessimism is not the opposite of optimism. Both optimism and pessimism are the opposite of apathy.
In support of that assertion, I present Mark Morford, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. Morford is one of the most pessimistic writers I have read. He rants regularly against climate change deniers, the Tea Party, the Repugnican party as a whole, oil companies, the military, politicians in general, corporate greed, overfishing the oceans, carmakers, patent attorneys, Arizona….
The list of subjects he despairs about seems endless.
I know little about him personally, aside from his having a large ego, a liking for Tesla electric sports cars, and a pet parrot.
One of his favourite targets is religion. Especially any faith that claims to have all the answers anyone will ever need, based on ancient manuscripts.
Yet in a recent column, he asked, “What would you do if you could be God for a day?”
Now there’s a question that puts the weasel among the parrots.
Most of us, I suspect, would say something about ending wars, deposing dictators, rescuing the environment, and enforcing honesty in government.
Then Morford challenges: “So why not shut up and do it, in the proper scale of your life and your energy and your abilities?”
Obviously, we don’t have the ability to accomplish those lofty goals. We don’t have supernatural powers that would enable us to instantly annihilate the free will of everyone who might have a different viewpoint.
Morford’s question brings us back down to earth. In the proper scale of our lives, our energy, our abilities, we have to take whatever steps we can – finite, perhaps insignificant – towards those same goals. We can minimize negative impacts on the environment. We can decline to be dictated to. We can demand accountability, transparency, and even intelligence, from our elected representatives.
We can get involved. We can refuse to be pacified with slogans and platitudes.
“When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders,” Morford continued in his column, “the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”
For an avowed atheist – I hope I’m not wronging him by making that assumption – Morford sets up an interesting exercise.
Because God clearly does not arbitrarily do the things we expect. God does not put an end to wars. Or wave a magic wand and mend the environment. Or banish greed. Or make everyone honest and trustworthy.
And because God doesn’t do those things, an increasing number of people deny that there is a God at all.
But perhaps God does exactly what we’re able to do, what Morford urges us to do – get into relation with people, animals, plants, planets… To care about them. Perhaps even to fall in love with them. And to encourage them, in response, to love each other…
Isn’t that, ultimately, optimism?
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; contact firstname.lastname@example.org.