Last year, around the time I inaugurated my Poetry Sunday series, I contacted Prof. Philip Appleman to ask for permission to reprint some of his work which I’d seen in Freethought Today. He graciously assented to my request, and even said a few kind words about “The Gods“, my own brief foray into free verse, which I had the brashness to ask for his opinion on.
He called my poem “hopeful,” which was an honor to me, but there was one other thing he said which I’ve been dwelling on – that he was pleased because hopefulness, these days, is a rare virtue. And, I have to say, I understand very well what he meant.
I’ve been reading more science fiction this past year or two, and one major theme I’ve noticed is that we have so many dystopias. I’ve lost count of how many fictions I’ve read where things fail, where everything goes disastrously wrong, where humanity shatters itself or dwindles away. Why, I wonder, are we so obsessed with our own destruction? Why is it that we seem to delight in imagining the most horrendous fates possible? Writing like this can serve as a warning, I know. But shouldn’t we also want something to inspire us, to give us hope? Shouldn’t we want to set a goal we can aspire to?
Part of it may be a contingent fact, a sign of the times. Every time there is war, disaster, uncertainty, people feel more pessimistic about the future, and a spasm of despair passes through humanity’s literary output. And so far, the first decade of the twenty-first century has given the world a great deal to be anxious about – the resurgent threat of terrorism, the growing danger of global climate change, rising energy prices and food instability, and increased tension in many historic trouble spots. Perhaps the pessimism of our creations is just a symbol of what’s on everyone’s mind?
But if that’s the explanation, we have to face the fact that the world has always been a troubled place. There was never a time in human history when the globe was universally peaceful and life was everywhere good. On the contrary, there have always been wars, famines and disasters; there has always been corruption, greed and poverty; and people have always been lazy, ignorant, corruptible, selfish and credulous. In fact, one might argue that war and violence has taken a greater toll on humanity in every era, culminating in the world wars of the twentieth century, the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts humanity has yet witnessed. Is this a trend which we can expect to continue? As the twenty-first century proceeds, we’ve seen the rise of several new nuclear powers, the spread of virulent religious fascism, a swelling human population testing the limits of what the planet can sustain, and the natural resources upon which we all depend growing increasingly stretched and thin. It’s entirely possible that this century may witness truly apocalyptic wars, with the most awful loss of life ever. And it’s not inconceivable that, if such wars happen, even the survivors may be left so bloodied and fragmented as to herald the beginning of a long, slow fall back into darkness – the dystopia of our grimmest fantasies, this time enacted in reality.
Even beside these nightmare scenarios, the more mundane, chronic problems of our planet can still seem overwhelming. Every day, millions of people around the world languish in poverty, feel the bite of hunger, and suffer from entirely curable epidemics. Millions more live in fear under totalitarian governments or in war-torn failed states. Even where life is relatively peaceful, sometimes it seems as if the masses are content to live in stupor, willing to march to war at the command of jingoistic politicians or trade precious, hard-won liberties in exchange for pop-culture anesthesia. Granted, there are brave souls who labor their lives to improve the situation; but against the pervasive backdrop of human misery, and the widespread apathy and self-interest that permits it to continue, their efforts sometimes seem futile. The problems that face us have their own inertia, and some days it seems towering, far too massive to shift. Are there really enough people who care to make a difference?
Then again, perhaps I judge humanity too harshly. I have to admit that I understand why so many people don’t choose the course of activism. When you see a problem in the world, or something that disturbs your conscience, you have three options. You can take action to make it better, but that requires time and effort. If you believe it can be fixed but don’t take action to do so, this causes uncomfortable moral dissonance. By far the easiest course of action is to persuade yourself that it’s a bad situation, but there’s really nothing that can be done, or that it doesn’t involve you. The course of apathy is soothing and keeps people’s consciences intact in the face of evils they can do nothing about. Once again, it’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma: the more who opt out of action, the greater the pressure becomes on everyone else to do the same.
I am an optimist by nature and temperament, but even I keep being pulled back by the realities of our world. There are days when the effort of caring seems futile, pointless, and the temptation to write it all off and let humanity build its own pyre is strong. I haven’t yielded to it so far, but how can I justify being hopeful? Is there any justification for an informed optimism that confronts the daily reality of suffering and is not bowed under?
I believe that there is. Optimism can be and often is caricatured as a starry-eyed, head-in-the-clouds naivete about “the way things really are”, as opposed to unflinching, clear-thinking cynicism. But I much prefer a tough, informed optimism, one that takes in all that is wrong with the world and accepts things as they are, yet does not proclaim that losing hope is the appropriate response.
Pessimism is too easy. In a way, it’s cowardly. As I said, the pessimist’s choice can be a soothing one, a position which reassures its holder that apathy and inactivity are morally acceptable. After all, if you believe that failure is inevitable, it relieves you of the responsibility to have to do anything. To be frank, it’s easy to believe the worst of everyone and everything. Even a foolish optimist risks disappointment; the hardcore pessimist never does.
In that sense, pessimism is a self-fulfilling guarantee of failure. True pessimists believe that success in a worthy endeavor is impossible, so they don’t participate; and if that endeavor should fail because of their lack of participation, that becomes a self-justifying excuse not to participate in the future. By contrast, even an optimist will fail on occasion, but optimism, unlike pessimism, does not cause its own downfall.
The usual solution to a Prisoner’s Dilemma is regulation by a higher authority, but there is none in this case. We can’t force people to be dedicated to worthy causes or to care about the welfare of others. The only other solution is for individuals to freely step up and answer the call of need, and trust that their actions can inspire others to do the same. That’s the goal I try to strive for. My optimism is not the sort that says success is inevitable, but merely that it’s possible – and that this possibility is reason enough to try.
I don’t deny the badness in humanity, but we possess many good and noble qualities as well. The naive optimists and the embittered cynics, both of whom deny one of these aspects completely in favor of the other, are both equally in error. The exact balance between our light and dark sides is a matter of dispute, but I’m inclined to say that the goodness of humanity must outweigh the evil. We couldn’t have come as far as we have, built as much as we have, if that were not the case. We would never have risen above a state of anarchy. The goodness of people consists in many small, quiet acts, often overlooked against the backdrop of thunderous strokes of evil – but they are there, nonetheless.
And if you look at human history, we do see a trend of increasing moral knowledge and progress. It’s not a steady climb, rather a zigzag rise with many backward steps and local reversions, but it is there. Our wisdom still lags our technological prowess, but that is growing as well. It’s by no means guaranteed that the one will overtake the other in time. But neither is it guaranteed that this will not happen. The future is open, and we can write the outcome through our efforts. That knowledge – the knowledge that the story is not yet over, that we have the power to control our own destiny, and that we can still choose a good one – is what informs my optimism, and what gives me the continued motivation for hope.