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Pessimism, Optimism, Hope and Change

via Catholic Stand

by Anthony Layne

anthony layneOver my lifetime, I have been called many things, some of which are printable. Within the last six years’ worth of blogging, I’ve had a little mud slung at me, which if nothing else proves I can occasionally write well enough to provoke a reaction, and maybe even a thought, in those who disagree with me. However, of all the tags with which I’ve been yclept, the most puzzling is that of pessimist.

I don’t say it’s puzzling because I see only good in the world and can’t understand how someone would believe I think otherwise. If I tried to make such an assertion I would be a blatant liar. Rather, it’s puzzling because, even as an ad hominem attack, it’s pretty insubstantial. It implies that every fault I see with modern society would disappear if only I take a course of antidepressants and listen to some Zig Ziglar talks. Not only is the road to Hell paved with good intentions, you can have some really pleasant experiences along the way. It’s much easier to get there if you don’t pay attention to which direction the road is going.

Catholic Pessimists, We Aren’t!

Catholics, you may have been told, are a “both-and” people. It’s difficult to put us into either one of any set of binary categories (liberal/conservative, rational/emotional, positive/negative) because you’re bound to trip over aspects that belong to the other of the pair. The Catholic mind is also more attuned to truth expressed as paradox. When you can grasp the idea of Christ holding his own body in his hands at the Last Supper, you can more easily see the truth in expressions such as “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” or, as in di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo: “In order for things to stay the same, some things have got to change.”

So, it is with optimism and pessimism. Logically, the glass can’t be half-full without being half-empty at the same time; to find the silver lining in the dark cloud, you must first acknowledge that the cloud is dark. But to recognize that there are demons in the world is not necessarily to forget that there are also angels.

Perhaps, though, our objector is making a more subtle argument: By focusing only on the negative results the present pessimistsystem creates, we miss out on all the positives it has already created. The objector then suggests that perhaps the negatives are simply the costs of achieving the positives. This is a persistent feature of defenses of free-market capitalism: the degree of inequity it produces is set off by the improvements it has brought to both rich and poor alike. The “wealth gap” itself is then a sort of “opportunity cost” … regrettable but necessary, and not really so evil as it’s been painted.

At this point, though, the objector must face the unenviable task of showing, rather than merely assuming, that the positives could not have been gotten in a manner that wouldn’t have led to the negatives (or at least not to so great a degree), or that the positives really are unalloyed boons with no downside to them. Such arguments are generally fruitless, because they depend on both sides knowing what would have been when at best they can only guess what could have been. But more to the point, to assert that the defects came packaged with benefits is not to prove that the defects neither need nor admit of correction.

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